Editor’s Notes: The eclipse of Assad

By David Horovitz March 11, 2005

Tuesday’s purported pro-Syrian rally in Beirut was a blatant exhibition not of Assad’s primacy but of Sheikh Nasrallah’s

More than a year ago, I attended a briefing with Jordan’s King Abdullah II which found the young king in extremely good-humored, even cocky mood.

They hadn’t captured Saddam yet, but the US was riding high in Iraq and Abdullah was feeling delightedly vindicated in having, unlike his father a decade earlier, sided firmly with Washington against Baghdad’s vicious regime. So pleased with himself was he, indeed, that he couldn’t resist taking a few casual potshots at those in the neighborhood who, in his words, hadn’t yet recognized that ‘the world has changed.’ The prime target for his chiding: President Bashar al-Assad of neighboring Syria.

Memorably characterized by one American analyst at the time as a rat defying the metaphor by trying to climb aboard Saddam’s sinking ship, Assad was all but derided by the Jordanian monarch for his misguided embrace of the toppling dictator, for failing to understand that democracy was on its way to the region, for defying the US in continuing to host terrorist organizations in his capital. If Assad didn’t wake up to the new realities one day pretty soon, the king went so far as to intimate, he’d find himself in some Saddam-style trouble.

That day would now appear to have arrived. In the interim, Assad ticked off the US even more by allowing anti-American forces to stream into Iraq across his porous border and by resolutely maintaining his gracious hosting arrangements for the likes of Hamas’s Khaled Mashaal and Islamic Jihad’s Ramadan Shallah. And while the Bush administration may have toyed with the notion of focusing its military attentions on Damascus, it has now been spared the need for such direct intervention to cut Assad down to size – spared by Assad’s continuing ineptitude in, apparently, sanctioning last month’s assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri and thus galvanizing the last few weeks’ unprecedented outpouring of anti-Syrian sentiment.

In Iraq, the genuine expression of a people’s desire to take its destiny into its own hands became evident only after the US did the military dirty work; in Lebanon, that demonstration of popular will obviated the need for American intervention in the patron state, Syria.

The elder Assad, without a shadow of a doubt, would have read the geostrategic map more cannily than his hapless son. In the wake of Israel’s May 2000 troop pullout from southern Lebanon, which came less than three weeks before he finally died, a president rightly respected for his cunning might well have remade his relationship with his client state, adjusting the economic and military framework in such a way as to sidestep demands that Syria follow Israel in beating a path to the border. Or, readily ruthless – remember his military assault on Hama, in western Syria in 1982, when he killed at least 10,000 of his own people to thwart a nascent Islamic uprising – he might have deemed a resort to force appropriate to quell Lebanese public expressions of anti-Syrian dissent.

BUT THE Bashar apple, it becomes ever more evident, rolled some distance from his father’s tree. Dad plainly didn’t think he would make much of a president – the hesitant young fellow was earnestly pursuing his opthalmology studies in London, set for an unremarkable life in the shadows, when brother Basel, the intended trustee of the Assad dynasty, died in a car crash in 1984.

And it’s unlikely many of his own citizens – or for that matter the hundreds of thousands who ostensibly rallied to his cause in central Beirut on Tuesday – are being won over, either. At his most recent significant public appearance, before the ‘People’s Assembly’ in Damascus on Saturday, for instance, he was underwhelming in most every department – charisma-free, ill-at-ease and, most damning, muddled in his thinking.

Perhaps something was lost in translation, but this colossal, rambling speech, meticulously dissected by the Washington Institute’s executive director Robert Satloff in a new paper that sees it as evidence of Assad’s ‘inconsistency and paranoia,’ is a mass of uncertainty, repetition and internal contradiction.

It’s easy to quote selective passages from an address and make the speaker look like a fool, so you might want to peruse the whole extravagant exercise in self-justification in full. But to highlight some of its counterproductive absurdities, the head of a minority sect, who is ruling largely on the dwindling strength of his late father’s regime of fear, volunteers to his people that he has made a series of mistakes ‘on the Lebanese area,’ that his citizens are not going ‘to feel safe’ anytime soon and that he is incapable of controlling his own country’s borders.

He contradicts himself within the space of two sentences by saying first that he wants to negotiate with Israel ‘without any preconditions’ and then that he wants talks resumed ‘from the point we stopped at in the early 1990s.’ He seems to take pride in the fact that Syria’s support for terrorism is earning it international prominence. And as Satloff points out, he strives, ridiculously, to minimize the significance of the huge anti-Syrian protests in Beirut by arguing that ‘television cameras usually zoom in onto a small group of people, but if they zoom out, you will discover there are not so many people supporting them.’

My absolute favorite paragraph, though, runs as follows: ‘The assassination [yes, that's what he calls it] of Arafat, the assassination of Prime Minister Hariri, pressure on Iraq, pressure on Syria, all that creates a scene that I am sure you can understand.’

Notes Satloff: ‘Few in the audience probably did.’

Satloff is unequivocal in his verdict.

‘No democratically elected leader,’ he writes, ‘could deliver the speech Assad gave and remain in power very long.’

OTHERS ARE far less definitive. Professor Eli Podeh, head of the department of Islam and Middle Eastern studies at the Hebrew University, told me this week that ‘Assad is trying to be rational’ and that ‘I’m not sure he’s wrong’ in his handling of the Lebanon crisis. Assad was sensibly giving some ground, Podeh suggested, but hadn’t surrendered Syria’s interests in its client state. And he was maintaining internal stability at home.

Speaking a day before the Hizbullah-organized purported display of pro-Syrian sentiment in Beirut, Podeh accurately predicted that the turnout would be vast. He suggested that Assad’s allies might yet prevail over the forces of would-be change. And if not, he went on, Assad still had a fair amount of room for maneuver.

Hizbullah did indeed pull out all the stops on Tuesday, in the first of what is slated to be a series of displays of crowd-pulling power. And what a contrast the rabble-rousing, podium-pounding, ultra-confident and coherent Nasrallah made to the self-effacing, slope- shouldered, confused apologist in Damascus. If Assad senior was always said to have kept Hizbullah on a tight rein, allowing it freedom of action only when he deemed the moment right, what we have now is an unmistakable instance of the tail wagging the dog. Indeed, at what has been widely but inaccurately depicted as a demonstration against pressure for Syria’s military departure from Lebanon, Nasrallah made no call for the Syrians to stay and actually endorsed the 1989 Taif accord – which provides for the Syrian troops’ withdrawal.

Watching from Jerusalem, it was discomfiting, to put it mildly, to see the ease with which Nasrallah whipped up his multitudes into a chorus of anti-Israeli hatred. Plainly, Hizbullah’s determination, and capacity, to play a central role in the struggle for power in Lebanon constitute a major headache for Israel.

Watching from Damascus, though, should not have been a much happier experience – if, that is, Assad has the nous to recognize what is transpiring. For Tuesday’s rally was a blatant exhibition not of Assad’s primacy but of Nasrallah’s. Hizbullah’s strength, and the despicable charisma of its leader, far from constituting Assad’s salvation, more likely signal his eclipse.

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