Book Review:The Truth about Syria by Barry Rubin
In The Truth About Syria, Professor Barry Rubin takes us inside a modern, if atavistic, mini-USSR, and shows us what it is about and how it works, and why it is a threat. You do not have to believe every word, though most of what Rubin tells us is well documented and indisputable. It may not be The Truth about Syria. It is certainly a very large and important part of the Truth about Syria. The truth about Syria is not pleasant. Many U.S. policy makers do not want to hear it. They know the facts. They want to ignore them. They want you to ignore them.
The Truth About Syria opens with two quotes that tell us what it is about, and what Syria is about.
The first quote is from a crucial speech made after the last Lebanese war, in which Syrian President Bashar Assad said, "The great man is the one who surprises his enemies." He was announcing his intention to "surprise" Israel with a 'guerilla' attack transparently manufactured by the Syrian government, in order to 'liberate' the Golan Heights. The idea that such an attack would not be blamed on Syria would seem to be absurd, except that Syria had just accomplished the same thing with the Hezbollah attack on Israel. For about a month, Syrian and Iranian made rockets pounded Israeli cities, Russian arms supplied by Syria were used against Israeli tanks, and more Iranian arms were unloaded at bases in Syria and transported to the Hezbollah, which was fighting a war to entrench Syrian interests in Lebanon. No blame was attached to Syria for this war, and in fact, they were invited by foreign diplomats to help in controlling the arms smuggling!
The second quote is taken from Shakespeare's Henry IV, part two, and it tells us what the Assad regime is about in four lines:
I well might lodge a fear
To be again displaced, which to avoid....
Be it thy course to busy giddy minds
With foreign quarrels.
The Assad family has established a hereditary dynasty shored up by repression within, and confrontation and terror abroad. Their rule is not about improving living standards for Syria. Syrian living standards have fallen behind the none-too-glamorous ones of Jordan or Egypt. It is not about democracy, a Western luxury Syria can't afford, according to Bashar Assad. The Assad regime is about stability, and it is about money and power for the Assad family. The regime, writes Rubin, is comparable in every way to the fictional Corleone Mafia family. Rubin points out the similarities in numerous details, down to removing henchmen who rebel against the rule of the son..
Hafez Assad came to power following a dizzying succession of coups that had made Syria the most unstable regime in the Middle East. The Assads are seated atop a bucking bronco. They are members of the Allawi religious minority who are usually not even considered to be Muslims. They rule a country of disparate minorities with a potential for chaos almost as great as that of Iraq. The radical Muslim Brotherhood is always there, threatening to take over the country by fair means or foul. The usual Ba'th party rivalries that have plagued all such regimes are also a threat to Assad family rule.
Staying in the saddle is therefore priority number one for the Assad family.All the actions of the regime serve that imperative. The Assad family cannot make peace. Peace would remove the excuse for the Mukhabarat secret police establishment and the rule of internal terror, which are supposedly needed to combat the machinations of the Western powers and the "Zionists," and to aid in the struggle to regain the Golan heights first, and later, all of "Palestine" (Israel), Lebanon, and Jordan, which Syrian nationalists have always conceived of as part of Syria.
Prosperity and peace would ruin the Assad regime. Therefore, Western assumptions that Syrian leadership must want peace and prosperity are mistaken, and it is pointless to "engage" Syria in dialogue except insofar as it is possible to confront them with their violations and insist that they mend their ways.
The megalomaniac goals and the roster of foreign villains are convenient "to busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels." They are also convenient excuses for discrediting and jailing any reformist opponents as supposed agents of Zionism and the west. The methods should be familiar to students of the former USSR. Syrians have the usual grim, ironical, Soviet era type jokes about the secret police, the personality cult of the rulers, the one-candidate "elections," and other aspects of such repressive regimes.
To bolster popularity at home, the Assads have always projected the image of championing the fight against imperialism and Zionism, vying for leadership of the Arab/Muslim world. "Honor," they have convinced their subjects, is more important than democracy and prosperity. To this end, they foster terror in Lebanon, in the Palestinian territories and in Iraq, providing arms for terrorist groups, a base for Iraqi insurgents, and shelters and headquarters for the Hamas. All the while, they have managed to project a very different image to successive US diplomats, as a "responsible" regime that is an ally in the war on terror. They do so by such gestures as arresting minor terrorists from time to time, and promising repeatedly to close the headquarters of terrorist organizations, without actually doing so.
As Rubin explains, the Assads rule by controlling the Syrian economy, managing and allocating corruption rather than fighting it. They keep the lion's for themselves, and dole out portions to friends of the regime. Aside from Syria's dwindling oil reserves, major industries include drug smuggling and counterfeiting, and labor exported to work in Lebanon. The Assads cannot allow economic reform and prosperity. Reform would take the Syrian economy out of their hands. It would foster the rise of an independent reformist, liberal middle class that would insist on democratic institutions.
The constant confrontation bolsters the image of the regime as defenders of the faith and the people. The risks of angering western powers are minimal because those, especially the US, have shown a strange willingness to ignore or react minimally to almost every Syrian provocation, ranging from their acknowledged role, along with Iran, in fomenting the Lebanese civil war, to their role in the terror bombings of the US marines, to attacks on Jordanian diplomats and US embassies, to the assassination of Rafiq Hariri in Lebanon, and especially to documented Syrian involvement in the Iraq insurgency.
The method, Rubin explains, is to create an impossible situation and to explain that the problem, as in Iraq or Lebanon, can only be solved with Syrian help. It is an old Mafia trick:"Accidents could happen, to you or your family. You need protection."