The Region: Fishing in Damascus

The main goal is for the regime to survive by using demagoguery to win popular support without reform.

assad 298  (photo credit: AP [file])
assad 298
(photo credit: AP [file])
A man went fishing after much preparation, but caught nothing. "I don't understand it," he complained to a friend. "I read all the best books about fishing!" "Yes," responded his buddy, "but did the fish read the books?" Much current writing on the Middle East reminds me of this story. Often those fishermen who failed in the past now insist on using the same futile approach, ignoring what they've been doing wrong all along. In an October 1999 Financial Times article entitled, "Syria's Golden Opportunity: Making Peace with Israel," Roula Khalaf explained that Syria's disastrous domestic economic situation could only be mended through such a deal. But there were other reasons why peace might be imminent. Syria was isolated in the Arab world and, as for Lebanon, Assad was about to lose that bargaining chip because of the impending Israeli withdrawal from south Lebanon. Such a withdrawal, Khalaf continued "would deprive Hizbullah and Syria of any legitimacy for resistance." In conclusion, "Damascus has realized that a unique opportunity may be at hand... Syria is no longer resigned to making peace with its Jewish neighbor but genuinely seeking it." A few weeks later President Hafez Assad turned down flat a peace based on getting back all of the Golan Heights. He was not acting on a whim - or due to his demand for a tiny amount of "occupied territory" Syria had seized from Israel in the 1948 war. Rather, Assad was pursuing Syria's interests, for which peace with Israel had far more minuses than pluses. Seven years later son Bashar has once again shown that Syria has a very good - well, not good for Syria's people, but great for the regime - alternative, which is the demagoguery about resistance and struggle. The regime is at the height of its popularity at home, making a comeback in Lebanon (through its client, Hizbullah), and basking in the light of its alliance with Iran. Who needs economic reform or higher living standards? BUT AGAIN we hear that Syria "must" make peace because it makes sense to people who are very much aware of "pragmatic" considerations, but don't understand much about how to be a Middle East dictator. Here, for example, is how a columnist puts it on the Gulf News Web site from UAE on September 8: "Domestically, Syria faces some serious challenges that make it truly eager to reach a peace agreement with Israel. These challenges are of a political, economic and security nature. Syria's reform project has reached a dead end as a result of internal problems and international pressure. Hence, the Syrian regime has to recreate legitimacy based on something other than reform." I hate to use two Arab writers as examples here because this kind of thinking is far more often seen in the West - but the quotes are too good to resist. Of course, it should be noted that Syria's reform project didn't jump off the top of the building, it was pushed. The Syrian government crushed it. At any rate, the regime is not looking for reform, nor does it care about the domestic economic situation. Why, then, is there such a rush to hold negotiations with Syria? Well, it makes politicians and diplomats look as if they are doing something; they can be seen as trying to avoid confrontation and assuage the "grievances" of the Syrian regime. But it's a case of the fish not having read the books: The Syrian regime doesn't have real grievances - that is, it is not outraged at not getting back the Golan Heights, for example - it has goals. The main goal is for the regime to survive by using demagoguery to win popular support without reform. Bashar is not so stupid. This strategy works. Syria is not Iran's ally or Hizbullah's patron because it hasn't been offered a better alternative; these are indeed great policies. Iran provides money and strategic support, Hizbullah is a tool for controlling Lebanon and striking at Israel. Syria's policy makes sense, far more sense than a real reform which might bring down the regime and lead the current leadership either to jail or a firing squad. AND WHAT are these negotiators going to offer Syria? • a return to its control over Lebanon? Not a great idea, even without taking into consideration the fact that most Lebanese hate this. • a lot of money? Such a gift would make it even less necessary to reform Syria's domestic policies. • all the Golan Heights and a piece of Israel illegally occupied by Syria between 1948 and 1967? In other words, strengthen Syria's position for attacking Israel in future. Why is it that everyone recognizes that Damascus interpreted past concessions as weaknesses, encouraging more aggression, and then demand still more concessions? And is Syria going to give anything back? Remember the many trips of secretary of state Warren Christopher begging Syria to enter the peace process in the 1990s, only to end with Hafez Assad scuttling negotiations? Remember secretary of state Colin Powell being promised by Bashar that he would stop illegal pipeline shipments of Saddam's oil, only to find, even before he got back to Washington, that he had been told lies? Now we have UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan waving a peace of paper with Bashar's promise for cooperation with the UN in Lebanon in our time (a reference to Britain's appeasement of a certain German dictator who also had territorial grievances). So when will they ever learn? HERE IT IS, one more time: The Syrian government does not want to make peace, become moderate, or reform its economy. It wants to control Lebanon, wipe out Israel, buy off the Islamists by supporting Hizbullah and the Iraqi insurgency, and thus demagogically make its people cheer for Bashar as the great warrior of resistance. These fish don't read the books, and they are more likely to catch the fishermen than vice versa.