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Hichem Karoui: Who rules the people of Syria?
August 06, 2011
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Exclusive to The Gulf Today

A little time after the Syrian revolution started, I was having a dinner in an Arab country with a personality who happens to know President Bashar Al Assad closely, for he met with him several times. As we talked about Syria, he said: “Bashar is a novice in politics. When I advised him to consider opening up a dialogue with the Syrian elite, his answer was: who are they? They are nothing. Clearly, he despises the intelligentsia of his country. He thinks he would be able to rule the country a long time without people’s consent.”

The opinion of that Arab political leader (who is also a brilliant academic) is that Bashar has been used by his entourage and so became a kind of “hostage” of the security apparatus. His experience in politics was equal to nil when he took over. He could try to improve himself by calling to help some credible intellectuals and experienced political leaders with an unstained past, but he did not.

My point is Bush Jr. was almost in the same situation before he ran for president, although he had managed to get elected as governor and thus acquired some experience with government business. Yet, he understood that the job of president is quite different, involving complicated issues.

Bush Jr. called to help people like Condoleezza Rice, Dick Cheney, Karl Rove, Karen Hugues, Colin Powell, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, etc... Like Bashar Al Assad, Bush had also the father’s heritage to manage in order to make his own way to leadership, but unlike him, he was willing to learn. Humbly, like any student, he would listen hours and hours to Condoleezza Rice (and other experts) lecture him on a wide variety of issues.

Bashar Al Assad, according to my source, would never listen to those who were willing to give him a disinterested advice. Maybe was it too late for him anyway. Being raised in a cocoon under the paternal warm shade, he has been accustomed to thinking that there is only one way to rule the Arabs of Syria: Al Assad’s way (the family, that is). Thus, once president, he was just unable to make his own way to leadership by responding positively to the demands of the elite. Instead, he walked in his father’s steps, remained fully loyal to the Baathist-family, and opened his ears exclusively to the security apparatus that stayed unchanged, while the entire world was changing.

How could such a man lead a democratic reform? Clearly, the system was locked up from the outset and he would not dare to change it, even with the full powers he was endowed with as president. Therefore, the question is: who rules Syria actually? Is it Bashar or those groups of interest that manipulate him in order to gain time, for saving whatever could be saved and leaving the sinking boat?

It took 11 years, hundreds of protests, thousands of prisoners, tortured and injured and several condemnations from the international community (Human rights groups and UN included), for Bashar Al Assad to issue a decree authorising multi-party system in his country. Thus, while the people revolution is tearing down his rule and making a jest of his decrees, he authorised himself a little hope. Why not? After all, hope is for everybody.

The decree allows political parties to be established and to function alongside the Baath party, in power since 1963 with the constitutional status of “the leader of state and society.” The Syrian government adopted a draft law on multiple political organisations last month. Ostensibly, neither the president nor his entourage got the message the streets are sending them. The decree Bashar issued Thursday, August 4, would have made sense a few months ago (not to say a few years), before he unleashed his security forces and his army giving them licence to act openly. Prior to the ongoing revolution, the Syrian regime was considered by some Arab parties (states, political movements and Arab League included) as a “necessary evil” even when they disagreed with its politics. And though everybody knew its legitimacy has long been eroded (since the massacre of Hama in 1982), its Arab “supporters” maintained the fiction that this was the “only” regime opposing resistance to Israel. They just could not consider it possibly replaceable, because if the “Baath” goes away, who on earth would resist, help the Palestinians, and liberate the Golan?

Those people must be blind. For if we combine together all the Arab wars against Israel in which the Syrian Baathist regime took part, the performance of the Syrian forces during the ongoing revolution against the disarmed people of Syria would by far outdo any other performance against the Israelis in any time. Honestly, if the Syrian forces have shown the same courage, the same talents in the business they have been showing us against their own people, not only the Golan would have been liberated but Palestine too.

This revolution is not to be ended so easily. One might be mentally handicapped to believe that Bashar Al Assad could still save the furniture while the whole house is being carried away by this irresistible tsunami sweeping the Arab countries. The Syrians are disarmed and yet standing to a regime that gave them the unmistakable proof that it was able to survive only because they were afraid of its repression. While fear is normal, recent examples as well as crowd sociology show that it can be easily forgotten and bypassed in a just confrontation with an unbearable evil.

The “Damascus spring” (2000-01) has preceded the recent wave of Arab uprisings. Upon the death of Hafiz Al Assad, the opposition forces have pressed for political reforms. Bashar, who was then freshly appointed president, could have listened to their voices and issued the decree he has just issued last Thursday. Not only he would have won a popular leadership and a new legitimacy in his country, but he would have appeared as a precursor and a model for the Arab world.

Unfortunately, he missed the appointment history gave him, and thus failed the only mission that could give a sense to his seat.

The author an expert on US-Middle East relations  is based in Paris.

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