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Assad the Orientalist

Assad the Orientalist

Banner of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad hangs in Damascus / Reuters

An interview with the embattled Syrian President Bashar al-Assad appeared in the Sunday edition of the London newspaper The Daily Telegraph, the President’s first with the foreign press since protests broke out across Syria some eight months ago.

In his exchange with the English journalist Andrew Gilligan, Assad mounted a defense of his own rule in terms that have become familiar over the last few years.

Contemptuously brushing aside the recently-formed Syrian National Council (in Arabic), whose claims to “really represent Syrians” he queried, Assad portrayed the regime over which he presides as the only available choice for Syria.

Asserting the role of his family as guardians of secularism, engaged in a longstanding battle with the forces of religious obscurantism, he described the current stand-off between opposition and regime as the product of a decades-old “struggle between Islamism and pan-Arabism.” As he put it, “We’ve been fighting the Muslim Brotherhood since the 1950s and we are still fighting with them.”

Worse still, he insisted any attempt to remove the Assad regime would result in a ruinous regional conflagration. As he explained, in words that echoed the longstanding Baath party line that Syria is the “beating heart of Arabism,” “Syria is the hub […] in this region […] It is the fault line, and if you play with the ground you will cause an earthquake.” Addressing a West wary of war and still worried by the threat of terror, he asked “do you want to see another Afghanistan, or tens of Afghanistans?” and insisted that “any problem in Syria will burn the whole region. If the plan is to divide Syria, that is to divide the whole region.”

These are familiar claims, and ones that – as Assad well knows – play to both Western and Middle Eastern audiences.

On the one hand, they resonate with US, European, and Israeli fears that any change to the status quo in Syria might upset a precarious regional balance – and allow resurgent Islamists to gain the upper hand in any post-Baath power vacuum.

On the other hand, they strike a chord with Arab suspicions of a long line of Western interventions in the region, from the conflicting commitments and territorial schemes of Britain and France in the Great War, to the 2003 occupation of Iraq.

It is no coincidence that Assad should have spoken of the “division” of the region. His words are a deliberate echo of those of allies like Sayyid Hasan Nasrallah, the leader of Hizballah, who has repeatedly spoken of a nefarious “project for the new Middle East,” in which the region would be divided up into confessional statelets, the better to accommodate the continued existence of Israel as a Jewish state.

There is no small paradox in this. For Assad, on the one hand, scorns the idea of a Middle Eastern state system founded on confessional distinctions, presenting himself as the champion of a secular nationalism that pays little heed to sectarian difference.

And yet, on the other, he portrays himself as the arbiter of a society riven by ethnic and religious divisions, and held together only by the will of a state benevolently extending its protection to its minorities.

This is a vision that echoes old Orientalist conceptions of the East as a mosaic of irreconcilable creeds and peoples. It is one all too willingly accepted by both Western observers who portray Syria as an island of tolerance in a sea of secular animosities, and by those among Assad’s own citizens who fear the prospect of Syria becoming another Lebanon or Iraq, engulfed in the flames of sectarian war. As one person interviewed by Gilligan in the streets of Damascus told him: “I don’t like Assad, but I am worried that what follows could be worse.”

For all its internal contradictions, Assad’s message remains unambiguous. Like an old regime monarch, he declares “après moi le déluge;” leave me in power, or face the parlous consequences…

But not all was sound and fury in Assad’s statements. The Syrian president combined his imprecations with a note of apparent contrition, noting that the Syrian security services made “many mistakes” in the early stages of the protest movement.

This admission of wrong-doing is not quite what it seems. Not only do Assad’s words somehow suggest that any bloodshed was inadvertent, an unfortunate breach of ordinary procedure. They also seek to create the impression that the regime has now mended its ways, and that its actions are currently aimed only at cracking down on a minority of “terrorists” seeking to destabilize the country. And, finally, they absolve Assad himself of all blame, suggesting that any responsibility lay with the country’s proliferating security apparatus, rather than the President himself, who had remained steadfast in his commitment to peaceful reform.

