December 3, 2013 § 1 Comment
I wrote this review of Bente Scheller’s book for al-Jazeera.
Syrian poet Rasha Omran once told me that Bashaar al-Assad is “not a dictator, just a gangster boss.” But really he’s not even that. What he is, is what his father looked like in all those statues – one element in the managerial class, a (dysfunctional) functionary. Syria is a dictatorship which lacks an efficient dictator.
Hafez al-Assad – the father – was an entirely different matter. Born in a dirt-floor shack, he clawed his way to the top by brute cunning, deft flexibility, and strategic intelligence. The careful manipulation of sectarian tensions in order to divide and rule was one of his key strategies, yet he was also attentive to building alliances with rural Sunnis and the urban bourgeoisie – both constituencies now alienated by his son. Bashaar’s great innovation was supposedly economic reform. In practice this meant an unpleasant marriage of neoliberalism with crony capitalism. It succeeded in making his cousin Rami Makhlouf the richest man in the country. The poor, meanwhile, became much poorer, the social infrastructure crumbled, and unemployment continued to climb.
The thesis of former German diplomat Bente Scheller’s book “The Wisdom of the Waiting Game” is that the Syrian regime’s approach to its current existential crisis follows a “narrow path consistent with previous experience,” and she focuses on foreign policy to make this point. When the regime found itself isolated on Iraq after the 2003 invasion, for instance, or then on Lebanon in 2005 after the assassination of Rafiq Hariri and the Syrian army’s precipitous withdrawal, it waited, refusing to change its policy, until conditions changed, its opponents were humbled, and it was brought in from the cold. In his book “The Fall of the House of Assad”, David Lesch points out that Bashaar al-Assad felt personally vindicated by these perceived policy victories, and grew in arrogance as a result. Today, with the West handing the Syrian file over to Russia, and seemingly coming round to Bashaar’s argument that Islamism poses a greater threat than his genocidal dictatorship, it looks (for now at least) as if the refusal to budge is again paying off.
The most interesting parts of Scheller’s book are not actually dedicated to foreign policy, but describe – accurately and with balance – the causes of the revolution and the nature of the regime’s response. The most direct link she’s able to posit between domestic and foreign policy is that, in both, the regime’s only abiding interest has been self-preservation. In Scheller’s words, “regime survival … defines what is perceived as a security threat.” This chimes well with the shabeeha graffiti gracing Syrian walls – “Either Assad or we burn the country.” In regime priorities, Assad always stood far above the people, the economy, the infrastructure, and even the integrity of the national territory.
For both father and son, ‘Arabism’ was never anything other than a propaganda ploy. Notwithstanding its nationalist rhetoric, the regime stymied a Palestinian-leftist victory in Lebanon in 1976, before proceeding to slaughter Palestinians in the Lebanese camps. It supported Iran against Arab Iraq, and joined the US-led coalition to drive Saddam Hussain from Kuwait. All of these decisions were taken in the face of Syrian and Arab public opinion and ran counter to the regime’s own declared aims. In each case, regime-strengthening came first.
To drive home her point, Scheller provides a series of illuminating summaries of relations between Syria and its neighbours since 1990. These have been characterised by Machiavellianism and self-serving relations with non-state actors (such as on-off support for the PKK’s war against Turkey, supposedly to win Kurdish rights, while Syrian Kurds remained oppressed and in many cases stateless).
But despite Scheller’s argument of regime continuity from father to son, something which comes through very strongly is Bashaar al-Assad’s inability (unlike Hafez) to respond flexibly to emergent conditions. The Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000, shortly before Hafez’s death, undermined the legitimacy of Syria’s military presence there and called for a new policy. Bashaar was unable to deviate from his father’s old roadmap, however, despite its obvious irrelevance. As a result, Syria’s influence had shrunk dramatically in Lebanon and the region by 2005. Hizbullah, once a subservient client, grew to fill the vacuum (and now, according to reports from Qusair, Hizbullah even commands Syrian forces inside Syria).
Syrian control of Lebanon provided a safety valve for the regime. Cross-border smuggling boosted the sclerotic economy; Syrian workers found jobs in Lebanon, easing the unemployment crisis; the regime was able to wave the banner of resistance by association with Hizbullah’s struggle against Israeli occupation, while imprisoning teenage girls who dared to blog about Palestine, and without firing a shot across the occupied Golan; even Beirut’s nightclubs offered a release for the frustrated Damascus bourgeoisie.
