The Syrian Dilemma

The Syrian Dilemma

The retreat from Lebanon threatens the survival of the regime in Damascus.



ONE ARAB NATION WITH AN ETERNAL MISSION: BAATH PARTY, SMASHER OF ARTIFICIAL FRONTIERS. Till not so long ago, this was the slogan emblazoned across a triumphal archway under which travelers passed at the Lebanese-Syrian frontier. It was a relic of that turbulent, post-independence era when revolutionary nationalist movements, bent on restoring the “Arab nation” to its former greatness, took power in various countries. No country was more central to this than Syria, the “beating heart” of Arabism, and no movement more than Syria’s progeny, the Baath, or Renaissance, Party.

Since the 1950s Syria has embarked on countless, ultimately abortive unionist projects with other Arab states. None of them, oddly, involved the country that was closest to it–not at least until, in 1976, its army crossed the most “artificial” of its colonially drawn borders and, in what it portrayed as its pan-Arab duty, sought to rescue Lebanon from the civil war into which it had fallen. Thus began the overlordship, the far-reaching political, economic and institutional penetration of one Arab country by another, in which everyone–America, Israel, the Arabs–eventually acquiesced. Yet still the frontier post, odious symbol of Arab fragmentation, remained obstinately there; and eventually the decaying archway that supposedly heralded its disappearance disappeared itself, giving way to a new complex of immigration buildings and a duty-free emporium adorned not with unionist slogans but with ads for Dunkin’ Donuts.

When, soon after the February assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, widely assumed to have been carried out by Syrian agents, I crossed that frontier, it had become more than just a standing reproach to Arabism; it was symbolic not merely of the Arabs’ failure to unite but of the tearing asunder of the little degree to which they had. Normally teeming, it was almost deserted. Lebanese were uneasy about going to Syria. Syrians were positively fearful of going to Lebanon, where they have been insulted and assaulted, their residences attacked, a reported thirty of them murdered.

If assassinations sometimes accelerate history, Hariri’s brutal, spectacular, but popularly unifying demise was surely one of them. At a stroke it unleashed, in a great and very public torrent, all the anti-Syrian sentiments that had been surreptitiously building over the years.

Ever-growing street demonstrations, unprecedented in modern Arab history, culminated in one on March 14 that drew perhaps a million people, a quarter of the population, to Beirut’s Martyrs’ Square. Not just the numbers were impressive; so was their composition. In this multi-confessional country, it was, if anything, a triumph over confessionalism. The people by and large stood in one trench, their Syrian-controlled rulers in another; that, not confessional antagonism, was now the fault line principally defining the course of events. True, one sect, the Shiites, was heavily underrepresented, and the Shiite resistance movement Hezbollah had earlier staged a huge–yet smaller, more regimented, essentially single-sect and tactically motivated–“pro-Syrian” rally of its own. No less true, however, the Sunni Muslim community now threw its full weight behind the hitherto mainly Christian and Druse opposition, the significance of that being that it was traditionally Sunnis, not Shiites, who chiefly stood for Lebanon’s pan-Arab nationalist identity and looked to Syria to sustain them. But at bottom it was Lebanon’s silent majority–of all classes, sects and stations–who had their say on March 14. And at bottom what they said was: Give us our independence, dignity and freedom back again.

For the Baathists it was surely the death throes of One Arab Nation. Here they were, its historic standard-bearers, being reviled and driven back across that “artificial” frontier from the one Arab state where they had had the means and opportunity, in their fashion, to implement it. But history may one day judge it to have marked the birth of something new. As Lebanese columnist Samir Kassir put it: “The Arab nationalist cause has shrunk into the single aim of getting rid of the regimes of terrorism and coups, and regaining the people’s freedom as a prelude to the new Arab renaissance. It buries the lie that despotic systems can be the shield of nationalism. Beirut has become the ‘beating heart’ of a new Arab nationalism.”

