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Excerpt: "I found Assad cold and stiff in his demeanor but articulate, intelligent, and exceptionally well informed. I saw him then as an authoritarian with reformist sensibilities."

A Syrian pro-democracy activist, his hand cut off he says by Syrian security forces, watches Syria's President Bashar al-Assad on TV, 06/03/12. (photo: Reuters)
A Syrian pro-democracy activist, his hand cut off he says by Syrian security forces, watches Syria's President Bashar al-Assad on TV, 06/03/12. (photo: Reuters)

RSN FEATURE: On Assad - Stephen Eric Bronner

By Stephen Eric Bronner, Reader Supported News

11 June 12

Reader Supported News | Perspective


ell me something about your encounter with Bashar al-Assad? What did you think of him? How did he impress you?

In 2005, I spent about two hours with President Assad, and then another hour or so with his wife, Asma, as part of a delegation sponsored by US Academics for Peace that included James Jennings, the President of Conscience International; Lawrence Davidson, Bianca Jagger, and a number of other activists. A report of that meeting appears in "Peace Out of Reach: Middle Eastern Travels and the Search for Reconciliation" (2007). I found Assad cold and stiff in his demeanor but articulate, intelligent, and exceptionally well informed. I saw him then as an authoritarian with reformist sensibilities. He spoke vaguely about transitioning to a democracy and stepping down. But I didn't take these words very seriously. Most politicians cling to power as long as possible - especially dictators.

2. When Bashar al-Assad came to power 12 years ago, the international community thought he would be the person to change Syria, and Bashar al-Assad did express his willingness to change. But it seems it did not lead in the right direction. Why wasn't he able to reform Syria? What are the biggest obstacles?

Media pundits initially suggested that Bashar al-Assad was cut from very different cloth than his father. Hafiz al-Assad was crude in demeanor and provincial in outlook. He had a military background and lacked any direct experience with democracy. In the West, many considered him little more than a ruthless Soviet stooge. Hafiz was actually already a cold-war relic when he died in 2000. Hopes grew when Bashar succeeded him. He had been educated in England, studied ophthalmology, and - it was assumed - internalized elements of the liberal spirit. His beautiful and highly educated wife, Asma, (whose family comes from Homs) was born and studied finance also in England. Both appeared cultured and intellectual. They were also photogenic - a Middle Eastern version of John and Jackie Kennedy. Many also believed that Bashar was not driven by political ambition. He may have risen in the military and played a role in the Syrian invasion of Lebanon in 1998, but he was originally not meant for politics and he came upon the scene only after the death of his brother in an accident. More civilized behavior was undoubtedly expected of him - thus the more intense the disappointment and the criticism following the atrocities in Homs, Idlib, and elsewhere. But Bashar was still part of the ruling family, the military, and the Alawite community. He fit seamlessly into the power structure. His attempts to modernize Syria called for him to deal with loyalties and conflicts emanating from pre-capitalist and sub-national institutions and traditions associated with clan, tribe, and religion. Navigating such waters is undoubtedly difficult. Nevertheless, ultimately, economic and social progress requires precisely the kind of open society and democratic polity that the secular authoritarian fears.

3. Do you think Bashar al-Assad ever tried to introduce meaningful change into Syria? What were the changes? In the early years of his rule, Bashar al-Assad "gave up" his idea of political reform and said economic reform must be first. He tried to established private banks and so on. But in the recent years, Syrian economy became even worse. Why?

