It should have come as no surprise that when Syria’s President Bashar el Assad finally opened his mouth to speak to his nation, it was the same old rubbish. No word of lifting the state of emergency that has stifled Syria for almost 50 years. No real impetus for reform. Lots of creepy references to shadowy “enemies.” And none of the “reassurance” that Syria’s state-run SANA had predicted for the speech. Why would Bashar reform? His future is certain, and for him, it’s a binary sort between the presidential palace and the gallows.
It might have been different. When Bashar came to office after his father’s death, many (and many, many at the State Department) thought he would be the breath of fresh air that Syria needed. He was reportedly interested in the Internet, in slowly opening the country, in taking Syria forward. But on further reflection, it appeared that Assad was actually more interested in maintaining power. Family habits die hard, and it’s hard to disagree with the way the young dictator came to see things. The Assads are despised. Theirs is a cruel family, with a vicious coterie of Alawite thugs around them. They are killers, in contrast to many of the thieves and autocrats around them in the Arab world. (The Assads come from the Gaddafi/Saddam tradition of regional dictatorship.) There was no gracious way out.
For the same reasons that Assad pere et fils could never sue for peace with Israel—the raison d’etre of their dictatorship would evaporate—Bashar cannot loosen his grip on power. The Syrian people have staggered under asinine economic policies, ruthless political oppression, and their leaders’ penchant for supporting terrorism, pursuing a nuclear program, and general servility to Iran. But the Sunnis of Syria are entrepreneurs, with a vibrant culture, diverse politics, marginal interest in indentured servitude to Iran… well, I could go on. A small opening would inevitably have meant the end for the Assads. So they decided against a small opening.
Now the people of Syria are making that opening for themselves. No thanks to the United States, of course. But then again, that’s also what we’re learning is the norm in this Arab Spring. Libya, as President Obama and Secretary Clinton have told us, is the exception, not the rule.
Image by watchsmart.