Person of the Year 5773: Bashar Assad

There's no denying this man has caused havoc in the Middle East, and shrewdly pit the world's superpowers against each other. Syrian President Bashar Assad personifies a particularly bad year for humanity, reason and hope.

August 31, 2013 16:25
Protester holds a poster of Syria's President Bashar Assad

Protester holds a poster of Syria's President Bashar Assad. (photo credit: Reuters)

Since selecting its first person of the year 16 years ago, this column has attached this demanding title to assorted heroes – from scientist and Nobel laureate Ada Yonath to former Bank of Israel governor Stanley Fischer – and also to tragic victims: from fallen soldier Nikolai Rappaport to Alef, the code-named woman who charged former president Moshe Katsav with sexual abuse.

However, person-of-the-year articles are not beauty contests but serious attempts to encapsulate an elapsing year in one person’s deeds or fate, as part of journalism’s effort to write history’s first draft. That is why the person of the year is often a bad guy, such as the choice in 1938 of Adolf Hitler by Time magazine, which argued convincingly that the fuehrer “strode over a cringing Europe with all the swagger of a conqueror,” and had become “the greatest threatening force that the democratic, freedom-loving world faces today.”

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That is why this column also chose some unpleasant people throughout the years, from the suicide bomber in the Jewish year that ended days after the 9/11 attacks, to Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad half-a-decade later, when his venom and lethality became apparent. Such were our choices in particularly bad years, years dominated by intolerance, cynicism and cruelty, years when barbarity charged and humanity cowered – years like 5773.

Having been on history’s margins throughout 5773, Israel produced no one who could pass for person of the year.

Back in the winter, it seemed Yair Lapid might win this title – like his late father, Yosef “Tommy,” a decade ago. Having humbled the prime minister at the ballot box, sidelined the ultra-Orthodox parties and reshuffled the entire political system, Lapid-the-son seemed ready to dominate the year. Yet for now, Lapid’s imprint cannot be considered historic, and the jury is out even concerning his unpretentious performance as finance minister.

Similarly, we cannot point to an Israeli academic, novelist, filmmaker, entrepreneur, investor, athlete or any other news-maker who has memorably inspired us in 5773, let alone one who shaped it. And the same goes for the rest of the world’s literati, celebrities, movers and shakers, and also for the global economy.

Fortunately, this was a year with no major market fluctuations, except perhaps the plunge of gold, which last spring sold for two-thirds its price the previous fall. In fact, that trend represented stability’s slow return to the rest of the markets, following 2008’s trauma.

Similarly, this was not a year of technological breakthrough. If anything, Blackberry’s decision to raise a white flag and get sold merely capped its knockout defeat by the smartphone, which was clear well before the arrival of the year that will end next week.

Instead, 5773 was dominated by Arab misery, which for nearly three years now has been going from bad to worse.

FOR THE THIRD YEAR in a row this column’s Person of the Year is a protagonist of the drama that was initially misnamed the Arab Spring. Though this column rejected that label from the onset, calling it instead the Arab Upheaval, two years ago its choice for Person of the Year still represented a salute. Moved by Mohamed Bouazizi, who set himself ablaze and thus touched off the mayhem that soon unseated four dictators, we noted that the Tunisian grocer proved that “even when voiceless, hopeless and penniless, man could still stir the world.”

A year on, when it became clear that the Arab Upheaval did not produce an era of good feeling, we could still nominate Egypt’s Mohamed Morsi, who was a clear product of the Arab drama and, while controversial, had killed no one and was launching Arab history’s first freely elected presidency.

Since then, however, violence across the Arab world has become so widespread and intense that 5773’s Person of the Year must be someone related to this aspect of the Arab Upheaval. And among these, no one rivals Bashar Assad, whose political delivery and moral conduct have now produced a major geopolitical crisis.

Remarkably, the Syrian president has already been in power 13 years, more than most Western leaders in recent history, including Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. Assad had ample time and tools with which to inspire hope and herald change. He squandered them all.

Western pundits were originally impressed with Assad’s fluent English and attraction to computer games, and were then quick to celebrate his momentary release of several dissidents from jail. Alas, the police state bequeathed by his provincial father easily reasserted itself, while the relatively worldly son proved unwilling – or incapable of – leading a transition to modernity.