When I was in Syria (and also when I visited Iraq in 2003 just before the American invasion) it appeared that much effort had been spent on education and, at least in the cities, everyday life exhibited a certain cultural (if not political) pluralism: it was possible to see, for example, women in religious garb and others in miniskirts sitting in the same cafÈ. Both Bashar al-Assad and his wife expressed the desire to increase the number of computers and the degree of computer literacy. They spoke about privatizing the banks and other industries as well. They also expressed concern with improving health services and the conditions of women. Liberalizing the economy and society, however, always has anti-authoritarian political implications. And, when these become too threatening, the dictator retreats. Basahr al-Assad did introduce a new Constitution and there is a parliament. But meaningful democracy presupposes contested elections, free assembly, free speech, civil rights, and the liberal rule of law. All of these constrain the arbitrary exercise of political power. Wielding power in an arbitrary manner, however, is precisely what defines the dictator. As far as he is concerned, politics is always in command. Maintaining power is primary no matter what the cost. Economic determinism simply doesn't work here. Dictatorial regimes breed a culture of corruption and inefficiency. The bureaucratic hierarchy is intertwined with tribal and familial connections. All this tends to undermine the modernizing process that the secular dictator supposedly wishes to introduce. Finally, there is a kind of parochial rigidity - and the prevalence of what various social thinkers have termed an "authoritarian personality" structure - that makes it difficult to deal with the dynamics of an increasingly global society.

4. How do you understand the thinking of Bashar al-Assad? Is he unique or not? Does he have as firm a grip on power as his father?

President Bashar al-Assad, it should be remembered, is a secular authoritarian. He is not really so very different from other dictators in the region. His tradition begins with Kamal Attaturk in Turkey and carries over to Saddam Hussein in Iraq, Nasser and Mubarak in Egypt, and others. Each of them was brutal but, it was assumed by most experts of Middle Eastern affairs, that each was also committed to modernizing his nation. All of them justified their dictatorial standing by making reference to the dangers of tribal or ethnic conflict as the looming prospect of suppression of minorities and religious intolerance by Islamic radicals should they ever fall from power. Hafiz al-Assad ruled Syria for nearly 30 years. He killed more than 30,000 citizens of Hama in squashing the 1982 uprising led by the Islamic Brotherhood. That far exceeds the number of those that have died in the recent events. But numbers don't tell the full story. Bashar al-Assad has been ruthless enough. He, too, fears the slippery slope whereby introducing reforms will further fuel mass protest and endanger his own strong base of minority support. Bashar al-Assad has bombed his own citizenry; he has unleashed state terror; and fiercely suppressed dissent. For better or worse, Bashar al-Assad has also stood firm in the face of world opinion. The apple does not fall that far from the tree. Most dictators enjoying military superiority and the support of powerful allies would probably act as Bashar has acted in the face of widespread yet profoundly fragmented oppositional forces.

5. Bashar al-Assad seems to face a very different regional landscape from his father? What are the differences? How did he adjust his foreign policy in the past 12 years to fit in the landscape?

Syrian foreign policy has been complicated under Bashar al-Assad. He has retained the steadfast support of Russia, which goes back to the time of his father, and he also improved relations dramatically with China. Branded a rogue state and a supporter of terrorism by the United States, Bashar al-Assad has tried to stem the spillover of conflict following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein and also temper an always uneasy relationship with Iran. Bound to Hezbollah, which still maintains support for his government, he also has expressed intermittent interest in negotiating the status of the Golan Heights with Israel, most recently in 2003. Embarrassment resulting from the death of former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri of Lebanon in 2005, an event that surely involved his regime, led Assad to withdraw troops from the border and - at least in form - retreat from direct involvement in his neighbors' domestic affairs. There is little doubt that Bashar al-Assad wanted to be a principal mediator in events affecting his region of the world - and perhaps even beyond. Of course, this dream has collapsed. He has now been forced to deal with a world very different from the one in which his father operated. During the reign of Hafiz al-Assad, the Internet and the cell phone did not exist. The world community read about the mass murder of Syrian insurgents but it did not experience them in a visceral fashion. Then, too, the Middle East was not really part of the public consciousness as it is today in the aftermath of 9/11 and now the Arab Spring. Condemnation by world public opinion and the inspired international resistance generated by the Arab Spring did not crystallize against the father as they did against the son.

6. Murder in Syria shocks the world. What are the reasons for it? Is it possible that Bashar al-Assad made some real concession? Does Bashar al-Assad still control his army and elites in the revolt now? If Assad lost political power who do you think would replace him?