The Lebanese case seems to prove Scheller’s contention that Syria’s foreign policy is indistinguishable from its domestic policy, that in effect there is no foreign policy, perhaps not even domestic policy, but simply, again, policies aimed at guarding the throne.
But Scheller fails to highlight the profound discontinuity between Assad père and fils. In retrospect, the stupidest move of Hafez’s career was to hand power to his son, not the first son Basil who had been groomed for the post but then most unfortunately killed himself in a car crash, but the second son, Bashaar, who showed no interest in or aptitude for politics before his brother’s death, and who now, as Scheller herself points out, has “neither the power, nor the strategic mind, to exercise all of the options his father had at his disposal.”
Scheller’s proclaimed focus on regime rather than personality is therefore very wise. Bashaar is too insubstantial to bear the weight of responsibility for the slaughter in Syria. His name represents the collective decision making of an elite whose relations are governed by mutual fear and distrust. The composition of this elite is obscure; analysts debate the relative influence of Bashaar’s mother, or his brother Maher, or the various heads of the security agencies. What is clear is that no individual is absolutely in charge, and that there is thus no possibility of imaginative thinking breaking a failed mould. As it did in Lebanon, the regime can only follow the dead father’s script. Hafez was able to contain a Muslim Brotherhood uprising in Hama in 1982, and by killing somewhere between ten and forty thousand people, to quickly crush it. 2011 was a very different historical moment. Protesters came from every political and religious background, were spread throughout the country, and had access to cameras and the internet. Yet Bashaar still applied the techniques of the eighties, and squandered the considerable reserves of goodwill felt for him personally (if not for the wider system) by the populace. His blundering violence provoked an armed revolution from a peaceful reform movement.
For Hafez al-Assad, the stubborn refusal to compromise was an occasional choice; for Bashaar’s inflexible circle, inertia became fate, a matter of inevitability. Because he was answerable to nobody, Hafez was capable of dramatic shifts. Scheller’s study starts in 1990 because this marks the collapse of the Soviet Union, a time when Assad Senior rapidly and effectively recalibrated his regional and international relationships.
For now, Bashaar may be winning, but not due to his own strength or popularity, and least of all to his wisdom. For his good fortune he should thank the hard work or failures of other actors: the solid support of Russia and Iran (the latter organising his military fight-back); the West’s silent complicity; the incompetence of opposition political elites; and the growth of Salafism and the consequent fears in minority communities. If and when he does finally conquer the revolution (still an unlikely prospect), it will be a pyrrhic victory for two reasons. First, the monopoly of power and violence established by his father has been irretrievably lost. From now on the regime will be in hoc to the foreign powers and domestic sub-state militias which have rescued it. Second, with the economy, infrastructure and social cohesion of the country entirely destroyed, there will be nothing left to loot.
“The Wisdom of the Waiting Game: Foreign Policy Under the Assads” by Bente Scheller. Hurst & Co. London. 2013
November 30, 2013 § 2 Comments
In an article for the National, the wonderful Amal Hanano writes against the illusion that perpetuating the Assad regime can lead to anything other than continuing and expanding war.
In Ambiguities of Domination, political science professor Lisa Wedeen examined the Syrian regime’s rule of domination under then-president Hafez Al Assad.
She noted a dual role for Syrians: both propping up the regime’s propaganda and at the same time subverting its power via the symbols and rhetoric of everyday life and popular culture. This seminal work, published in 1999, a year before Al Assad junior took power, explained to outsiders the inner mechanisms of an authoritative regime. Its relevance is significant today under the shadow of Hafez’s son Bashar and with the fate of a blood-soaked Syria, now in ruins.
In a particularly powerful chapter entitled Acting As If, Wedeen writes: “Power manifests itself in the regime’s ability to impose its fictions upon the world.” The complicity of the people within this imposition enforces the regime’s power of domination. In other words, the regime’s power is mainly constructed by the people’s enacted participation in that very construction.
According to Wedeen: “The politics of acting ‘as if’ carries important political consequences: it enforces obedience, induces complicity, identifies and ferrets out some disobedient citizens …”
Indeed, one of the fundamental ways the Syrian people functioned in the police state was by “acting as if”. Acting as if nothing was going on as Hama was pummeled in 1982. Acting as if they loved the leader even though they were terrified of him.