During the decade in which Assad led Syria before seeing its collapse, the economy remained predominantly agrarian, statist and clannish, while the population multiplied, oil wells dried and foreign currency reserves dwindled.

His pampering of select elites and minorities notwithstanding, Assad failed to create the jobs, hospitals, schools, factories, highways and housing that his population deserved, and his situation demanded.

No wonder, then, that a critical mass of the citizenry finally waged war on Assad and his regime, and that he responded in kind – meeting them not at the ballot boxes, parliaments, talk shows and parlor meetings where other civilized leaders and citizens routinely meet, but where enemies meet: in the battlefield. Assad’s unleashing of artillery, gunships, jets, missiles and, now, gas canisters at apartment blocks has been such that one must concede there has been more to it than just the whim, miscalculation, haste and despair that Assad the man brought to this confrontation.

Appalling and remote from their psyche as this clash seems to Westerners, it is part of their world, the part that Westerners do not inhabit and also seldom visit, yet – sprawling from North Africa through the Middle East to Russia and China – it spans much of the globe. The fact is that with all due respect to freedom’s gains over the past 25 years, the business of despotism remains brisk.

In winning Moscow’s and Beijing’s unwavering support for his war on most of his citizens, Assad has exposed these two powers’ scorn for humanism and fear of freedom. They may not be as unsophisticated in their political tactics, but at the end of the day, Assad’s idea of governance is to their mind better than that of America, Europe, Australia and Japan.

Assad, then, has reminded a previously complacent West that its rivalry with the other side of the planet, the dark side, is far from over – despite the fall of Communism and the lively trade that now flourishes between yesteryear’s Cold Warriors.

THE EXTENT to which Assad has been calling the shots in Damascus remains unclear, an enigma that may make some question his eligibility for Person of the Year 5773. How Syria arrived where we now find it is indeed intriguing. Did Assad originally decide to attack the population, or did someone else? Was there a consultation? With whom? What did people say in it? Did they argue? Did they hold a vote? Whatever the answers, Assad’s moral responsibility for the bloodbath in his land is inescapable. Even in the unlikely event that the violence around him has erupted despite rather than because of him, he should have made this known – or at the very least fled the scene. Yes, Assad’s impact has been not only in tearing apart his own country, but also in exposing the geopolitical chasm at which the whole world is now staring.

Even if he falls tonight, there is no denying this man has shrewdly pit the superpowers against each other. Even if the current crisis ends in his downfall, other dictators will conclude that he merely overplayed his hand, but otherwise demonstrated that thumbing his nose at the West and then hiding behind its rivals’ aprons is feasible, affordable and if done only a bit more cautiously, may be very beneficial.

Moreover, Assad has brought to full light the Arab world’s worst political disease: tribalism.

After misjudging the tribalism in kingdoms like Morocco, Jordan and Saudi Arabia as exotic, and after dismissing the violence tribalism generated in Yemen and Libya as anecdotal, in 5773 Assad unwittingly told the world it cannot ignore Arab tribalism.

Tribalism not only stifles social mobility and deprives millions of access to national wealth and personal opportunity, people die from it, and in large numbers.

Just what to do about this malaise is not for non-Arabs to prescribe, but following this year’s events, sensible people out to diagnose the Mideast’s political indigestion will agree it stems from both rulers’ and citizens’ core loyalties lying in identities other than the state.

One hopes this contribution by Assad to the ongoing debate over “what is wrong with the Middle East” has now reached some of the minds that, until 5773, thought this sorry region’s problems stem from issues other than how Arabs rule Arabs.

One hopes next year’s Person of the Year will represent something happy, perhaps a brave peacemaker or an inspiring dissident or an exciting new trend, thought or creation in realms like literature, education, business or the environment.

Sadly, for the year that ends next week, no such choice would be plausible.

For ours was a year when many people killed many people, a year in which hearts froze and hatred seethed, a year in which reason, hope and mercy were in short supply, while newly emptied bullet cartridges, cannon barrels and rocket launchers were resupplied as hurriedly as they were reused.

As we write history’s first draft, our choice must reflect all this. That is why our Person of the Year 5773 is Bashar Assad.

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