For authoritarian rulers, indeed, the horror that their actions produce among ordinary people is a secondary concern. Whether Assad is determining the specifics of military policy or not, he is clearly the face of the regime - and there is little reason to doubt that the buck stops with him. His strategy is clear. Assad is counting on the inefficiency of a fractured opposition while the opposition is counting on the defection of troops from Assad's army. Without referring to the matter of foreign intervention, or what might happen should the Syrian conflict spill over into Lebanon or Turkey, the degree to which the opposition is unified is the degree to which it can demand concessions and forge a common destiny. Without solidarity, para-military organizations will emerge with conflicting aims and ambitions. Civil war is not inevitable, but it is imminent. Under these circumstances, it is more important to analyze the forces in conflict (and the structural prerequisites for a more liberal regime in the future) than speculate about which general or party official would replace the current president.

7. I read the chapter dealing with Syria and your meeting with President Bashar al-Assad in your book: "Peace Out of Reach." Did you ever meet him again afterwards?

I never met President Assad again. Through my activities with the Center for the Study of Genocide, Conflict Resolution and Human Rights at Rutgers University, however, I have been working on conflict resolution strategies with elements of the Syrian exile community. As things now stand, the Syrian National Council is in disarray and there is little hope for the peace initiative of Kofi Annan that is supported by the UN and the Arab League. A third option is necessary. If Syria is to avoid the fate of Iraq then the opposition requires solidarity. Any future regime will need to deal with lingering hatreds, supporters of the old regime, residual paramilitary organizations, and fearful minorities that cannot protect themselves. This will call for negotiations with elements of the current government and (unless he is pushed from office by his foreign or domestic allies) perhaps even President Assad himself. That is the case whether Syria in its present form continues to exist or whether an Alawite state emerges and the country is reconfigured. Such negotiations will not prove pleasant. But, then, fostering democracy and justice is never easy. That is especially the case in the shadow of war.

Interview conducted by Barbara Bertoncin for Una Citta, June 4, 2012.

Stephen Eric Bronner is Distinguished Professor (PII) of Political Science and Director of Global Relations at the Center for the Study of Genocide, Conflict Resolution and Human Rights - Rutgers University. Senior Editor of the internet journal, Logos, and author of more than twenty books, his writings have been translated into more than a dozen languages. He was the recipient of the 2011MEPeace Prize from the Middle East Political Network based in Jerusalem.

Reader Supported News is the Publication of Origin for this work. Permission to republish is freely granted with credit and a link back to Reader Supported News. your social media marketing partner


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+2 # Activista 2012-06-11 22:49
good academic article - I found this link on neocons much more interesting:
+3 # Valleyboy 2012-06-12 02:35
Unfortunately I couldn't really follow the author's logic.

He claims being educated in England installs "liberal beliefs" in people without acknowledging that the english are at the heart of a global system that treats people in the the middle east as obstacles to control of the oil.

The author appears to be unaware of the neo-liberal policies that have devasted the middle east economies, along with the rest of the world. He writes "Liberalizing the economy and society, however, always has anti-authoritar ian political implications."

I suggest he reads The Shock Doctrine which argues exactly the opposite - "liberalising" the economy is so unpopular with the people it requires a dictator to implament it.

I just couldn't stick the assumptions, I only made it to the 4th paragraph I'm afraid.
+10 # James38 2012-06-12 03:01
Thank you, Activista, for this one. I can do no better than to quote a passage or two from the article:

"“Neo-conservatism” can be identified with a small network of intellectuals and friends. But that would be a mistake. It has grown into a movement with far broader appeal. Serious publications like The Wall Street Journal reach the “opinion-makers .” Perhaps even more important, however, are the hack columnists like Steve Dunleavy, Michelle Caulkin and Maggie Gallagher, associated with The New York Post and other tabloids, who popularize neo-conservativ e ideas. Radio hosts like Bob Grant, Mike Savage, and Laura Schlessinger add more fuel to the fire by ranting against traitors, fundamentalists , and sexual perverts. Then, too, there are the television pundits—like Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, and Pat Robertson—who gather around reactionary networks like Fox News. The pandering of these media thugs to the lowest ideological common denominator, their unwillingness to engage an argument, and their bullying arrogance perfectly express a neo-conservativ e sensibility that teeters on the edge of fascism."

