Syria: Caution and Bravado

ISLAM AND THE WEST By Daniel Brumberg First Prize for Best Concluding Lines in a Middle East Policy Article goes … Continued


By Daniel Brumberg

First Prize for Best Concluding Lines in a Middle East Policy Article goes to Fouad Ajami. In a clever observation about Syria’s current leader, he writes:

“Assad has not been brilliant in the way he has handled the inheritance his father bequeathed to him, but the Assad dynasty and the intelligence barons and the brigade commanders who sustain the regime can be relied on to fight for what they usurped. After all, they stole it fair and square.”

With these words, Ajami returns to his role as one of the most lyrical critics of the utopias proposed by some Arab intellectuals. Of course, Ajami has not been immune to a little dreaming himself. During the post-9/11 years, he flirted with the Bush administration’s neo-conservative reveries.

But he has come home. Deploying his trademark poetic realism, Ajami argues that Syria’s leaders lack both the will and the capacity to transform their relations with Israel, Iran or the United States.

He may be right. Syria is certainly a “strong state.” But as Iraq’s experience shows, behind every strong state lurks the potential for collapse. That is why Western visitors to Damascus return with such contradictory impressions of President Assad and his protectors. These men see very little daylight between political survival and political (or physical!) annihilation. As such, they evince a strange mix of tough realism, bravado and arrogance, combined with anxiousness and vulnerability.

In January I had a taste of these dualities when I joined a group of American experts for a two hour meeting with Assad. Not one for mincing words, I asked the President how he squared his concerns about sectarian conflict in Lebanon and Iraq with Syria’s relationship with Iran. “Wasn’t Iran supporting Shi’ite sectarian parties?”

Stirred–but not shaken–Assad replied, “How do you explain Iran’s support of Hamas? This is not about sectarianism; this is about power and influence.” True enough, I said, “but Iran’s support of Shi’ite parties express– at one and the same time– both political realism and religious-sectarian interest.” There was, I insisted, “no contradiction.”

I wasn’t surprised that Assad rejected my argument; after all, we could have been talking about his country. Syrian elites never stop telling you about how well everyone gets along. Sectarianism, extremism, Islamism are foreign to Syria’s Baathist Arabist creed! But the more people reassure you, the more you sense how tenuous things really are.

Viewing Damascus from Assad’s hilltop fortress, you get a panoramic sense of the worries that must preoccupy Syria’s leaders. Coming from the Alawite minority, they have cut deals with as many local and regional players as they need to hold on to power. They have little room for dramatic diplomatic maneuvers, even as they boast of their regional prowess.

A Syrian-Israeli peace deal would transform the Middle East. But none of the players -including Israel and the US–appear ready to pay the steep price that Assad would demand. And this is probably just fine with the Syrian President. He may not be quite the Assad (lion) his father was, but he is no pussycat.

Daniel Brumberg is Associate Professor in the Department of Government at Georgetown University, and Acting Director of the Muslim World Initiative at the United States Institute of Peace.

By Daniel Brumberg | 
May 9, 2009; 10:55 AM ET

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Islam and the West

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