By Tyler Golson
In the post-Saddam Hussein Middle East, Syria has emerged as the perfect foil to America’s newfound democratic adventurism. Whereas the United States sees itself as pushing the region forward toward a freer and better future, Syria has acquired a reputation for being the perennial stick in the mud, a retrograde force for oppression, illiberality and noncooperation with the international community stretching back decades.
Recent events have only tended to confirm these well-entrenched preconceptions about Syria, with the United Nations issuing a report linking top Syrian officials to the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri, and the United States continuing to allege Syrian complicity in the Iraq insurgency. More than ever, Syria seems to be violent, backward and hostile to U.S. interests-in a word, “rogue.”
Western media have perpetuated these notions of a rogue state, contributing the standard background content for any story on Syria: It is a one-party absolute dictatorship condemned by Human Rights Watch for a “long-established record of torture” of political prisoners; it has been on the U.S. list of state sponsors of terror since the list’s inception in 1979; it is headquarters to several prominent terror groups. But does Syria deserve this reputation? Is it a “rogue state”?
The question is an important one because, in the eyes of the American government, a “rogue state” has forfeited its right to normal diplomatic relations, its economy is fair game for crippling sanctions, and its regime can be changed. Rogue states get all stick, no carrot.
Well before the murder of Rafiq al-Hariri in February and the subsequent passage of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559, which led to the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon, the Bush administration had already reversed a longstanding policy of conditional engagement with Syria in favor of a more confrontational line, seeking to isolate the country from its neighbors and coerce its president, Bashar al-Assad, into compliance with a laundry list of U.S. demands. This dramatic shift in U.S. policy was expressed most clearly when then-Undersecretary of State for Arms Control John Bolton denounced Syria as a rogue state before a House subcommittee hearing in September 2003. Bolton’s authority has no doubt increased since he was appointed ambassador to the U.N., indicating that his hard-line views on Syria have taken on new prominence.
Formalizing the sorry state of U.S.-Syrian relations are a series of actions undertaken this past year: The U.S. ambassador to Damascus was withdrawn “for consultation” last February and has yet to return; the Syrian Accountability Act was signed into law and has been used to introduce a series of economic sanctions on Damascus; the U.S. has carried out air and ground strikes against Iraqi insurgents next to the Syrian border, an apparent warning to Damascus that it could be next. And finally, in the wake of the Mehlis investigation the U.S. has pushed the U.N. Security Council for tougher punitive sanctions on Syria should its government fail to cooperate fully with the international community.
The U.S. is, de facto, treating Syria as a rogue state.
Traditionally, a state becomes “rogue” if it seeks to acquire weapons of mass destruction and supports terrorism. Syria does both. But is it accurate otherwise to characterize Syria as an irredeemable rogue state on par with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Iran and North Korea? And, more important, does it serve America’s interests to classify the Syrian regime in such a way that we are left with no constructive options?
I don’t think so, based on my personal experience in the country. Admittedly, what follows is a subjective view on a complicated situation, but I offer it as an alternative to the usual rhetoric.
I traveled to Syria in 2004 after graduating from college and spent the next year living, studying and teaching English and film in the capital of Damascus. I immersed myself in Syrian culture in a way that foreign journalists and most political observers cannot. And I had the rare opportunity to see the troubled nation up close, to get to know many of its people and hear their side of the story.
The essential problem in simplistically labeling Syria a “rogue state” springs from the immense diversity of Syria’s national character. More than most Arab nations, Syria is divided into numerous, shifting communities based on family, ethnicity, religion and even language. Armenian, Kurdish, Turkish and Arabic speakers have coexisted in Syria since ancient times, but few people know that Christian youth in Damascus use slang that they guard jealously from the Muslims next door. Or that scattered throughout Syria’s countryside are pockets of Jacobite Christians who still speak a version of Aramaic, the language of Jesus, and don’t consider themselves to be Arab at all.
Syria is home to the oldest continuously inhabited cities on Earth, and every major civilization since has left its mark. I had students with blue eyes and blond hair whose families go back hundreds of years, and among the rural communities of Syria it is quite common to find red hair and freckles. All of these different, historically rooted physical attributes make it nearly impossible to say what a “typical Syrian” looks like.
Ruling over this ancient, polymorphic society is a tiny Islamic minority of Alawis (an offshoot of Shiism), from which the Assad family descends. Alawis constitute less than 12% of the total population of Syria but fill most of the top government and military posts. They are a minority within a minority who came to power only 40 years ago, and as a result their regime enjoys only the narrowest legitimacy among a fractious population.