+10 # James38 2012-06-12 03:18
"Our current neo-conservativ e policy-makers, intent upon refashioning the world in line with their own visions of geo-political advantage, are zealots. They have little in common with the genuine “realists” of times past. Churchill and Roosevelt in the 1930s did not blatantly lie to the international community about the threat of fascism, conjure up stories about weapons of mass destruction that did not exist, bully and bribe small nations into joining a “coalition of the willing,” endorse corrupt collaborationis t regimes lacking support from the populace, or employ violence without any sense of accountability: these were the tactics of their totalitarian enemies.

Then, too, there is the matter of civil liberties: the ultimate interest that “security” should protect. America gained respect in the world as a haven of freedom. It was the new contempt for religious fanaticism, the alliance between “throne and altar,” which differentiated the “old” from the “new” world. The neo-conservativ e call to constrain civil liberties in the name of “security” is, in fact, nothing more than the desire to shield their own incompetence and mendacity from public scrutiny. America has faced dangers in the past: it is always easy to make the current danger into the most dangerous."

+10 # James38 2012-06-12 03:20
"Civil liberties are easy to cherish under conditions of normalcy: but it is precisely under those conditions that they are meaningless. Civil liberties are not a luxury as neo-conservativ es imply, but the foundation on which a free society remains free.
Neo-conservativ es are provincials who fear what they don’t know. They fear criticism of established institutions. They fear the prospect of liberating the individual from outworn prejudices. They fear engaging the “other.” They fear the loss of privilege. And, ultimately, they fear freedom itself. Neo-conservativ es are the closest relatives the fascists of times past can have in a society wherein fascism has been discredited. Confronting neo-conservatis m thus involves more than simply judging a new philosophical outlook. It calls for making a decision about the type of politics that are acceptable, and those that are unacceptable, in a modern democracy."

Wow, that is quite an article. I recommend that everyone go read it.

Thanks again, Activista.
+4 # Activista 2012-06-12 09:55
Thnak you for getting the essence James. Hope that RSN will republish
+11 # RMDC 2012-06-12 04:21
THis is a good review of Assad. The obvious conclusion is that while Assad is far from perfect, he is not the problem in the middle east. He has always shown willingness to work with other nations. He's a Ba'athist and that means social progress for Syria's people. It may be slower than some would like but he's going in the right direction.

The real problem in the middle east is the US and its determination to install brutal puppet dictators in all Muslim nations. The US is also determined to be the military muscle for Israeli imperialism.

I only disagree with this point -- "Embarrassment resulting from the death of former Prime Minister Rafic Hariri of Lebanon in 2005, an event that surely involved his regime." There's been too much evidence showing this assassination was carried out by Israel. Only the US and Israel claim that Assad had anything to do with it.

Although this interview is good and helpful, it is more important to talk aobut the real problem -- US aggression, mercenaries, proxy armies, terrorism, death squads, and covert wars. Until the world identifies the real problem, nothing ever will be resolved. The UN needs to hear the case against the US most of all.
-9 # tahoevalleylines 2012-06-12 09:39
US the problem? Then rethink the motor mania economic system, "Just-In-Time" distribution, sprawl auto-oriented development, etc...

The people of America chafed in a transport paradigm built around railway distribution & transport, even with the enviable position as a lending not a borrowing nation, before WWII.

Against the advice of US strategists like James A. Van Fleet in the 1950's American economic policy centered on roads and imported oil. End of energy independence.

The Middle East burns with or without American presence, and this is well understood by think tanks with background studies in the Qur'ans Islamic ethos of domination. This is not opinion, simply historical fact. Muslims are in error, they cherry pick the Judeo/Christian scriptures, and suffer for it.

