North Africa, West Asia

Damascus must be part of the solution

John Kerry has gone from calling Bashar a dear friend to a brutal dictator to thanking him for working with America to wipe out Syria's chemical stockpile, to wanting to talk. But everything else has failed.

Kamal Alam
30 March 2015
Bashar Al Assad, 2011.

Bashar Al Assad, 2011. Wikicommons/Fabio Rodrigues Pozzebom. All rights reserved.After four years of fighting the world has come full circle when John Kerry announced that the United States is willing to talk to Bashar al Assad. In 2011, the Syrian President Bashar al Assad, warned that if the west touched Syria the whole region would burn. Four years on these words have been prophetic.

The Middle East has not been this unstable perhaps since the Mongol invasion of Baghdad. Even the tumultuous fall of the Ottoman Empire and the invasion of Iraq in 2003 did not bring with it the levels of uncertainty and extreme violence that the Syrian war has unleashed on the whole region. Once again, exactly one hundred years on, Damascus is the key pivot on which the whole region’s stability hinges.

If only America and its allies in the so called ‘Friends of Syria’ committee had studied how Hafez was the rock on which the Arabs relied, we would not have had to wait so long for Kerry to talk about Assad as part of the solution.

Syria as the heart of the Arab world

Exactly hundred years ago the greatest prize in the Middle East was the fight for Damascus. In the epic film, Lawrence of Arabia, Peter O’Toole in the title role tells Field Marshall Allenby that the Arabs would not come for Faisal or the British or the gold, but they would come for Damascus. Of course, not for the first time, T E Lawrence was lying.  The men that Lawrence had mustered from the deserts of Arabia were mercenaries who had nothing in common with the urbane and sophisticated Damascenes, or the traders of Aleppo or the noble Arab and Armenian tribes of Deir Al-Zor. Despite all the gold and weapons with which the British supplied the Bedouins from the Arabian Peninsula under the command of Auda abu Tayi and Nasir Ibn Ali, only 560 Syrians joined the mercenary army of the British invasion of Syria.

The Damascus inhabitants and other Syrians then under Ottoman control were not convinced of the sincerity of Faisal and Lawrence. Whilst they were no fans of Ottoman control, they did not join the desert tribes of what now makes up Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the GCC. Similarly when the French were fighting Faisal after the withdrawal of the British troops from Damascus, Faisal had only 2000 men defending him for the fight:[1] the ancestors of present day Syria were in no mood to take dictation from Bedouins in the pay of the British.

A hundred years on all efforts to control the big cities of Syria have failed; the uprising in Aleppo did not begin for almost a year and a half after the Derra incident. The Arab spring reached Syria much later and when it did the cities of Damascus and Aleppo did not join in. it was mostly in the rural south and east.[2] According to American officials themselves there is no real opposition. Not unlike a hundred years ago, despite Arabian Peninsula Bedouin meddling and hundreds of billions of dollars of aid, the vast majority of Syrians did not join the Free Syrian Army or the Syrian National Council. Even the most credible leader of the opposition to date, Moaz al Khatib was of the opinion that the Syrian opposition were foreign controlled and did not have a Syrian voice. When Khatib wanted to reach out for a political solution he was vetoed by the Gulf countries and others who wanted to rule over Syria’s fate. Syrian rebels and opposition are happy earning big pay checks and living in five star hotels in Doha, Paris and DC. Rather like Lawrence’s ‘Arab revolt’ bickered with each other when they entered Syria, they bicker among themselves at every stage.

Hafez and the Americans: how Bashar learnt to deal with the United States

The next great tumult in the Levant occurred in the 1970s in the shape of the Lebanese civil war. The solution of this war was firmly in the hands of the Syrian military intelligence establishment. Hafez al Assad under an Arab League mandate intervened on behalf of the Arab world to stabilize Lebanon. Hafez was a pariah in the west from the outset because of his closeness to the Soviet Union, yet no other leader in a Soviet-aligned country had so much respect and interaction with multiple American presidents as Hafez al Assad. Once the Americans realized that they could not outdo Syria in Lebanon they worked with Syria to bring about stability in the region.

Henry Kissinger was very clear in his analysis of Lebanon and urged American policy to work with the Syrians and not against them. It was Hafez al Assad and not the Lebanese militias and the PLO that mattered. Warren Christopher recalled that Hafez al Assad would never start a diplomatic meeting if he knew his position was weak: all the meetings the Americans had with Hafez were conducted in the knowledge that Hafez felt he had the upper hand. According to Bill Clinton, Hafez was a ruthless but brilliant man who could always be trusted to deliver on his word, ‘although we had our
disagreements, he had always been straightforward with me.’[3] Jimmy Carter also singled out Hafez as the single obstacle to the Geneva Peace accords and acknowledged that without Syria there could be no ultimate peace with either the Israelis or in the wider region in the context of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.[4]

Hafez’ masterstroke in this relationship with the Americans was his backing of the American-led coalition to fight Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait. Whilst the Syrian military under Hafez’s orders were helping the western-backed alliance in Kuwait and Iraq, it was also fighting against French-backed General Michel Aoun in 1990, managing multiple war fronts both on the battlefield and in its diplomacy. Again in Iraq post-2003, Syrians kept a fine balance between supporting some American logistics while providing routes for insurgents against the American occupation. This meant that the Americans found it almost impossible to not take the Syrians seriously. Yet when Bush proposed to remove Assad way back in 2003 and 2004, it took Ariel Sharon to warn the Americans against such a blunder.