As I lived and studied and taught among the vast array of ethnic and confessional communities coexisting in Syria today, it became increasingly apparent how inadequate catch-all categorizations of Syria as rogue or anti-American really were. I witnessed the deepening mistrust of the U.S. media and government toward my host nation as if it were a monolithic entity inextricably opposed to America’s core values. My own father, knowledgeable about the Middle East, was so concerned about my safety as an American that he sent me a T-shirt that read, “I love Canada.”
I never felt the need to wear that shirt. My welcome among Damascenes was uniformly warm. In fact, I was continually surprised by just how much Syrians admire American culture and values in spite of their objections to specific U.S. policies. Syrian urban youth, especially, emulate Americans in the way they dress, the music they listen to and the movies they watch.
Syrians are able to access all of the American pop culture they want now that globalization and the information technology revolution have hit the Middle East. All the best (and worst) that Western civilization has to offer is on display, a vast realm of infinite possibilities that contrasts starkly with the limitations Syrians perceive in their own lives.
The information technology revolution in the Middle East has also meant that Syrians have become familiar with how they are perceived in the West. One day, an intelligent, unusually sensitive young former student of mine named Hassan asked me: “Why does America hate Syria? Do you really think that we’re all terrorists?” This was not the first or the last time that I was asked this question. Indeed, there seems to be a commonly held feeling among Syrians that we Americans look down on them all, that we cannot or will not see the important issues from their perspective and as a result don’t understand the way their societies work.
For example, the average Syrian would have no trouble answering many of the U.S. media’s and government’s most pressing questions about Syria’s political situation:
- Why can’t President Assad liberalize his nation’s economy from the top down, as has happened successfully in Eastern Europe, China and elsewhere? Simple: Because such a move would directly empower the Sunni urban elites who have traditionally dominated the private sector in Syria and have a history of challenging the Baath regime.
- Why can’t the Baath Party, a secular regime that brutally put down an Islamist revolt only 20 years ago, renounce support of Hezbollah and distance itself from the rogue theocracy in Iran? Because that would alienate the Shiites who make up a crucial part of their base. Like every ethnic and religious minority in Syria, the Alawi government elite has to hold fast to whatever allies it can claim. This also partly explains why Syria has courted the favor of other regimes deemed hostile to U.S. interests, such as the former USSR, Iran and post-Gulf War Iraq.
- Why can’t Syria rein in the insurgents who cross its borders every day to join the jihad in Iraq? Because the Syrian-Iraqi border is a 435-mile-long stretch of unbroken scrubby desert, and Syria lacks the technical resources and troop discipline necessary to patrol the area day and night. Tribes of Sunni merchants have operated trade and smuggling networks across the border for centuries, often aided by semiautonomous Syrian military units that get a cut of the profits, and any attempt to truly close down the border would likely trigger a fierce backlash from those whose livelihoods depend on access to Iraq.
President Assad describes his country as a “mosaic” of different ethnic and sectarian groups. It is an apt metaphor, one I personally heard Syrian friends use to describe their country, conveying the image of a delicate conglomeration of disparate ethnic and religious communities. Artificial boundary lines, a largely discredited Pan-Arab ideology and a ubiquitous domestic security apparatus are the only forces binding this mosaic together. President Assad has consistently asserted that the fragility of this mosaic and the catastrophic consequences that would ensue if it should fail militate against the kind of sweeping democratic reforms demanded by the West.
As far as I could tell, a great many Syrians seem to agree with President Assad on this point. They have seen the disastrous effects that sectarian conflict brought to their closest neighbors, Lebanon and Iraq, and know that the same essential cleavages which led to war in Lebanon and perpetuate the conflict in Iraq already exist deep within Syrian society. For this reason, reformists’ voices have often been drowned out by more numerous calls for internal stability, domestic security and the maintenance of the status quo. The alternative, they argue, would be civil war.
Furthermore, due to its self-proclaimed status as champion of the common Arab struggle, Syria’s internal stability has always been closely linked to that of its neighbors. Every coup, every revolution, every war in the Middle East neighborhood sends shockwaves through Damascus that prop up certain communities at the expense of others. To keep such regional disturbances from dictating the course of events inside Syria entirely, the Assad regime acts as a brutal police force, utilizing permanent “emergency laws” to enforce order from above.
It’s certainly a tradeoff-stability and security for basic freedoms-but one that many Syrians seem loath to make. Nearly all of my Syrian friends openly praised the fact that, though they couldn’t speak out against the regime or open a business without the support of a corrupt government bureaucracy, they could walk around any neighborhood in Damascus at any time of night without fear.
Syrians are also proud of the fact that theirs is a society almost completely devoid of many of the social ills endemic to the rest of the Arab world. Syria has no visible problem with homelessness, violent crime or drug abuse, and has not had to confront a domestic terrorism problem since 1982 when Hafez al-Assad put down an Islamist revolt by massacring thousands of his own rebellious citizens.