Rather than bring back knee-jerk reply, all hands shall profit from simply reading George Grant's compendium of Islamic doings in the Middle East and their future aspirations. Please, see Grant's "The Blood Of The Moon"...

Assad and his part in the saga of human suffering is a footnote in larger and more terrible chain of events coming our way. America would do well to step back, but of course, we need to protect the oil flows- "By Popular Demand"...
+6 # Activista 2012-06-12 10:16
Sorry - but "The Blood Of The Moon" is sick Christian-Zioni st (God’s people) propaganda:
"The Blood of the Moon by Dr. George Grant: Considering that Islam is the fastest growing religion with over one billion followers, that no nation has never peacefully converted to Islam, that complete military subjugation of the earth is mandated by the Muslims’ god, Allah, and that the annihilation of every Jew and Christian guarantees the Muslims entrance into their paradise, as Christians, it is imperative that we understand the truth about Islam and its historical conflict with God’s people and the Western world."
Please define God’s people ... I hope that I am NOT one ...
+7 # Guy 2012-06-12 09:55
Very good comments by all on this one.I agree totally that the biggest problem in the Middle East is the Western intervention into other nations affairs.Nato run by the Western world has turned into the bully of the West.
It is shameful to see the USA preach democracy to other nations while taking away their own freedoms at Home.
I thank the organizations such as RSN ,as we would not be aware of what is really going on the world.The presstitute and the media whores feed the sheeple with disinformation and lies who lap it all up as reality on the ground.I wonder what it will take for a majority to wake up.
+5 # Dolgoat 2012-06-12 10:40
US mainstream media is preoccupied with Syria and Iran but
silent about the Palestinian death toll and Israeli anti-democratic apartheid rule. What is very suspicious about the Syrian rebels is
their financial support. To contest an army the resistance seems to be very well armed. Who or what groups outside Syria
are supporting the rebels ? Mossad/CIA/ mercenary contractors?
0 # jwb110 2012-06-12 11:56
I surmise that the problem that exist in Syria is the same as in the Arab Spring countries. Not enough employment for average educated young people because an oligarchy has a stranglehold on income and jobs. Poverty is a good weapon, as we are seeing in many of the first world nations who have adopted the same policy as Syria and called it class war. That idea followed to its logical arc usually ands with a citizenry that has so little to lose that revolution comes.
Reducing the power of an oligarchy is a start. Privatizing banks and utilities will not.
If Assad opens the riches of his nation to all its people things will change. Get them by their wallets and their hearts and minds will follow. Having something to lose will make his nation just as compliant as poverty but happier.
+1 # Activista 2012-06-12 12:29
"If Assad opens the riches of his nation to all its people things will change"
This is what Qaddafi tried to do in Libya - free education - brightest went to best western universities - guaranteed job, FREE quality healthcare.
I can not with $100 in hand to get a dentist to LOOK at the tooth he screwed up by root canal (tooth felt apart by design - more profit i implants?)
Syria rebels are "IMPORT".
en.wikipedia.or g/wiki/Health_i n_Syria compare to health/dental care in US - Appalachia.
-2 # James38 2012-06-12 22:35
Here we part company. Qaddafi and Assad are dictators. Qaddafi and his family and friends had a strangle-hold on the riches of the country, and the gulf between the income they squandered and sequestered and the income of the average person was even more absurd than the one that has grown in the US in the past forty to fifty years. Assad is doing the same thing in Syria. Any time income inequality grows beyond reasonable limits, the economy declines and the poor become miserable. A society only generates a limited amount of wealth. It is abundant enough if the society is functioning well, but it must be distributed equably, just as must be the fruit of an orange tree. If the owner keeps 90% of the fruit, even if that means most of it rots, the tree is not meaningful or useful. The same applies to the wealth of a society, but more so, since the society is everyone's tree, and there is only one.