The tragedy of Bashar Al Assad’s rule is that his father’s construct of complicity has, over the past 32 months, bled far beyond Syria’s borders to encompass the entire region and international community.
As world leaders discuss the merits of the Syrian opposition attending Geneva 2 peace talks without preconditions, they flip the narrative of the revolution. A narrative in which Mr Al Assad is upgraded from a brutal dictator that deserves no more than a cell at The Hague to a potential “partner” in the transitional peace process.
The latest demeaning analysis offered to Syrians is to act “as if” Mr Al Assad maintaining power would end the brutal war that was unleashed by Mr Al Assad himself. Governments act as if dragging the Syrian opposition to the negotiation table without any preconditions will result in a political solution to a raging war. World leaders act as if Mr Al Assad’s cooperation in dismantling his chemical weapon stockpiles is reducing the amount of bloodshed, even as the cluster bombs and scud missiles continue to fall onto civilian populations.
November 28, 2013 § Leave a Comment
Danny Postel, co-editor of The Syria Dilemma, interviews Max Blumenthal, author of Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel, on his reporting from Syrian refugee camps, his resignation from the newspaper Al Akhbar over its Syria coverage, and the peace movement’s confused and problematic response to the Syrian conflict
For background, see Blumenthal’s resignation letter from al-Akhbar and his report from Syrian refugee camps in Lebanon. Also see Postel’s piece on the antiwar movement and the spirit of internationalism.
November 28, 2013 § Leave a Comment
After provoking an armed uprising by his suppression of a non-violent protest movement (using rape, torture and murder on a mass scale), Syrian dictator Bashaar al-Assad lost control of large areas of the country. He then subjected those areas to a scorched earth policy, burning crops, killing livestock, shelling with artillery, dropping barrel bombs and cluster bombs from war planes, firing cruise missiles and sarin gas. Schools, hospitals and bakeries have been particularly targeted, alongside economic infrastructure. As a result a THIRD of Syrians, over seven million people, are now displaced. The Syrian winter is as cold as the Scottish winter, and this year millions of people will not be living in their homes but in half-demolished buildings, under trees, and in tents.
What’s the connection to the strange photograph of me? Well, I have shaved off my beard (the moustache and the central part of my monobrow will go on December 3rd). Such a traumatic assault on my facial hair, my very identity… Why? In the hope that you, dear readers, whatever your take on the conflict in Syria, will sponsor me, or in plainer terms, will donate some money. You can do so here. Every twenty dollars (or equivalent) buys blanket, coat and hat for a Syrian child. (If you remember, donate to Robin/ Wassim/ Team UK). I know the organisers of this charity and can vouch that they are absolutely honest, that every single penny will go to keeping a Syrian child warm this winter. Please do donate, and please share this page. We just have a few days to raise as much as we possibly can.
While I have your attention, please sign this petition to ask the British and French governments to boycott Rosoboronexport, imperialist Russia’s primary arms supplier to Assad’s genocide.
November 26, 2013 § 2 Comments
Razan Ghazzawi is one of the bravest people I’ve ever had the pleasure to meet. Her blog is here, providing perspectives from on the ground in Syria.
Follow this link to hear her talk on living as a single, unveiled woman in a liberated area of Syria (but one which still suffers Assadist bombardment).
And in her talk, Leila Shrooms of the Tahrir International Collective focuses on the economics of the revolution and the myth of Assad’s ‘socialism’.
November 24, 2013 § Leave a Comment
On his fine blog, Louis Proyect describes two very different conferences and two very different versions of the left – one statist, which finds itself backing “the neoliberal family dynasty that is bombing working-class tenements” in Syria; the other internationalist, supportive of popular revolution, concerned with the class struggle. The first is the ill-named Stop the War Coalition conference to be held in London on November 30th (it was planning to invite a nun who serves as one of Assad’s chief propagandists and genocide deniers); the second was a Syria solidarity conference held a few days ago in New York.