Portraying himself as a natural moderate, intent on overhauling the regime he inherited from his father, Hafiz, he insisted that he had avoided the “road of stubborn government,” commencing “reform” “six days after [the protests began].”

To buttress these claims, he presented himself as every bit the blue-jean wearing everyman, a Syrian David Cameron or Barack Obama. Receiving Gilligan in what the latter described as a “relatively small house in a normal – albeit guarded – street,” Assad declared: “I live a normal life. I drive my own car, we have neighbors, I take my kids to school.” In doing so, he drew an implicit contrast between what Gilligan called his “modest lifestyle” and the grandiose, vulgar, ways of deposed Middle Eastern rulers like Muammar al-Qaddafi, Husni Mubarak, Zinedine Ben Ali and, indeed, Saddam Hussein, with their private jets and ostentatious palaces.

Together, Assad claimed, his modesty and readiness for reform were what made him “popular” among his own people. As he put it, “people were skeptical that the reforms were an opiate for the people, but when we started announcing the reforms, the problems started decreasing… This is when the tide started to turn. This is when people started supporting the government…” But, just as important, he insisted, was his “personal life.” This, as he put it, was the “first component of popular legitimacy;” it is the “Syrian style” to live modestly, Assad explained to Gilligan, and his people appreciated his adherence to their ways.

This “popular legitimacy,” not “legitimacy according to elections,” is what really matters, Assad insisted; “if you do not have popular legitimacy, whether you are elected or not you will be removed – look at all the coups we had,” he went on, referring to the turbulent years that followed Syria’s independence from France in the 1940s.

This was not just a nod to the pro-regime demonstrations organized in Damascus in recent weeks, which some have seen as a spontaneous response to the rise of opposition violence elsewhere in the country, and others as orchestrated by a regime that has hardly proved averse to such grandstanding propaganda in the past.

It was also a way of suggesting that the demands of the protesters in Hums, Hama, and other cities across Syria, and their Western supporters, for democratic elections and a multi-party system were ill-founded.

Democracy, Assad intimated, mattered little in Syria. What really counted was the support of the populace – and that, the president retained.

There was little point, Assad explained to Gilligan, in hoping for a Western-style democratic system of government in Syria. One needed to understand that his country simply did not bear comparison with Britain or the United States. To compare his mode of governing with that of these states “was like comparing a Mac with a PC:” “both computers do the same job,” as he put it, “but they don’t understand each other.”

Belying with this analogy his earlier life as the head of the Syrian Computer Society, Assad did not let slip which side he favored in the great Mac vs PC debate, showing little inclination to support Steve Jobs’ Syrian background.

But he did show an Orientalist insistence upon the differences between Syria and the West. Stretching his computing analogy to its limits, he reiterated: “if you want to analyze me as the East, you cannot analyze me through the Western operating system, or culture. You have to translate according to my operating system, or culture.”

With these words, Assad echoed familiar tropes of the irremediable distinctions between the West and an Orient whose mysterious ways elude European understanding, and which operates according to conventions utterly alien to observers misguided enough to believe that it might one day achieve modes of government comparable to those that prevail elsewhere in the world.

His message to the West was clear: best not to meddle with something you don’t understand, if you want to avoid ruinous consequences. Democracy is not for everyone; for some, a President who does the school run and wears jeans on Fridays is enough, so let me deal with my people the way they expect, and I know.

As he has been doing since his accession to power in 2000, Assad sought in his remarks published Sunday to prevaricate, reassuring Western observers that change will, eventually, come – and that he is the only figure capable of steering Syria towards reform.

But, as time wears on, the toll of fatalities rises, and the prospect of an end to the deadlock seems ever more elusive, these are words which ring increasingly hollow. In the terse words of one opposition member from the city of Hums, which has become the epicenter of the protest movement in recent months: “killing people is not an act of reform.”



Andrew Arsan

Andrew Arsan is currently a Post-Doctoral Research Associate in Near Eastern Studies at Princeton University. A historian of Lebanon and the Lebanese diaspora, he divides his time between the United States, the United Kingdom, and the Middle East.