Syrian President Bashar al-Assad keeps making all the wrong moves. In a recent interview with ABC’s Barbara Walters, the former doctor sounded more like a butcher – and a heartless one at that. He lied and deflected questions. He made light of a dire situation. He rejected international conventions and global standards on news reporting, fact verification, human rights baselines, and political legitimacy. He refused to accept responsibility for any of the bloodshed, citing a lack of control over the military and other state institutions, but inconsistently claimed that his stewardship would be an indispensable part of tomorrow’s Syria.
At one point, with a slip of the tongue, Assad told the truth. That was his greatest blunder of all.
“It’s just a game we play,” Assad said, trying to explain why Syria participates in the United Nations when his regime believes the organization lacks credibility. Assad unwittingly revealed much more: the duplicity that is – and always has been – at the heart of his fragile regime’s world-view.
Of course, all policy involves some level of duplicity (certainly at the United Nations). Leaders around the world use misinformation, diplomatic gymnastics, rhetorical techniques, and outright lies. In theory, duplicity is a tool that sometimes allows leaders to pursue broader, ostensibly noble, objectives. For example, a leader might lie or conceal truths while preventing a terrorist attack, deploying armed forces, or preserving the integrity of the financial system or banking sector. When the livelihood of millions hangs in the balance, and regardless of policy choices, duplicity may be necessary.
In Assad’s Syria, however, duplicity is the essential – and, sometimes, only – aspect of an insular cabal’s survival strategy. The ends are not noble; the means are not varied. Time and again, in various settings, the Assad regime’s games have had destructive consequences for millions of people, not least of all in Syria itself.
Most tragically, the Assad regime has duped its own people and “informed observers” by portraying Bashar as a young reformer held hostage by a corrupt and stifling old system. How absurd. The man inherited an entire country and has killed thousands to keep it. He rose through the ranks because of nepotism, maintained a support base because of corruption and an unseemly marriage of political and business interests, and trumpeted secularism as a cloak for Alawite rule.
Glaringly, for a regime that sells itself as a laboratory of Arab nationalism, military resistance, and rejectionism, Syrian duplicity has resulted in a peculiar relationship with Israel. In Syria’s parliament and in front of the domestic press, Assad has routinely blasted the “Zionist entity,” touted outdated notions of “strategic parity,” and proclaimed his country’s desire to liberate the Golan Heights “by force if necessary.” All the while, of course, Syria has engaged in peace talks with the Israelis, knowing full well that diplomacy is the only path forward.
In short, Assad is unable to confront Israel and unwilling to commit to peace. Why? Because war would expose Syria’s weakness abroad and peace would expose its weakness at home. In truth, the Assad regime has benefited greatly from Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights. With nothing to offer in terms of innovation, economic development, or political reform, the regime has cultivated fear of an Israeli bogeyman, made periodic noises about the Golan, and staved off dissent under the banner of resistance.
Syria has been especially duplicitous with its neighbors, Lebanon and Iraq. In Lebanon, the Assad regime used assassinations, beatings, jailings, and “disappearances” to intimidate the Lebanese people. With tens of thousands of troops and intelligence operatives in the country, the regime monopolized Lebanese foreign policy, exploited lucrative real estate, banking, and “semi-formal” sectors, and put a lid on political pluralism that it viewed as a potential source of dissent in Damascus.
After of decades of occupying the place, Syria was forced out of Lebanon in 2005. Since then, while promising to respect Lebanon’s sovereignty, the Assad regime has continued to facilitate Iran’s arming of Hizbullah, refused to delineate any borders, interfered in local politics as a matter of right, and done nothing to reassure the Lebanese that it no longer views their country as “the alleged entity.”
The Assad “games” in Iraq have been just as harmful. This is not to ignore the devastating consequences of the U.S. invasion of 2003, but to say that the Syrian response was disingenuous and equally damaging. Professing a desire to cooperate on borders, insurgents, and the Lebanon file, the Assad regime actively derailed progress on those issues. The regime blatantly did nothing to secure any of its borders, may have allowed guerillas and terrorists to train in Syria, and certainly granted insurgents passage through the country to Iraq. (Conveniently, Iraq and northern Lebanon provided Syria with avenues to rid itself of many Islamists it saw as threatening to the regime.)
On the international stage, as Assad basically admitted, Syria has been thoroughly two-faced. Trumpeting its participation in international organizations, the Assad regime has disrupted and dodged two ongoing probes into suspected behavior in clear violation of established international law. First, the Assad regime has repeatedly stiff-armed a judicial investigation into its suspected involvement in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri. (Hizbullah, too, may be involved.) Second, the Syrians have dragged their feet on an International Atomic Energy Agency investigation of a covert nuclear reactor project in northern Syria. (Incidentally, the Israelis bombed the facility, which they allege was a nuclear reactor, without so much as a peep from the Assad regime.)
At present, the regime must contend with the reality that most Syrians have rejected the status quo. To be sure, the Assad regime may cling to power for a while by crushing the opposition, persisting amid local and regional challenges, or emerging as a key actor after a protracted conflict. Be that as it may, the illusions are gone.
After decades of playing with house money, the regime appears to be losing. But at what price?