[Marxism] His Position Still Secure, Bashar al-Assad Smiles as Syria Burns

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Sat Sep 17 08:31:11 MDT 2016


NY Times, Sept. 17 2016
His Position Still Secure, Bashar al-Assad Smiles as Syria Burns
By BEN HUBBARD

BEIRUT, Lebanon — On the day after his 51st birthday, Bashar al-Assad, 
the president of Syria, took a victory lap through the dusty streets of 
a destroyed and empty rebel town that his forces had starved into 
submission.

Smiling, with his shirt open at the collar, he led officials in dark 
suits past deserted shops and bombed-out buildings before telling a 
reporter that — despite a cease-fire announced by the United States and 
Russia — he was committed “to taking back all areas from the 
terrorists.” When he says terrorists, he means all who oppose him.

More than five years into the conflict that has shattered his country, 
displaced half its population and killed hundreds of thousands of 
people, Mr. Assad denies any responsibility for the destruction.

Instead, he presents himself as a reasonable head of state and the sole 
unifier who can end the war and reconcile Syria’s people.

That insistence, which he has clung to for years even as his forces hit 
civilians with gas attacks and barrel bombs, is a major impediment to 
sustaining a cease-fire, let alone ending the war.

The new cease-fire, less than a week old, is already tenuous, with 
attacks resuming across the country and aid meant for besieged residents 
of Aleppo, Syria’s largest city, still stuck at the Turkish border.

It has also made Mr. Assad a central paradox of the war: He is secure 
and kept in place by foreign backers as his country splinters, although 
few see the war ending and Syria being put back together as long as he 
stays.

Although he remains a pariah to the West, and scores of militant groups 
continue to fight to oust him, even his opponents acknowledge that he 
has navigated his way out of the immediate threats to his rule, making 
the question of his fate an intractable dilemma.

The rebels are unlikely to stop fighting as long as the man they blame 
for the majority of the war’s deaths remains.

But fear of what might emerge if Mr. Assad is ousted has deterred many 
Syrians from joining the insurrection and may have helped prevent 
countries like the United States from acting more forcefully against him.

The result has been a crushing stalemate. Mr. Assad’s standing as leader 
of Syria is diminished — and yet stable.

“The problem is that he cannot win, and at the same time he is not 
losing,” said Samir Altaqi, the director of the Orient Research Center 
in Dubai. “But at the end of the day, what is left of Syria? He is still 
the leader, but he lost the state.”

Indeed, recent events give the impression that Mr. Assad has succeeded 
in muddling through, without being held accountable.

August came and went with little mention of the anniversary of the 
chemical attacks by his forces that killed more than 1,000 people in 2013.

Turkey, a key backer of the rebels, dropped its demand that he leave 
power immediately, and the United States has stopped calling for his 
removal.

And the day before Mr. Assad’s birthday on Sept. 11, for which his 
supporters created a fawning website, the United States and Russia 
announced a new cease-fire agreement with surprising benefits for Mr. Assad.

Besides making no mention of his political future, the agreement brought 
together one of his greatest foes, the United States, with one of his 
greatest allies, Russia, to bomb the jihadists who threaten his rule.

Years ago, few assumed that Mr. Assad would join the ranks of the 
world’s bloodiest dictators.

Self-effacing and educated as an ophthalmologist, he had not planned on 
a political career but was summoned from London by his father and 
predecessor, Hafez Assad, when the heir apparent, Bashar’s elder 
brother, Bassel, died in a car accident in 1994.

After Bashar succeeded his father as president in 2000, many hoped he 
would reform the country.

But those hopes dwindled, evaporating entirely with the start of the 
Arab Spring uprisings in 2011, when Mr. Assad sought to quell initially 
peaceful protests with overwhelming violence.

The conflict escalated from there.

Despite widespread opposition to his rule, a combination of factors has 
enabled Mr. Assad to persevere, analysts say. His foes have remained 
divided and have failed to convince many Syrians, especially religious 
minorities, that they would protect their rights or run the country 
better than Mr. Assad.

As continuous battles have ground down his forces, Mr. Assad has been 
the beneficiary of significant military support from Iran, Russia and 
Lebanon’s Hezbollah — aid much more significant than what the United 
States and its allies have given the rebels.