In addition, Both Assad and Qaddafi resort to murder to remain in power. This is no more justifiable than had Shrub and Cheney used military force to remain in power rather than allow Obama to be sworn in. The people of Syria and Libya are reacting as the people of the US would react if the government began murdering them to convert the far-Right-Wingn uts into dictators - and tell me Cheney and Shrub wouldn't love to find a way to get away with that one!

That is the danger of neo-conservatis m. Find a better dentist.
0 # Activista 2012-06-13 01:17
Please check on Libya BEFORE Benghazi uprising/NATO bombing (education, medical care, pensions ..) and today - OR next year.

What is now in Libya is CIVIL WAR - continuous KILLING. The rebellion was planted (CIA etc.)- tribe in the East against tribe in the West. Libya had HIGHEST per capita income in Africa. US universities were full of Libyan students - some opposing Qaddafi. Libya was changing ...

Syria was implementing reform - building middle class - revolt started with arms and mercenaries from Libya. When US kills the Assad another pro-Western dictator will come to power, minorities will slaughtered. (Example is current "liberated" Iraq).

"Assad and Qaddafi resort to murder to remain in power" facts point to other side "Free Syrian Army"- aka terrorism.
Last check - name me ONE NEOCON - old and new (and Hillary is by all actions NEOCON)that did not orchestrate these last civil wars.

Please explain to me how people of Iraq, Libya, Syria are better off - more free - after US "liberated them".
Wealth gap under Obama grew - the same misery index -- different puppets, same puppeteers. (check statistics)
-2 # James38 2012-06-14 03:06
"Please explain to me how people of Iraq, Libya, Syria are better off - more free - after US "liberated them"."

Since the US did not "liberate Libya", and nobody, including the US, has yet "liberated" Syria, I have no idea what you think your question means, unless it is just a blatant piece of propaganda.

The same applies to your last statement. No real meaning there, just a bit of raving for propagandistic effect - rather like a fundamentalist preacher raving and screeching from the pulpit. His frothing is quite adequate to inflame the faithful, but drives the thinkers right out of the meeting.
-2 # James38 2012-06-14 03:39
You also might enjoy this article:

"The potential for creating a popular backlash can be seen across the Red Sea, where an escalating campaign of U.S. drone strikes in Yemen is angering tribesmen and generating sympathy for an al-Qaeda franchise there."

Anybody think world politics is simple?

I still think we should fund basic secular education in Pakistan and other impoverished countries. That would help a great deal in the long run.
0 # Activista 2012-06-13 11:26
"...allowing it to freeze Syrian assets independently of a UN resolution or Congress approval. Recent history has shown, especially as regards Cuba and Iran, that Washington can easily convince its European partners to endorse sanctions that it applies unilaterally.
Thus, the stakes have currently shifted from the battle field towards the media. Public opinion will allow the wool to be pulled over its eyes all the more given its ignorance of Syria and its blind faith in the new technologies... .
-2 # James38 2012-06-14 02:57
Just for starters I would recommend you read the brief article in Wikipedia about Voltaire Net.

What the article you recommend says flies in the face of the events in Libya as they unfolded. The US and Nato barely intervened in time to prevent Gadhafi from crushing the revolt, and in spite of some difficult to avoid deaths among civilians, the effort to give the rebels a chance to overthrow the dictator was a success. Libya now has been left alone to work out its own destiny, and the process is difficult, since there is no tradition of popular government. I hope they succeed, but it won't be easy for them.

I find the articles on Voltairenet to be incoherent and full of invented innuendo and imaginary "facts". All of this is typical of the "conspiracy theory" movement, which is based more on faith, like a religion, than on verifiable facts and logic. Emotion and fervency of belief seem to overwhelm sensible and calm thought. Many real issues are conflated with imaginary plots and nefarious groups operating just beyond visibility. It is hard to refute many of the arguments, since to argue with them implies giving them credence in the first place.

-2 # James38 2012-06-14 02:57
I would recommend a step back, and a systematic attempt to follow the logic of Occam's Razor. (From Wikipedia - Bertrand Russell offers a particular version of Occam's Razor: "Whenever possible, substitute constructions out of known entities for inferences to unknown entities."

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