Bashar al-Assad has proven a skillful manipulator of public opinion, cultivating a modern, approachable, even kindhearted public image in contrast to the stern, old-fashioned reputation of his father. Bashar al-Assad has also let it be known that before becoming chief of state he was president of the Syrian Computer Society and considers himself to be a technocrat, an interest he picked up while studying ophthalmology in England. He has given interviews to numerous Western publications and announced his willingness to open a dialogue with the U.S. to address their shared concerns.
The extent to which Bashar al-Assad has managed to endear himself to large swaths of the population was made particularly evident during the pro-government demonstrations in Damascus last March. Some U.S. press reports suggested these were a put-up job arranged to counter the anti-Syrian protests in Lebanon after the assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri. Yet, wandering around the streets that day I observed what appeared to be powerful, genuine sentiment in greater abundance than anyone had expected. For the next couple of months nearly every store or car window in the city displayed a picture of the president with the encouraging words, “Kulna ma’ak, ya Bashar”: “We’re all with you, Bashar.” Similar demonstrations, accompanied by patriotic chart-toppers on the radio and even block parties, swept through Damascus again in mid-November after the president gave a particularly defiant speech in response to the U.N. Security Council’s demands for cooperation with the Mehlis investigation. These “rally-round-the-president” explosions of sentiment, no matter how well managed from above, undoubtedly reflect a legitimate, defensive solidarity among at least certain parts of the Syrian population.
Western media and politicians often talk at length about the general mood on the “Arab street.” They talk about the seething frustrations of a young population, chafing at the constraints placed upon it by repressive governments, eager for democratic experiment, yet often bitterly opposed to Western intervention. Having known Syrians of different ethnic and political backgrounds, I can confirm that many individuals do share such sentiments. But to generalize about the “mood on the Syrian street” as a whole is complete folly. Which street? Which part of Syria? What day is it? Did it rain? Has the price of gas gone up this month?
My own sense is this: Rather than treating Syria as a consistent whole with a particular national character and governed by a regime with a clearly-defined ideology, we ought to look at Syria as an intricately layered collection of many different subcultures competing with each other for representation. There are those Syrians who legitimately admire the Baath Party for its noble Pan-Arab ideals, its emphasis on Marxist social justice and its defiance of the West. There are those who do not buy into the Baath Party line but stand behind their president because his is the only office with the power and determination to hold the Syrian mosaic together. And of course there are those Syrians who reject all of these sentiments as delusional and self-serving and who would like nothing better than to see America really start to punish the Assad regime.
So what do all of these complex realities imply about the U.S. government’s decision to treat Syria as a rogue state? In my opinion, that the decision is fatally flawed.
Is Syria technically a rogue state? Yes. It both supports terrorist groups and has an arsenal of chemical weapons and warheads. But does Syria fit the larger, unofficial rubric of the ideologically driven, monolithic opponent of U.S. interests and values-a bold and flagrant rebel on an inevitable collision course with America? Clearly not.
Syrians are divided on all of the most basic questions of identity and ideology, many of them admire and want better relations with America, and President Assad himself has expressed his willingness to engage diplomatically with the U.S. It is clear both from his cultivated public persona and from his choices as Syria’s leader these past five years that Assad sees himself as essentially a pragmatist, charged with the difficult task of negotiating a middle path between the conservative, “old guard” forces that push for stability and the progressive forces that demand reform. He is neither entirely his father’s loyal son nor his people’s champion of progress, but rather just a relatively inexperienced leader struggling to please everyone.
Does this make Assad more engaging from a U.S. policy perspective? Absolutely. To treat Assad like a rogue agent leading a nation of true believers beyond the boundaries of civilized discourse is to miss a very real opportunity to help reshape a key Middle East player from the inside out. Assad is looking for an outside power to work with; his every action since inheriting the presidency has been aimed at bolstering his immature domestic position in any way possible.
Perhaps if U.S. policymakers took a closer look at the social dynamics at work in Syria today they would see that Syria’s most problematic behaviors are not the result of an arrogant, rejectionist dogma in the vein of Libya, Cuba and other classic rogue states. Rather, Syria’s perceived belligerence is the product of a fundamental insecurity about its national cohesiveness in the face of overwhelming sectarian trends and the too-rapid onset of globalization. Both Syria’s and the United States’ best interests would be served by a policy of reengagement based on a framework of clearly defined sticks and carrots that lays out the essential concerns of both nations.
Tyler Golson is a master’s candidate in Arab studies at Georgetown University.
—Best book on modern Syria, Bashar al-Assad:
“Inheriting Syria: Bashar’s Trial by Fire,” Flynt Leverett
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