February 1, 2011

Syrian President's remarks on Tunisia and Egypt

Syrian protesters outside the Egyptian embassy in Damascus.
The sign reads, "Yes to freedom"

As I am often wont to say, you cannot make this stuff up. Syrian President Bashar al-Asad, in an interview with The Wall Street Journal, actually said:

"Syria is stable. Why? Because you have to be very closely linked to the beliefs of the people. This is the core issue. When there is divergence…you will have this vacuum that creates disturbances."

This is not a translation issue, those are his exact words in English. President al-Asad speaks English fluently; he was educated in the United Kingdom and his wife, although of Syrian nationality, was born, raised and educated in London. I suspect much of the conversation in the president's residence is in English rather than Arabic.

It is interesting, but not surprising, that President al-Asad is seeking to decouple Syria from the demonstrations that are taking place across the Arab world. After the fall of the Bin 'Ali government in Tunisia and the impending fall of the Mubarak government in Egypt, along with demonstrations in Yemen and Jordan, it is only natural that yet another Arab dictator girded in the mantle of a republic would seek to distance himself from the unrest spreading across the region.

I lived in Syria for almost three years (my photos); I was the Air Attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Damascus. At that time, the president was Bashar's father Hafiz. The al-Asad's have been the ruling family of Syria since 1970; Hafiz was a key player for years before that. The al-Asad's are not part of what sociologists would describe as the "fabric" of Syria. The family is part of a religious minority called the 'Alawis. The 'Alawis are from the Mediterranean coastal area near the northern port city of Latakia (al-Ladhiqiyah), but have been key power brokers in the country for decades.

The 'Alawis have prospered in Syria for several reasons, but all revolve around successful interaction with the other ethnic and religious groups in the country. Many 'Alawis used the military to advance in Syrian society. This was the chosen path for Bashar's father Hafiz al-Asad. Hafiz joined the military and attended pilot training. Later he became the commander of the Syrian Air Force, and then Minister of Defense. It was from this position in 1970 that he took over the country in what he labeled the "Correctionist Movement." He could hardly call it a revolution since his coup was against a member of his own Ba'th Party.

During the late 1980's and until his untimely death in a car accident of his own making in 1994, the heir apparent to the Syrian presidency was Hafiz's eldest son Basil. Basil was being groomed for the post with the requisite military training and public relations campaign that portrayed him as the best Syria had to offer. He seemed capable to me, although I detected some resentment at what many Syrians regarded as the attempted creation of a dynasty. After Basil's death, Hafiz ordered the return of his second son Bashar who was studying opthalmology in London. Bashar was groomed as the new successor to his father.

When Hafiz al-Asad died in 2000, Bashar had not yet attained the minimum presidential age of 40 as mandated by the Syrian constitution. The National Assembly met and changed the constitution within hours to allow anyone 34 years of age to serve as president. Bashar, coincidentally(?) 34 years of age, was elected president with an alleged 97 percent majority of the votes.

Voting in Syria is not like voting in the United States. A Syrian physician friend explained it to me. On election day, he went to work at the hospital and was called to the office of the administrator. In the office were two Ba'th Party "officials," more like thugs, who told him that he was much too busy at the hospital to go to the polls and that they had taken the liberty of completing his ballot for him. They asked if he had a problem with that. He thanked them for their consideration. That's how you garner 97 percent of the vote.

So when I hear President Bashar al-Asad utter with a straight face, "Syria is stable...because you have to be very closely linked to the beliefs of the people," I have to shake my head in amazement.

Syria is stable, or about as stable as you can be in this part of the world. The reason it is stable is not because the government is "closely linked to the people." It is stable because the pervasive and overlapping Syrian intelligence and internal security agencies have permeated virtually every sector of society. The country is the poster child for repression and human rights abuses. I cannot think of a government more far removed from "the beliefs of the people."

There were demonstrations in Syria over the last few days. Demonstrations in Syria do not occur without the permission or orchestration of the regime. The recent demonstrations were not aimed at the al-Asad regime, but were carefully contrived and controlled events held outside the Egyptian embassy in Damascus. It was to give the impression that Syrians are free to assemble, free to speak.

Past demonstrations are telling. After Basil's death in 1994, people were notified via their labor and trade unions (it is a socialist country) what time they were to gather for "spontaneous outpourings of grief." There have also been orchestrated demonstrations at the American embassy in years past, one turning violent and setting fire to some buildings on embassy grounds.

In one defining event, however, the Syrians learned what their government will tolerate and what it will not. It was in 1982 in the northern city of Hamah, the fourth largest city in the country. The Muslim Brotherhood had decided to defy the Syrian government. President Hafiz al-Asad deployed elements of the Syrian army under the command of his ruthless brother Rifa't. Syrian artillery flattened the center of the city and killed upwards of 25,000 people. The Syrian response has become notorious around the world as "The Hamah Rules.

The Syrians learned the rules. They don't make the rules, and they don't break the rules.

At least not yet.