President Assad's interview with the Guardian's Ian Black is the most recent in a series of events which have marked a watershed moment in the Middle East. Assad's Syria has, over the past eight years, survived the first serious set of crises to his rule and come through with flying colours. The message to the United States and its regional allies is clear and business-like, "you must deal with Syria on her terms". Once this key fact is recognised, discussions can begin and no grudges will be held. Assad has proven himself capable of being a lion as well as a fox - in textbook Macchiavellian style.
Wednesday, February 18, 2009
When Assad first assumed power in Damascus there was a lot of speculation as to whether the young prince would be tough enough for the byzantine politics of the region. Whether it is himself or those who are advising him, we will only know many years from now, but the reality is that he has proved adept internally and externally in dealing with his foes. One of his first priorities as the new ruler of Damascus was to consolidate his rule internally and put together a reliable and trustworthy team. The "Damascus Spring" helped bring out of the woodwork any movements or individuals which had kept a low profile during the long years of his father's rule and that might prove a thorn in his side later. The quick freeze which followed took many of the regimes most outspoken (and usually careful) critics by surprise and out of the equation. Some, such as Michel Kilo and Riad Seif, are still languishing in a cell, whilst others of that period are now silenced or in exile. A good prince knows when to make a promise and, more crucially, when to break it. He also knows that it is better to be feared than to be loved.
In Lebanon, the Valentines day killing of Rafik Hariri in 2005 might have led to a withdrawal of Syrian troops after 30 years, but it helped consolidate Assad's rule in Syria and move Lebanon firmly into the "Resistance" camp. Abdul Halim Khaddam resigned in June 2005 and moved from there shortly to France in what was to become a permanent exile. In December Ghazi Kanaan "killed himself", followed shortly by his brother, who chose to "commit" suicide by letting a train run over him. In Lebanon Hezbullah quickly filled the vacuum left by the Syrians and a series of bombings, assassinations and tit-for-tat killings quickly silenced the Lebanese 14th of March movement. Not even an attempted Israeli invasion in 2006 would dislodge the "Party of God", who emerged victorious, and the following year Hezbullah took over Beirut in about 6 hours of fighting, easily eliminating the militias that were being built up by the pro-Western 14th of March figureheads. At times of danger the prince can only test the loyalty of those around him once, and only once. Since these opportunities arise from situations which are beyond his control, the prince must prepare himself for them as best he could. Assad was prepared, and his reaction was swift and brutal.
In Iraq, Syria's strategic alliance with Iran made it impossible for the Americans to succeed in any kind of victory there without cutting a deal first. Bush's message to the insurgents to "bring it on", was a thinly veiled challenge for a scuffle which he quickly lost. American officials were soon in "talks" with the Iranians, after which the levels of violence in the region dropped sharply - coinciding with the American "surge". Syria obligingly tightened its control over the border and it became more difficult for fighters to cross over to Iraq. The United States also dropped its heavy criticism of Iran and Syria in the media, which had reached fever pitch, unless in passing. An unsteady compromise was reached over the situation of Iraq. When entering a foreign arena, always ally yourself with the weaker party rather than the stronger, who will always be grateful for your assistance but will not be able to turn on you. The combined strength would be more effective against the stronger power and, should you win, you would still be in a position of strength now that they are defeated and with an ally grateful for your assistance in their time of need. This needed to be done with unwavering resolve and the same principles apply with regards to Palestine as they do to Iraq.
Syria, through its support of Hezbullah and its patronage of Khaled Meshaal, made sure that Hamas remained a strategic asset for itself and Iran. Israel's last ditch effort to clip Hamas' wings showed just how low it has fallen in its expectations when it has to fight a powerful and dug in opponent that is virtually within its own borders - and still fail. The ensuing civilian casualties helped bolster Assad and his angry speech at the time of the Gaza invasion made full use of the anger and dissatisfaction felt amongst the people at the time.
Now that he has beaten the bully back, Assad wants the bully to sit down and have a chat. In his interview, Assad had "noticeably unclenched fists", a reference by Ian Black to Obama's earlier call for America's enemies to do so. Criticism of internal policies in Syria is brushed aside, Gaza has been useful in that regards as it is blatantly obvious to the Arab world that the West did give a nod to the slaughter of 3000 Palestinians by their ally Israel, or in Iraq, which has over a million dead because of the American invasion. Besides, there are no credible figures left who could mount any sort of threat to the regime internally therefore when it comes to domestic policies, the Syrian president knows his position is impregnable. As for the Israelis, Assad was dismissive, whoever leads Israel's next government is irrelevant, there will be others later and in the meantime Israel's might is useless as was demonstrated in the 2006 defeat in Lebanon and their impotence against Hamas. Syria will send an ambassador to Lebanon when it is good and ready, the West knows this. It is the Saudi intelligence chief, the Jordanian satrap and other minions who are making their way to Damascus to mend ties and not Syrians going the other way. It is Syria which is telling the West to talk to Iran, to stop being ridiculous about thinking that the Islamic revolution is going anywhere. The Hariri tribunal is going to be forgotten by the West, a small price to pay and a tool past its usefulness. Those who were involved in this incident in Syria are now either dead, in exile or safe, so again, this is the least of anybody's concern. It is America who is now considering resending an Ambassador to Damascus, and it was Jimmy Carter who came to Damascus, the doddering old fool, to pave the way for this, even deigning to give an interview to a local English language magazine. For the student of politics, these are lessons to be learned, for the ignorant, they simply shake their heads and wonder what on earth we are talking about, or they get smart and say that Syria is "back in from the cold", which actually sounds ridiculous once recognise what really happened, and betrays a narrow and Westernised view of the world. What nobody can dispute at this moment in time is that Assad has played his cards right and that he is the king of this jungle and you will deal with him on his terms:
"We are a player in the region. If you want to talk about peace, you can't advance without Syria."