Louis makes this important point: In the New York conference, “it is important to note that six out of the nine featured speakers were Syrian and that of the three who weren’t, one was Lebanese (Achcar), one was Palestinian (Bodour Hassan), and the other was a graduate student whose dissertation is focused on Syrian politics and who reads and writes in Arabic. What a contrast to the London event where a number of people will essentially be giving the same speech (is there any real difference between Milne, Ali, and Steele? I couldn’t tell the difference between their columns.)” So another distinction: the statist (and orientalist) left isn’t actually interested in hearing from people from the country concerned, unless they are propagandists for fascism. Here’s Louis’s piece in full:
This is a tale of two conferences, one billed as a teach-in on Syria that occurred yesterday at New York University; the other to be held in London on November 30th on Syria as well. They could not be more unalike even though Trotskyists (loosely defined) were in the driver’s seat of both events. As is the case in my write-ups of many movies that I walk out of in disgust after 15 minutes, I will rake the London event over the coals though I will not be attending it, even if someone paid for the airfare.
The London event is organized by the Stop the War Coalition (STWC) that played a key role in opposing George W. Bush’s war on Iraq. To put it as succinctly as possible, they see Syria as a new Iraq war in the making and their mission revolves around the need to oppose Obama’s war plans—something that amounts to busting down an open door. It does not matter to them that Obama never had any intention of invading Syria and imposing “regime change”; nor does it matter that there has been a revolutionary struggle in Syria. Their analysis is based on the struggle between nations and not between classes. In the case of Syria, people like John Rees and Seamus Milne back the neoliberal family dynasty that is bombing working-class tenements simply because the USA opposes it even if that opposition is only verbal. As long as there is a single op-ed piece by Nicholas Kristof taking the Baathists to task or a single speech by Obama filled with crocodile tears about the “Syrian tragedy”, they will remain on Bashar al-Assad’s team.
With almost no interest in what is taking place inside Syria, the STWC conference naturally included only a single Syrian citizen, one Mother Agnes Mariam of the Cross, a diehard supporter of the Baathist dictatorship. When a hue and cry arose over her participation, Owen Jones and Jeremy Scahill told the organizers that they were dropping out. To the great pleasure of those who were protesting her presence, she withdrew. But they are still raising hell over the initial invitation. What would compel “peace” activists like John Rees and Lindsay German to extend an invitation to someone whose reputation as a liar and a warmonger is so well known? I invite you to look at Not George Sabra’s post on Mother Agnes that I am sure helped Scahill make up his mind.
November 24, 2013 § 2 Comments
This is a positive and historic development. Not only will it relieve pressure on ordinary Iranian people, it will also empower the country’s reformists. It will also put the interests of the powerful merchant against the interests of the hardliners. It will erode the power of hawks not just in Iran, but also the US and Israel.
This also creates an opening for a negotiated settlement of the conflict in Syria. Until now Iran’s hardliners have been running amuck in Syria, and the IRGC has been actively at war. Now Iran has something to lose. The US has gained leverage that until now it didn’t have. It is now in a position to pressure Iran to drop its support for Assad. Given the fragility of the entente, the last thing Iran would want is to jeopardise it by continuing a policy with an uncertain end.
November 24, 2013 § 16 Comments
As the world celebrates the deal between the West and Iran, it should be remembered that Western concerns over Iran’s nuclear programme – and the sanctions which have so damaged Iran’s economy – were provoked by Israeli concerns, and that these are not existential but strategic. Iran doesn’t need a nuclear weapon but only the ability to enrich uranium to a level where it could quickly make a nuclear weapon. At that stage, the bullying power given Israel by its own nuclear arsenal vanishes. A sensible approach to the problem would have reduced Tehran’s nuclear ambition while disarming Israel. The West, of course, did not press for this, and Iran, despite its stale ‘resistance’ rhetoric, did not hold out for it.
In general, it’s good to see tension reduced between Iran and the West. The great shame is that while a deal is done over the nuclear programme, something that was never much of a threat, Iran has not been called to account for its pernicious intervention in Syria, a far greater threat to regional and international security. Iran’s intervention is on a far greater scale than any Saudi or Qatari interference. The Islamic Republic’s ‘revolutionary’ legitimacy is of course destroyed by its siding with a tyrant against a revolutionary people, and its Shia legitimacy will also be destroyed in the eyes of any thinking human being, for it has joined Yazeed in a war against a struggling Hussain. After Assad’s employment of sectarian death squads, ‘Shia’ Iran’s deployment of racist occupation forces to direct the tyrant’s fightback has been the single biggest factor amplifying the sectarian nature of the conflict. It has already dragged Lebanon back to the brink of civil war. Some argue that peacable relations between the US and Iran will defang Iran’s hardliners. That may happen eventually, but it will be far too late for usurped and shattered Syria.
