Kate Seelye

National Interest, January 24, 2012

The Arab League observer mission to Syria—sent under an agreement with the Syrian government to withdraw forces from the cities, release all political prisoners and allow monitors and journalists free movement throughout the country—has utterly failed.…

After the initial one-month mandate for the mission expired, Arab foreign ministers met in Cairo [last] Sunday to discuss next steps. Surprisingly, the league—known in the past for its knee-jerk defense of Arab unity at the cost of its people’s rights—proposed a plan under which President Bashar al-Assad would transfer power to a deputy and start negotiations with opponents within two weeks. The proposal was predictably rejected outright by the Assad regime as “interference in its internal affairs.”

Unfortunately, the league also agreed…to extend the mandate for another month and beef up the number of monitors sent to the country. But in the first month of the mission, opposition figures reported that more than seven hundred people were killed at the hands of the government in continuing clashes throughout the country. Given its failure to halt the government crackdown, the league should have rejected any extension of the observer mission and vowed to bring the Syrian crisis before the United Nations Security Council.…

It seems increasingly clear that Assad allowed the monitoring mission merely as a means to buy time until he could figure out a way to crush the resistance. The mission has been woefully understaffed and overtly controlled by the Syrian regime since its inception on December 19, and the number of observers never climbed above 165, nowhere near the many hundreds needed to cover all the restive spots in the country. Moreover, the Syrian government did not allow international journalists to accompany the teams and dispatched security escorts to “monitor the monitors.” Given the credible reports of opposition figures being killed, beaten or detained while the league’s observers have been in country (including two Kuwaiti monitors who were attacked near Latakia), it is evident that the mission failed.…

It is now incumbent upon the Arab League to officially terminate the mission and refer the matter to the United Nations Security Council.… Any draft resolution introduced by the Arab League in the Security Council must, of course, attract the support of China and, most crucially, Russia. Moscow’s tacit or outright backing is key to creating an effective, united international front against Damascus. Without it, Syria is likelier to descend into full-blown civil war.…

It is past time for Russia, one of Syria’s closest allies and the main obstacle to even tougher measures imposed on the Assad government, to see the writing on the wall and join the international effort to isolate and punish the regime.… A hard-hitting UN Security Council resolution calling for further sanctions and an arms embargo is the next obvious step.…


Wall Street Journal, January 25, 2012

Bashar Assad is feeling lonely, though not yet lonely enough. First the Turks, Americans and Europeans de-friended him. Now formerly fraternal leaders at the Arab League want him deposed. The Syrian strongman’s forces have killed more than 5,400 people in 10 months and turned a peaceful protest movement into a virtual civil war. But he still has a few friends in low places.

The Iranians aren’t giving up on him, and in Moscow Vladimir Putin won’t abandon the son of the Soviet Union’s favorite Arab tyrant, Hafez Assad. Far from it. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov last week rejected any talk of new U.N. sanctions or arms embargo on Syria. He even defended Moscow’s right to arm Mr. Assad as he kills more civilians.

The business daily Kommersant reported [this week] that Russia has signed a $550 million contract to sell Syria 36 combat jets. Two weeks ago, the aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov called at the Syrian port of Tartus and, according to reports, dropped off a few tons of ammunitions.

The Russians have a stronger stomach for the Syrian’s brutality than does the Arab League. A month ago, the group sent an observer mission to Syria to monitor the regime’s non-implementation of a plan to withdraw security forces from cities and residential areas. During their stay in Syria, the rate of killing rose. The Saudis, who won’t win any Amnesty International contests, pulled out of the mission.… Qatar has…called for Arab forces to deploy and “stop the killing,” in the words of its emir.…

The Kremlin’s support makes it harder to ease Mr. Assad out peacefully in Damascus. But perhaps Mr. Putin’s loyalty can be explained by the fact that he faces his own growing opposition. His ruling party cheated in December’s parliamentary elections and he has announced plans to stay in power for as long as another 12 years, after he runs for president again in March.…

Fouad Ajami

Daily Beast, January 23, 2012

Bashar, son of Hafez Assad, has a son by the name of Hafez. But as the defiance and bloodletting in Syria would seem to suggest, Bashar needn’t worry about training his son for future rulership. The house that Hafez Assad built, some four decades ago, is not destined to last.