In its basic impulses, this was indeed a strictly Arab, and inter-Arab, affair. But where does it fit into the great debate about the degree to which America is contributing to the winds of change in the region? Certainly, at least, George W. Bush could rejoice at this timely convergence of “people power”–massive, authentic, homegrown–with his global crusade for “freedom and democracy.” So could his Administration’s neoconservative hawks, for whom, soulmates of Israel’s Likud, the pan-Arab nationalism of the Baath is the very antithesis of Zionism and its inherent drive to keep the “Arab Nation” fragmented, weak and doomed, in the end, to make peace with Israel on Likudnik terms. The neocons have long targeted Syria as a prime candidate in their grand design for regime change throughout the region, an objective that Congress’s latest “Lebanon and Syria Liberation” bill endorses in all but name. And compared with that other candidate for regime change, Iran, Syria is a temptingly “low-hanging fruit,” as some in Washington put it, and probably harvestable by merely political, not military, means. No wonder Bush so smartly joined the Lebanese opposition in almost daily and peremptory demands for full and immediate withdrawal of Syrian troops and intelligence services.

This sudden and overwhelming confluence of the local and the international, the spontaneous and the long-envisaged, has shaken the Baathist regime, so much so that some in Damascus now feel that its end is only a matter of time. “Total defeat in Lebanon,” said leading dissident Michel Kilo, “will mean defeat at home.”

To be sure, Syria is not defeated yet. Even as its forces redeploy and some withdraw altogether, it is still sustaining Lebanon’s president, Emile Lahoud, and his puppet administration without them. So far Hezbollah, now agonizingly torn between its pan-Arab, jihadist imperatives and increasingly irreconcilable Lebanese ones, remains potently, if very uncomfortably, at Syria’s service. And soon after Syrian secret police departed Beirut, car bombs began to go off in Christian neighborhoods. Were these, Lebanese asked, Syria’s opening shots in the manufacture of a scenario long hinted at? Namely, that if the world pushes Syria to leave Lebanon, the world will soon come begging it to return as Lebanon, sliding back into civil war, begins to look like another Iraq, another paradise for militants and terrorists of all kinds.

That remains to be seen. But even without such desperate expedients, Syria’s extraordinary resolve to keep its faltering grip on Lebanon and the brutally coercive methods it has used are already evidence enough of how vitally important it deems Lebanon to be. “Along with the command economy and the apparatus of repression,” said Louai Hussein, a Syrian commentator, “control of Lebanon was one of three main pillars on which [the late] President Hafez al-Assad built his power and prestige.” In fact, Syria’s rulers always instinctively strive for greater regional influence than the resources of Syria alone can command. They exploit their regional “cards” in a continuous quest to advance their interests–which now boil down to securing their mere survival in the new, US-dominated Middle East order. Iraq is such a card, hence the repeated recriminations over what Syria is, or perhaps isn’t, doing to help the anti-American insurgency there. Palestine is another, hence persistent American charges that Syria is “unhelpful” to the peace process, or Israeli ones that Palestinian suicide bombers get their orders from Damascus.

In a long-eroding regional hand, Lebanon, and its complete and exclusive hegemony there, is Syria’s only remaining trump. It is Syria’s front line, its arena of proxy war, its substitute for the military confrontation with Israel that–given its vast military inferiority–it could never risk directly from its own territory. Hezbollah is the formidable instrument of this proxy war; quiescent at the moment, it is ready and waiting to offer what, in some great showdown, Iran or Syria might require of it: its jihadist zeal, its guerrilla prowess and, according to Israel, the thousands of upgraded long-range missiles it could rain down on Israeli cities.

Economically, Lebanon is Syria’s milch cow, such a cornucopia of extortion, racketeering and diversion of public funds that the distribution of the spoils–authoritatively put at about a billion dollars a year–among the Baathist oligarchy is said to be a factor in the stability of the regime. Lebanon is also the place where up to a million ordinary Syrians, facing at least 20 percent (and rising) unemployment in their own country, find illicit, low-paid work, or did so until, after Hariri’s murder, they started fleeing in sizable, if unknown, numbers.

Perhaps even more dangerous to Syrian Baathism than the loss of this priceless Lebanese asset would be the potential domino effect inside Syria of the Lebanese “people power” that chiefly brought it about. First there were elections in Iraq and Palestine, which, however flawed, showed Syrians the shaming fact that Arabs enjoy more electoral choice if they are occupied than if they are sovereign. Then came this huge, unscheduled outbreak of popular self-assertion in a country where an Arab sister-state, not an Israeli or American occupier, is in charge.