The good or the bad Bashar?  

Bashar al Assad had already survived three great crises before the start of the 2011 war. Bashar had seen off the 2006 war against the Israelis, the American invasion of Iraq and the assassination of Rafiq Hariri. Almost no one gave Bashar a chance when his father died in 2000, or again when Hariri was killed and the Syrian Army left Lebanon. Every so-called expert said that this would be the end of Assad. Yet he went on to thrive. Bashar brought himself back into the western fold forging relationships with France, Britain and the United States. He was feted in western capitals and his economic and social reforms were heralded by western leaders. John Kerry in his extensive talks with Bashar al Assad called him a ‘generous man and someone he and America could trust.’ Hillary Clinton was also at pains to call Bashar a reformer who needed time to fix Syria.

After the American invasion of Iraq, Bashar reached out to the Islamist parties to consolidate against foreign threats.[5] Under Bashar, the Baath party also for the first time celebrated official Islamic festivals.[6] Dr Mahmoud al Agassi, an influential Islamic cleric and critic of Bashar, argued that Syria did not want an American-style democracy or a chaos similar to that holding Iraq in its thrall. Nawaf al Basheer similarly argued that Syria should change according to internal pressure and not through any externally-backed uprising.[7]

So while Syria had not become a liberal democracy or an open society, Syria was moving at its own natural pace and not at the behest of outsiders. And this is where one must temper idealism with realism. Libya, Yemen and Iraq are in ruins. Tunisia, whilst it may be a democracy, is exporting the largest number of jihadists in the whole Arab world. Not only has routine assassination of non-Muslims taken place in ‘democratic Tunisia’, but opposition leaders have been killed who do not adhere to political Islam. Tunisia as a western-backed democracy is looking the other way as it actively recruits and sends fighters to Libya and Syria. And of course we all know what Egypt under el-Sisi has done. Yet he is feted and shored up with billions from western economies.

The problem with western labelling of Bashar al Assad has been the west’s complete confusion over what to make of him, praised as he is for the neoliberal economic policies which prompted his sale of several state-run enterprises and his encouragement of private sector reform.[8] Yet American observers knew that there was no magic wand that could get rid of old ideas and remove obstacles overnight.[9] The American invasion of Iraq had a negative effect on Syrian economic and social reforms.[10] Bashar and his economic reforms meant turning his back on his father’s old closed market structures, while encouraging a new middle class to succeed in Damascus, Latakia, Homs and Hama alongside the established mercantile families of Aleppo.[11]Liberalisation of the economy of course meant corruption, as is natural for any economy moving away from socialism. But attitudes to Syria both in the west and the region have been a case of damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

John Kerry has gone from calling Bashar a dear friend to a brutal dictator to thanking him for working with America to wipe out its chemical stockpile, to wanting to talk. But everything else has failed for four years. Politics and talking to the Syrian government has to trump all these other ideological stances. The Syrian people continue to suffer as foreigners and Gulf Arabs try to impose their agenda on the Syrian people. The Syrian Ambassador to the UN, Bashar al Jaafari rightly pointed out at the start of this conflict that as Lawrence of Arabia had failed to impose a Bedouin and western rule on Damascus a hundred years ago, it would fail this time as well. Demonization of Damascus has led only to despair. Damascus is indeed part of the solution.


[1] Rogan, Eugene L. The Fall of the Ottomans: The Great War in the Middle East, 1914-1920. , 2015, pp 400-401

[2] McHugo, John. Syria: From the Great War to Civil War. , 2015, pp 221-224

[3] Clinton, Bill. My Life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004, p 734

[4] Carter, Jimmy. Keeping Faith: Memoirs of a President. Toronto: Bantam Books, 1982, pp 285-286

[5] Ziyādah, Raḍwān. Power and Policy in Syria: Intelligence Services, Foreign Relations and Democracy in the Modern Middle East. London: I.B. Tauris, 2013, p 155

[6] McHugo, John. Syria: From the Great War to Civil War. , 2015, p 219

[7] Erlich, Reese W. Inside Syria: The Backstory of Their Civil War and What the World Can Expect. , 2014, pp 79-80

[8] Erlich, Reese W. Inside Syria: The Backstory of Their Civil War and What the World Can Expect. , 2014, p20

[9] Lesch, David W. Syria: The Fall of the House of Assad. New Haven, Conn: Yale University Press, 2012, p 4

[10] Seifan, Samir. Syria on the Path to Economic Reform. Fife, Scotland: University of St. Andrews Centre for Syrian Studies, 2010, p 24

[11] McHugo, John. Syria: From the Great War to Civil War. , 2015, p 218

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