I used to argue that the West and the Arabs should work with Iran. I used to repeat the line about Iran not having attacked another country in three centuries. (I made allowances for its pernicious role in keeping Iraq divided and sectarian; Iraq had after all attacked Iran in the past.) Unfortunately this line is no longer true. The Arabs are now absolutely right to regard Iran as an aggressive, expansionist threat. This deal has by no means secured peace in the region.
November 23, 2013 § Leave a Comment
On 27th November Intelligence Squared is hosting a special debate with Save the Children: ‘How should the world protect Syria’s Children?“. The debate will take place at London’s Royal Institute of British Architects. We encourage Pulsers to attend.
The debate will be livestreamed around the world from 7pm-8.30pm UK Time, and the panel includes:
- Mikhail Kasyanov, former Russian Prime Minister;
- Justin Forsyth, CEO of Save the Children;
- Dr Rola Hallam, the British-Syrian doctor and war-zone medic who was recently involved in BBC’s Panorama documentary, ‘Saving Syria’s Children’;
- Lord Mark Malloch Brown, former UK government minister (2007 – 2009) and United Nations Deputy Secretary-General (2006)
- Paul Conroy, World-renowned photojournalist and war-photographer
- Jon Sopel, award-winning BBC News presenter and correspondent who will chair.
November 23, 2013 § 2 Comments
Someone called Asa Winstanley has addressed (yet another) ignorant insult to the revolutionary Syrian people. In order to make his inane points, Winstanley has to ignore facts (like Russian and Iranian intervention, and the continuing activity of grass roots protestors and organisers) and invent others. Sam Charles Hamad makes the following astute comment:
When it comes to the Syrian revolution, Asa Winstanley is completely discrediting himself. It’s somewhat of a small tragedy to behold – witnessing some of these so-called ‘pro-Palestine’ activists reveal that they couldn’t actually care less about the lives of Arabs (including, most tellingly, Palestinians in Yarmouk, who have been the victim of constant bombardment by Assad’s air force and artillery, not to mention a regime-imposed blockade which pushed them to the brink of starvation). The Arab spring, and in particular the revolution in Syria, has revealed that much of those who consider themselves to be ‘pro-Palestinian’ are in actuality only ‘pro-Palestinian’ if it is Israel that is doing the killing, torturing, maiming, imprisoning and blockading – if the perpetrator is a regime such as Assad’s, which is bafflingly seen as being fundamentally antagonistic to Israel, or at least its continued existence is somehow imagined to be advantageous to the Palestinian struggle against Israeli occupation and domination, they either completely ignore it or are actively willing to apologise for it. This thoroughly inadequate and contradictory reaction of some on the left to the Syrian revolution, and, more generally, the reaction of some of those involved in causes associated with Arabs, fits almost perfectly into this latent orientalist perspective of the Arab as some sort of idealised figure of resistance against the west; or as a constant victim of the west; or, in the case of Syria, as a faceless, passive entity who has absolutely no right to resist or rise against this tyrannical regime that somehow falls into what is so inaccurately thought of as the camp of ‘anti-imperialism’.
And Nader Atassi, at his indispensable Darth Nader blog, takes on Winstanley’s assertions point by point. Nader’s piece is worth reading right to the end for its combined realism and optimism in regard to Syria.
Journalist Asa Winstanley has written an article titled “Syria: the revolution that never was,” for Middle East Monitor. The following is a critique to a few of the claims Winstanley makes in the article. I decided to respond to this article in particular because I believe it contains many erroneous assertions that are frequently used to disparage the Syrian uprising, and thus this is a response and critique of those assertions and the substance of the article in general.
“To say Syria is now a disaster is a massive understatement. This is a sectarian civil war which could continue for a decade if the regime’s enemies, led by the brutal Saudi tyranny, continue to wage their proxy war on the country.“
What is being implied in this statement is that if the people engaging in armed struggle against the regime were to put down their weapons, the “sectarian civil war” would cease. I’m not sure how Winstanley concludes this, but it seems to be based on an optimistic view of the regime and to place the responsibility of the war almost totally on the “regime’s enemies.” I firmly believe that intervention by reactionary forces on the side of the opposition (Saudi Arabia, Qatar) has done great harm to Syria and the Syrian uprising in general, but nevertheless, to state that the onus is entirely on them to end this war is to imply that the regime is somewhat innocent, which I believe is ludicrous.