Dynasties are, of course, made, not born.… The great North African historian Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406), perhaps the world’s first sociologist, left behind some firm notions about dynasties: they rise, they beget kingdoms, then they decay, like all “created things.” Ibn Khaldun was rather specific: glory and prestige are gained and lost within four successive generations. The “builder of a family’s glory knows what it cost him to do the work, and he keeps the qualities that created his glory and made it last.” The son who inherits his mantle had contact with his father and will have learned some lessons from him. “However, he is inferior to him in this respect, inasmuch as a person who learns things through study is inferior to a person who knows them from practical application.” The third generation imitates the ancestors. The fourth loses it all, as its members begin to think that this glory is their due.…

Arabs are firm believers in nasab, inherited merit passed on from father to son, a nobility of the blood. No wonder that Hafez Assad was ambivalent about his beginnings. In 1980, before a gathering of learned notables, the ruler, then a decade in power, recounted the adversity of his childhood. He recalled that at one point in his boyhood he had to quit school temporarily because his father couldn’t scrape together the modest tuition. “But we are not commoners. On the contrary, my father was a half aga.” The title “aga,” a modest one in Ottoman parlance, signified a chief, a man of some standing or means. On another occasion, in the same year, speaking to a peasant syndicate, Hafez Assad would tell them he was in truth one of them. “I am first and last a peasant and the son of a peasant. To lie amid the spikes of grain on the threshing floor is, in my eyes, worth all the palaces in this world.”

He had pined to leave that poverty; he had come down from his mountain village to the port town of Latakia, on the Mediterranean, to get a secondary-school education; he had made it to the military academy, and the uniform had given him all that was now his. But he was then in the midst of a vicious sectarian war against the Muslim Brotherhood, with their power in the souks and the mosques of Hama and Aleppo and Damascus. For the Sunni artisans in the warrens of these old cities, the presidency of a peasant—and an Alawite peasant at that, hailing from an esoteric mountain sect beyond the pale of Islam—was a violation of the natural order of things. Syria took pride in its place in Islam.… In the telling, the Prophet Muhammad favored this realm. He had seen Damascus from the hills above it, and the fabled Ghouta, the gardens and orchards that once circled this city. The prophet, bewitched by his view of Damascus, it is proudly recounted by the Damascenes, had refused to enter the city; it was paradise, he said, and he feared he would be denied paradise in the afterlife were he to enter it in his lifetime.

The Ottomans had conquered the territories of Bilad al-Sham (Greater Syria would be the closest rendering of this geography) in the early years of the 16th century—lands that stretched from the borders of Anatolia to Egypt, from the Iraqi desert to the Mediterranean. They divided it into three provinces: Beirut, Aleppo, and Damascus. Imperial power ebbed and flowed, and the cities were ruled by notables—political and religious elites, landholders who lived in urban surroundings and dominated the lives of the peasants and sharecroppers. Feudalism was the word that described that order. The countryside was neglected—and despised.… The thought of a peasant from the mountains ruling Damascus, the gathering point of the pilgrimage to the Holy Cities, would have been heresy at the time.

France would acquire a mandate over the territories of Syria (and Lebanon) in the aftermath of the Great War. The French ruled a turbulent, unhappy country for a quarter century. Urban/Sunni Syria never really took to the French…but for all its brevity, this French interlude helped shape post-independence Syria and indirectly gave rise to the rule of Hafez Assad. France recruited heavily among the minorities—the Druze, the Alawis, the Ismailis—for its colonial levies, the Troupes Spéciales du Levant. The Sunni townsmen disdained and avoided military service, thought it the work of lessers. For the Alawis in their secluded, impoverished mountains, the Jabal Ansariya, in the northwest, military service was salvation. Born in 1930, Hafez Assad took that route out of poverty.… He would graduate from the military academy in 1955—a decade after independence and a time of intense turbulence in Syrian politics.

