Speechless in Bashar Assad’s Syria


To capture the essence of the Syrian regime’s behavior today, a very useful place to start is W. H. Auden’s poem “August 1968,” whose theme is the Soviet suppression of the Prague Spring.

“The Ogre does what ogres can,/Deeds quite impossible for Man,/But one prize is beyond his reach,/The Ogre cannot master Speech:/About a subjugated plain, Among its desperate and slain,/The Ogre stalks with hands on hips,/While drivel gushes from his lips.”

It was, indeed, an inarticulate Syrian ogre that greeted the decision of the Arab League, traditionally a generous assemblage of ogres, to suspend Syria’s membership in the organization. And the drivel has come in the form of indignant statements by Syrian ambassadors and officials; but also in the mob attacks against diplomatic missions, a reminder of how frequently the Assad regime, that of father and son, has targeted foreign envoys to make its displeasure known.

Were it not for the fact that President Bashar Assad, with his family and close comrades, is steadily transporting Syria toward civil war because he refuses to leave office, we could derive grim satisfaction from the incoherence in Damascus. For once the explicit thuggishness, the feigned outrage to mask the shameless deceitfulness, the apocalyptic warnings, are failing to have an impact. Assad has misled several times too often, and, finally, his credibility has evaporated.

And yet we tend to forget that the Syrians had their way for decades by deploying precisely those methods. Their fury comes from the realization that their act, the single act that Syria’s regime has learned, is boring the audience. To gain Arab attention, Assad must take steps to further intensify the violence against his own population. He hopes to provoke an all-out sectarian conflagration that polarizes opinion, thereby creating a frightening enemy, in that way, perhaps, recouping for his regime much of its lost support. And yet a sectarian conflict is precisely what the Arab states wish to avert, and Assad must sense, with the example of Moammar Gadhafi still fresh in his mind, that a civil war really can go either way for an autocrat clinging to power.

Where Assad is right is in realizing that the Arab League plan that he was offered represents a roundabout way of getting rid of him. The liberation of tens of thousands of prisoners and the withdrawal from Syrian cities of the army and security forces would make irrelevant any dialogue with the opposition, another facet of the Arab plan. Once the streets are in the hands of the protesters, there will be no dialogue whatsoever; only an irrepressible drive to tear down Assad rule.

Here are the stark options that Syria’s leadership have left for itself: Either crush the intifada or be crushed. From day one the Assads responded to the rolling unrest with gunfire and sham concessions. No one was duped, just as no one was duped the first, second and third time Syrian officials, including Assad himself, pronounced the uprising over. It is remarkable how the vernacular of the Syrian regime is shaped by claims diametrically opposed to reality: that peaceful protesters are “armed groups”; that the engine of reform has started, even as the death toll climbs; that sanctions will never work, when Syria is that rare example of a place where sanctions may work.

How familiar this sounds for those Lebanese who remember Assad’s actions six and seven years ago. Here was the Syrian leader in summer 2004, insulting our intelligence by serenely telling an Arab newspaper that it was the Lebanese who would decide whether to extend Emile Lahoud’s mandate. That was before Assad issued his threat in person to Rafik Hariri, instructing him to vote in favor of the extension, or else.

And there was Assad in March 2005, two weeks after Hariri’s assassination, explaining to the gaggle of sycophants Syria calls a parliament, that he would redeploy his soldiers in Lebanon toward the Syrian border. No mention was made of whether they would cross to the other side, because the president hoped to avoid such an outcome. He expected Hezbollah’s intimidatory rally of March 8, three days after his address, to silence his Lebanese foes. And when a Syrian pullout did come, because March 8 brought on the massive anti-Syrian demonstration of March 14, it came sullenly and surreptitiously, in the night, a bad-tempered signal that Assad would do everything to return.

The mendacity, the arrogance, the condescension, the surreal levels of criminality, have all been in full view these past months, as the Assads have slaughtered their people without flinching. The Arab states gave the Syrian regime ample time to stifle the dissension, until they saw that Bashar Assad was going to lose anyway. Panic has set in as the intifada veers toward a Sunni-Alawite war, which would have dire repercussions for Syria’s neighbors, and the Arab world in general.

One should have faith. A people that has mostly avoided resorting to arms though eight months of carnage, is one wise to the ways of its tormentors. Syrians have the Assads to thank for that. Having endured for four decades the whims of two sordid families, they know what to expect. See through the bully, and you’re on your way to deflating him. Assad dreams of containing the Syrian intifada and imposing a bogus reform project that consolidates his authority; but to many Syrians he is simply irrelevant. Recognition of that fact was implied in the advice of King Abdullah of Jordan that Bashar Assad step down.

It is difficult to predict what will happen next in Syria. But the Assad order has been stripped down to its carcass, left only with the brutality of Alawite solidarity, fortified by mounting Arab isolation. The ogre is stammering, meaning the end cannot be too far off.

Michael Young is opinion editor of THE DAILY STAR and author of “The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon’s Life Struggle.” He tweets @BeirutCalling.

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