Wednesday, June 29, 2011


As with Libya, Yemen, and Bahrain, we can’t predict the outcome of current Syrian turmoil. The Syrian uprising has many of the characteristics of the region-wide Arab Spring. Censorship is keeping out the independent press, but some Syrian human rights activists believe they can overthrow the brutal rule of the Assad family, and many are martyring themselves in the cause. People everywhere want personal freedom, and Syrians are no exception. Half the population is under the age of 19.

Having said that, what set Syria apart from its often dictatorial but incompetent and corrupt Arab neighbors was its evolution as a genuine police state regime that repressed and murdered its own people en masse with unparalleled ferocity. Yes, Egypt had a brutal internal security apparatus that tortured and disappeared hundreds of protestors over the Mubarak decades of authoritarian rule. The same was true of other autocratic Arab rulers, whether kings or presidents, all of whom were committed to hanging onto power that was acquired by either force or crooked elections. But none came close to the regime of Hafez-al-Assad.

Before the Iraq war, there were not one but two tough guys on the Arab block. The first was Iraq under Saddam Hussein, whose tyrannical regime not only committed genocide on Iraq’s marsh Shi’ites and on independence-seeking Kurds, but also launched wars of aggression again Iran and Kuwait. The other was Syria which, besides brutal internal repression, became the transmission belt for Iranian arms shipments to Hezbollah and Hamas, both of which were designated terrorist groups by Washington, committed to the elimination of Israel.

Syria’s earlier history was not all that different from that of its neighbors, except perhaps for a historic memory of long-disappeared empire, still simulated by deep interference in Lebanon until Syrian troops were withdrawn under UN pressure in 2006. Syria had been a French mandate under the League of Nations and in 1946 became, at least in name, a “parliamentary republic” that was thrown into turmoil with a succession of military coups. In 1958 Syria joined with Egypt to form the United Arab Republic – a point of relevance to my story. In 1961 they split, and in 1971 power was seized by an officer named Hafaz al-Assad, a member of the minority Alawite sect and of the socialist Ba’ath party. Like some other dictators, Assad brought a measure of stability that later morphed into Soviet-like repression. Initially an organizer and reformer of a quarrelsome and disorganized state, he had made Syria the only Arab country except Iraq that could accurately be called a police state.. His later style of rule included famously slaughtering between 20,000 and 40,000 Sunni citizens in the city of Hama in 1982 to break an uprising

In 2000 Hafez al-Assad died and was succeeded by his son Bashar, who had been a practicing ophthalmologist in London. There was some hope that Bashar would loosen some of the restraints strangling the people of Syria. But in the current uprising he has evidently followed his father’s footsteps. He has made some seemingly conciliatory gestures, but his forces have also killed at least 1,400 civilian demonstrators and wounding or seizing thousands of others. The fact that he was elected president in a referendum confirms that elections alone do not a democracy make.

I do not claim much first-hand knowledge other than a bizarre episode that took place in the 1970’s and remains etched in my mind as an indelible picture of one more police state capable of inhuman behavior, one which even to an official guest had the same stink as Cold War Moscow. It went like this. I was on a State-Department-sponsored speaking tour of the Gulf states and about to depart Kuwait for Bahrain when I was suddenly rerouted to Damascus. US-Syrian relations, always tense, had been on a roller coaster: Relations had been broken in both 1957 and 1967, and restored in 1974. There been no cultural exchange, no American ballet companies or cans of Orson Welles films (always a huge hit abroad), and certainly no MIT professor pontificating about international relations -- in short, none of the usual US cultural hustle.

I'm still not clear why the American embassy and the Syrian government decided that my availability provided a useful renewed effort to communicate informally. The US side seemed to be confident that an independent scholar would at least not say things requiring closing the embassy again. From the Syrian point of view, my guess is that there was a mixture of curiosity and a region-wide belief that I was probably a CIA agent, always more interesting to the spymasters than a long-winded scholar..

As it happens, I arrived in Damascus at an extraordinary moment in contemporary Syrian history. Hafez had launched his army in a war against the PLO forces in Lebanon, both sides using military equipment provided by Moscow. A reception on my arrival was well attended but, no surprise, I found no one prepared to discuss their war on their Palestinian partners. I was staying at the residence of public affairs officer (later Ambassador) Kenton Keith. The next morning, after a brisk tennis game, I took a rest prior to giving my speech to the invited elites at the major downtown hotel. In the meantime, the Egyptian and Saudi foreign ministers had arrived to offer their services as mediators. Soviet President Kosygin had also flown in, and I learned later that he was not allowed to leave the airport the entire time he was in Damascus. Just to complete the cast of characters on this day of war, I almost bumped into Ugandan mass murderer Idi Amin in the Umayyad Mosque later that day.

While resting on my bed and going over my lecture notes, I suddenly heard mounting screams outside the window. At least 1,000 young Syrians ran by, shouting denunciations of Syria’s recent partner Egypt and stopping to firebomb the Egyptian embassy next door, which almost blew me off the bed. Obviously Damascus had no need for Central Casting when it came to hiring extras for a domestic drama. Censorship was total, and word of both the state of war and the fire-bombing of an ally failed to make any of the international press (of which there were – and are today --few allowed in the country).

The ambassador and I set forth for the luncheon meeting, convinced that no one would actually show up in light of the events that must be overwhelming Damascus. On the contrary the whole guest list showed up – deputy ministers, department heads, University rectors, generals, newspaper editors. They acknowledged that their country was at war by launching a massive assault on the bar. I gave my speech, but as I got deeper into US Middle East policy I asked Ambassador Dick Murphy to join me. The two of us tried our best to explain the United States of America to a group of semi-inebriated brass of a country that had just attacked an ally. I repeat, tough guy on the block.

It’s fair to ask why, if the Syrian government is exterminating civilian protestors big time, the Libyan treatment should not be applied – no-fly zone, suppression of attacks on civilian-killing Syrian vehicles, and demands for President Assad to return to practice ophthalmology. Isn’t that hypocrisy? Washington has imposed some sanctions, which are rarely game-changers. Actually, US policy can’t claim even partial purity over the years, given the support it provided to many an Arab dictatorship in the name of stability and reliable oil supply. Today there is a better understanding of the costs of propping up dictatorial regimes. But the fact is no one is prepared to take on Syria, whatever its crimes against humanity and whatever the avowed UN doctrine of “responsibility to protect.” There is already fatigue with the Libyan intervention and its failure so far to eliminate Quadaffi. So the answer is yes, picking and choosing where to apply the activist pro-democracy doctrine and where to turn a blind eye may be called hypocrisy.

It may also be called cold realism, taking on only that which will have popular support and the cooperation of allies and the UN, as in Libya. In a perfect world there might be a stand-by police force ready to punish violations. That isn’t our world and is not likely to be in the foreseeable future. So I suggest that we live with this reality and be glad America can occasionally do the right thing morally as well as strategically.