The country’s first coup d’état had come in 1949, a mere three years after independence, and the conspiracies would not cease in the years to come. The old order was coming apart; those feudal families of ease and pedigree and property had squabbled among themselves, and had given parliamentary politics a bad name. Ideology was battering the world of the notables. Communists, believers in Greater Syrian nationalism, Muslim Brotherhood adherents, peasant jacqueries, had made certain that the old order would be overwhelmed.

One political party outdid the others: the Baath. It had been conceived in the interwar years in Paris’s Latin Quarter by two talented young men from Damascus: the Greek Orthodox Michel Aflaq and Salah al-Din al-Bitar, a Sunni Muslim. They had come back to their country loaded with readings and ambition. They became schoolteachers, and the fuse they lit up, the young students they drew into the net, would determine the political course of Syria—and of neighboring Iraq, for that matter. This was the party that widened the horizons of Hafez Assad, gave him the political language and the ideology that carried him to the summit of political power. (It didn’t work out so well for the two founders. Aflaq was expelled from his own party in 1966; Bitar was struck down in Paris by the security forces of the Syrian regime in 1980.)

In this republic of conspirators and coup makers, Hafez Assad was to emerge as the supreme practitioner of the art. There were three Baathist coups—in 1963, 1966, and 1970. He was a minor player in the first, a partner in the second, and the victor in the third against his own erstwhile allies.…

Violence was at the ready in Hafez Assad’s republic. But he was not a sadist (that trait characterized his younger brother and chief enforcer, Rifaat). His violence was selective and methodical. There was always his cunning—a trait that came from his minoritarian background. There was stealth and steel in him. Interlocutors were often left guessing as to his intentions and commitments. Henry Kissinger, who parried with (and studied) the most accomplished in statecraft, negotiated with Assad in the aftermath of the October War of 1973. He came back with high praise for the man’s intellect and tenacity.…

Syrians who feared his tyranny credited Hafez Assad with giving the country stability and a place among the nations. In the highest of praise, they said he had changed Syria from a plaything in the region to a player. He could never surmount the blame that the Golan Heights were lost to Israel in the Six-Day War on his watch, when he was defense minister. Unable to recover the Golan, he did the next best thing: he all but came into possession of Lebanon, practically erasing the border between the two countries.…

His name would forever be sullied by a barbarism in Hama, an intensely religious town in the central plains, with an Alawite hinterland. Hama was the stronghold of the Muslim Brotherhood. It had had earlier troubles with the secular Baathists, and opposed their agrarian “reforms” and the powers the Baath gave to hitherto quiescent peasants. In February 1982, those earlier skirmishes between Hama and the security forces would be overwhelmed by a cruelty the country had not seen before. A good deal of the Old City was reduced to rubble; thousands were killed. The grim work was done by the ruler’s brother, Rifaat, who took the Stalinist purges as a model to emulate. No one is sure how many perished in Hama—the low estimates are 10,000, and there are claims that the numbers could be four times these estimates.…

[Assad] took his people out of the political world. He offered them what he saw as a reasonable bargain: they could have safety and be left alone so long as they led apolitical lives. He once gave away the crux of his worldview to a Baath Party functionary. People have “primarily economic demands,” Assad said—they aspire to a plot of land, a car, a house. Those demands could be satisfied “in one way or another.” But there was a small minority, 200 individuals at most, who seriously engaged in politics and would oppose him no matter what. “It is for them that the Mezzeh prison [outside Damascus] was originally intended.…”

