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.

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