Syria’s ghosts from the past

Syria is not blessed, or rather cursed, with the black gold endowment that is irresistible for imperial interests, yet the late Hafez Al Assad raised it to such prominence in the Middle East political calculus that every American president from Nixon to Clinton was forced to indulge in diplomatic business with it.

By Shahab Jafry (Middle East)

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Published: Wed 20 Apr 2011, 9:22 PM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 9:44 AM

George Bush turned the trend on his son and unlikely successor Bashar by openly trumpeting the neo-con call for regime change in Syria, but the latter survived to welcome a call for engagement from President Barack Obama. Indeed, survival itself is the biggest feat for whoever holds the seat of power in the ruthless politics of Baathist Damascus, and Bashar Al Assad has played his cards well since the bloodless succession of 2000.

With the wave of popular protests now trending its way into Syria, though, Assad faces the toughest test of his presidency, one that has already weathered internal and external intrigues including abortive palace coups, Israeli maneuvering and pressure from Washington’s allies in the region. And as the Western media’s savage posturing condemns the Assad regime to international isolation, it is important to note elements of truth in Assad’s warning of “conspiracies”, that nothing is ever entirely black or white in the zero-sum, pitiless game of Middle East politics.

For Bashar, the tens of thousands rioting across the country are like piece-movements on a high-stake geopolitical chessboard. Just as much, if not more than economics, food prices and statistics is the hand of ghosts from the past that is stoking the Syrian powder keg. Bashar’s rise was controversial from the start, the first wave of opposition coming from one of his father’s most trusted aides for three decades, the vice president Abdel Halim Khaddam. Long the number three in the Assad set-up, he could not come to terms with the succession arrangement as Bashar was installed at the age of 34.

Khaddam sought exile in France after Bashar’s pullout from Lebanon in 2005, and began lobbying for collapse of a regime he had served loyally for more than three decades. He made damaging claims regarding Syrian involvement in the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.

Claims that he has put his weight behind the unrest unravelling in Syria cannot be completely ignored. Perhaps former Lebanese premier Saad Hariri’s WikiLeaks advice that Assad be replaced by a Khaddam-Muslim Brotherhood alliance has not fallen on deaf ears, even if the two would make very uncomfortable bedfellows. That this apparently conspired just as Hariri was visiting Damascus to reconcile with the regime, he once blamed for his father’s murder, only betrays the nature of Lebanese-Syrian politics. The Brotherhood, for its part, has clearly not forgotten the thrashing at the hands of Hafez in the early ‘80s, when they took to the streets to uproot the regime.

Then there is always Saudi pressure, now more than ever to counter Iranian influence in the region. Considering political intricacies, it is becoming clear that the mobilisation of the Arab street is turning one country after another into a proxy battlefield for regional as well as alien powers. Increasingly, legitimate demands of angry and unemployed Syrian youth have mutated into a farcical tug of war between regional camps.

For their own good, the Syrians need to learn the right lessons from Tahrir Square. They have been right in imitating the show of defiance and sending a clear signal to the leadership. They should stop short of toppling a structure with no promise of a replacement even remotely more sympathetic to their cause. The people need to pressure Assad on genuine grievances—unemployment, inflation, political repression, lack of democracy—and ensure steady pressure to advance on these demands. Undue persistence, especially if it brings the government down, will not benefit the people.

Damascus has played a pivotal role in maintaining (and shifting) regional equilibrium since the days of the Caliphate. Once again it stands at the centre of a regional paradigm shift where waves of anger may well overcome voice of reason advocating steady nerves and plunge the wider region into chaos.

Shahab Jafry is a former KT staffer

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