Hafez Assad was visited by personal tragedy in 1994: the death in a car accident of his oldest son, Bassel. He had been grooming him for succession. He never recovered from the grief. In the years left to him, he settled on his son Bashar, the eye doctor, as his successor.… [Hafez] died in 2000, and his hapless son, 34 years of age, was anointed as his successor. Syrians hoped for the best, thought that perhaps this gangly youth, with a stint in London behind him, would grant them the freedoms his father had denied them. There was a Damascus Spring in the offing, it was said. The new ruler permitted the importation of Western cigarettes; jazz clubs and art galleries made their appearance. Bashar offered his people an olive branch: he married well, a London-born upper-bourgeois young woman from a Sunni family of Homs, Asma al-Akhras. The young couple presented themselves well. But the Damascus Spring was snuffed out. The civic forums were shut down, dissidents were rounded up and dispatched to prisons. The young inheritor was his father’s son.

A year ago, when the political hurricane known as the Arab Spring hit the region, Bashar al-Assad proclaimed his country’s immunity to the troubles.… Then a group of boys in mid-March, in the forlorn southern town of Daraa, went out and scribbled anti-regime graffiti on the walls. They were picked up and tortured. It was as though the custodians of this dictatorship knew that their order hung by a thread. The system rested on fear, and that barrier was crossed. He put his medical training to use. He described the protesters as germs. Four decades of a drab tyranny had not robbed the Syrians of their humor. The Syrian germs require a new doctor, one banner proclaimed. Bashar had squandered his father’s bequest.

(Fouad Ajami is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University
and co-chair of
Hoover’s Working Group on Islamism and the International Order.)

Moshe Arens

Haaretz, January 24, 2012

For a change, here is good news from Beirut.… “I am deeply concerned about the military capacity of Hezbollah and the lack of progress in disarmament,” [UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon] told a news conference in Beirut after meeting Lebanese leaders. “All these arms outside of the authorized state authority, it’s not acceptable,” he declared. It’s about time somebody made things clear to the Lebanese.

The response of Hezbollah’s leader Hasan Nassrallah could have been predicted. “We are pleased by your concern,” he said, addressing the UN secretary general. “We want you, the U.S. and Israel to be concerned.… Hezbollah will not relinquish its weapons.” Nassrallah should know that we are all really concerned, and what’s more we intend to do something about it.

The weapons in question are tens of thousands of ballistic missiles in addition to all sorts of additional modern weaponry that have been supplied to Hezbollah over the years by Iran and shipped to Lebanon via Syria, and are not under the authority of the Lebanese government. They are deployed all over Lebanon and [are] aimed at Israel. The range of the ballistic missiles in the Hezbollah inventory is sufficient to cover all of Israel and rain destruction on Israel’s civilian population. They are terror weapons in the hands of a terrorist organization.… They will be launched against Israel whenever Nassrallah so decides, or the order is given in Tehran. They are a protective shield for Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Like the deployment of Soviet missiles in Cuba in 1962 that brought about the Cuban missile crisis and the removal of these missiles, the Hezbollah missiles will have to be removed. When the time comes for Israel to neutralize this missile threat—and that time will come sooner or later if the missiles are not dismantled—there is bound to result wholesale destruction all over Lebanon. Hezbollah’s missiles are a suicidal invitation to the destruction of Lebanon.…

Of course, it is preferable that the removal of the Hezbollah missiles in Lebanon be accomplished by diplomatic action rather than by military measures. The Lebanese government should be encouraged to insist on demonstrating its sovereign rights in all of Lebanon and order Hezbollah to remove the missiles. Any assistance that it would require should be provided. The international community should make it clear that the deployment of these missiles…constitutes a danger to peace in the region.

For too long has there been a conspiracy of silence about the deployment of these missiles.… The issue should be taken up at the UN Security Council, and the necessary diplomatic action should be taken by the U.S. and the countries of Europe and Asia.… Ban Ki-moon has finally sounded the alarm. Better late than never.