Many Arabs, sadly, see things Assad's way

Given Lebanon's wreckage, it is hard to figure out what any positive achievements might be.

bashar assad 298 88 ap (photo credit: AP)
bashar assad 298 88 ap
(photo credit: AP)
Speaking to a journalists' association conference and in several other recent speeches and interviews, Syrian President Bashar Assad has claimed victory over Israel as well as America, whose plan for a "new Middle East" has been defeated by Hizbullah's success. In the view of both the US and that of Arab reformers the plan was for democracy, human rights, peace, an end to terrorism, and economic progress. In Assad's definition, it meant that America and Israel would dominate the Arab world to destroy Arabism and Islam. More Arabs, to their own detriment, probably believe in Assad's view. At the conference, Assad said the region had changed due to Hizbullah's achievements. He's right, though trends were already clear in the failure of the 1990s' peace process, Hamas's election victory, violence in Iraq, the Arab regimes' defeat of reform movements, advances by Hizbullah and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in elections, and other developments. One feature of this new era is the death of any hope for Arab-Israeli peace. The conflict will likely continue many years - producing politically useful Palestinian suffering - for these developments mean that since most Arabs believe Israel is totally evil and can be destroyed by armed struggle, they see no reason or need for a diplomatic compromise solution. The question, though, is whether this change is good or bad for the Arabs. Thanks to such victories, they can continue living under the same rulers, with lots of violence and corruption accompanied by low levels in living standards and rights. Also visible through the meeting is the style that has so long characterized Arab politics and has been fully renovated for a new generation. This kind of stuff is both orchestrated and yet takes on a life of its own. During the speech, members of the audience who claimed to be Lebanese - and apparently hired for the purpose since the security people let them do it - stood to thank Assad loudly for all the things he has done for their country. With no sense of the irony of the performance, one woman screamed, "Without the support of our sister country Syria, we would not be able to achieve what we have achieved." Given the country's wreckage, refugees, economic setbacks, ethnic strife, and the return of Syrian hegemony, it is hard to figure out what any positive achievements might be. The audience then broke into applause, shouting, "With our blood, with our soul, we redeem you, Oh Bashar!" They needn't worry. Assad and his allies will make sure they have plenty of opportunities to spill their blood and sell their souls. The world would do well to read Assad's speech carefully and take it seriously. Syria is not a country which can be negotiated with or bought off. It is not taking a militant role because it is aggrieved or bargaining toughly but because war, unrest, and extremism really do suit the regime's interests. A CIA report from exactly 40 years ago is startlingly timely in explaining this pattern: "The question in regard to Syria's future then is not whether it will be moderate or radical, but what will be the kind and intensity of its radicalism."