And the rise of jihadist organizations like the Islamic State and the 
Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front, recently renamed the Levant Conquest 
Front, have led many Syrians and some of Mr. Assad’s international 
opponents to conclude that he is the lesser evil. While he may be brutal 
to his people, the thinking goes, he does not directly threaten the West.

His victory tour on Monday showcased the desolation of the town of 
Daraya, a longtime rebel stronghold whose remaining residents were bused 
out last month after an extended siege by government forces.

In videos released by the Syrian government, Mr. Assad arrived in town 
driving his own car, a silver Subaru; fidgeted though a sermon praising 
him for protecting Syria; and performed prayers for the Muslim Eid 
al-Adha holiday.

Then, as martial music played, the camera jumped between images of the 
area’s destruction and scenes of Mr. Assad leading a determined 
entourage though town.

A reporter stopped him for questions, and Mr. Assad spoke in soft tones 
about reconciliation and reconstruction. He mocked his foes as “rented 
revolutionaries,” a dig at their foreign backing, and laughed at his 
turn of phrase.

His entourage got the cue and laughed as well.

For many Syrians, the message was clear.

“He is a man who wanted to show all Syrians that this would be their 
luck if they opposed him,” said Murhaf Jouejati, the chairman of the Day 
After organization, which aims to prepare Syrians for a democratic future.

Malik Rifai, an antigovernment activist from Daraya now displaced to 
northern Syria, said he felt numb watching Mr. Assad walk the streets of 
his empty hometown, but shared a video of a flock of birds that had 
flown over as residents were leaving. He interpreted it as a sign that 
they would return, he said.

“Those birds were a deep message from heaven, whereas Bashar’s presence 
was just a parade, showing the muscles of a weak person,” Mr. Rifai said 
in an online chat.

Mr. Assad’s dark suits and calm tones have given him a public image more 
sophisticated than that of other Arab autocrats like Col. Muammar 
el-Qaddafi of Libya and Saddam Hussein of Iraq, who often brandished 
weapons and gave thundering speeches, threatening their enemies.

“He’s a different kind of bloodthirsty dictator, the kind who shops 
online on his iPad,” said Nadim Houry, who oversaw the work of Human 
Rights Watch on Syria for a decade. “He’s sort of Arab dictator 2.0.”

Colonel Qaddafi and Mr. Hussein were both killed after foreign 
interventions aimed at removing them from power — a fate Mr. Assad 
appears to have escaped, even though the death toll on his watch has 
exceeded that of his more colorful colleagues.

His perseverance has frustrated those who feel Mr. Assad should be held 
accountable.

“The fact that many leaders are considering or willing to deal with him 
today as if he has not gassed his own people or tortured thousands to 
death is an indictment of the current policy environment across the 
world,” Mr. Houry said. “There is a level of cynicism, a lack of ambition.”

But analysts note many weaknesses in Mr. Assad’s position.

After years of war, he holds less than half of Syria’s territory and his 
forces are depleted, making it hard for them to seize and hold new areas.

Military aid from Iran and Hezbollah on the ground and from Russia in 
the skies has held off rebel advances, but they have also made him more 
dependent on foreign powers looking out for their own interests.

Diplomats who track Syria say that while Iran remains committed to Mr. 
Assad, the Russians could negotiate him away if their interests were 
protected. And signs of Russian displeasure with Mr. Assad have 
occasionally surfaced.

In June, Sergei K. Shoigu, the Russian defense minister, visited Syria 
apparently without informing Mr. Assad that he was coming — a major 
embarrassment for a president who speaks often of national sovereignty.

“A pleasant surprise!” a beaming Mr. Assad said in a video of the 
meeting. “I did not know that you were coming in person.”

But Mr. Assad still has significant support in areas he controls, 
including among many Syrians who want the war to end and see no 
alternative to his rule.

“If God gives him life, I see that he’ll be president until Syria comes 
back the way that it was,” said Bouchra Al-Khalil, a Lebanese lawyer who 
meets regularly with Syrian officials and knows Mr. Assad.

She dismissed the idea that the violence of Mr. Assad’s government would 
make Syrians reject him after the war.

“People love their homeland,” she said. “All that hate and aggression 
will go away in the end.”

Hwaida Saad contributed reporting.



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