And could any Syrians fail to grasp that what the Lebanese were rising up against was not (despite some ugly, chauvinist side effects) Syria itself but the extension, on Lebanese soil, of what they themselves more drastically endure at home? That is to say, the oppressions of a once-revolutionary new order that has long since betrayed its three great founding principles, pan-Arab unity, freedom and socialism. Like the now-defunct Soviet-style, single-party “people’s republics” on which it was largely modeled, this Baathist order has lost all true legitimacy, sunk as it is in the most cancerous corruption, minority sectarian rule, intellectual and technical backwardness, bureaucratic ossification, abuse of law and human rights, imperviousness to dissent or criticism.

Syrians also know that those who brought the Syrian presence in Lebanon to its disastrous pass are the same people–the so-called “old guard,” shadowy power centers in the army and intelligence services–who have brought fear to their own lives these past forty years, as well as blocked all reform and democratization. It is no surprise that Syria’s dissident intelligentsia identify entirely with Lebanon’s democratic uprising; call, like it, for full Syrian withdrawal; and use the international publicity the uprising has brought to dramatize their own campaign for human rights and civil liberties, a campaign whose most visible form is small snap demonstrations, outside courts or prisons, whenever opportunity arises.

But the Syrians aren’t going to rise up like the Lebanese–not yet, anyway. Long repressed, they don’t have the organized opposition or the strong residue of democratic traditions that the “Syrianization” of Lebanon never snuffed out. And the barrier of fear, always much higher than in Lebanon, remains strongly in place. “Hariri’s murder,” said a dissident who had no doubt about its authorship, “was a savage warning to us as much as to the Lebanese.” Yet weak though it may be, and still confined largely to the intelligentsia, small political groups and human rights activists, the opposition is certainly gaining ground on a regime that is in little better shape itself, rattled and insecure as it is behind the despot’s characteristic facade of lofty self-confidence, loyalist street demonstrations and the portrayal of obvious reverses as great achievements in the onward people’s march.

Syrians find it hard to imagine that with Lebanon and all the domestic, regional and international pressures it has unleashed, President Bashar al-Assad doesn’t realize he must do something–and do it decisively–to guard his regime, or even his country, against the gathering perils. But in this aptly dubbed “dictatorship without a dictator,” has he the means, or the will? Whereas his late father, Hafez, was absolute master of what he had built, Bashar often seems more like its prisoner, forever torn between two alternative courses, reform or reaction, liberalization or repression, reaching out to the people as his source of authority or falling back on his old guard. Thus, on coming to power a few years ago, he initiated the “Damascus Spring,” only to rein it in when, timid though it was, he thought it was going too far.

Such alternatives now confront him more starkly than ever. He can either make a clean break with Lebanon, purge the old guard, open wide the doors to domestic reform and appease America and the world; or he can cling to Lebanon by any means, bow to the old guard, revert to full-scale repression and defy the world. What he will probably try to do is essentially what he always has done: make no clear choice, temporize, hope that something turns up. But with his authority steadily fraying, both within his apparatus and in the country at large, how long can it be before someone, somewhere, decides it is time to rescue the regime–or overthrow it? These are the kinds of questions now being asked by Syrians, whose yearning for change is tempered only by fear of the way–liable to be tumultuous at best, civil war at worst–it might come about, and what would come after.

Not the least of the great imponderables is what America’s role and objectives might be. The homily that a typical liberal, secular-modernist dissident might address to President Bush would go something like this:

In principle we like your “freedom and democracy” and think that what you’ve been doing in the Middle East has, by accident or design, given a push in that direction. But the bad things your country does still so far outweigh the potentially good that the last thing reformists like us need is to be identified with you, especially if you or Israel physically attack us. For we know that whatever you do it is Israel’s wishes, not ours, that concern you. And we fear that you really do take seriously your Israeli friend Natan Sharansky–the right-wing fanatic who inspires your speeches–and his preposterous theory that only when Arabs are democratic will they be ready for peace with Israel. No, we want democracy because it will serve our national interest far better than a despotic regime whose nationalism is just a cover to suppress democracy. And so long as your policies remain what they are, our national interest will be to oppose them. But in any case, if one day we do have free elections here, it won’t be the likes of us who win them but–thanks largely to you–the Islamists.

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