Daniel R. DePetris: The Political Docket

2009’s Most Valuable Player

Posted in Syria by Dan on December 31, 2009

Assad is my pick for the 2009 MVP

As the decade comes to a close- and as people worldwide celebrate the New Year with friends, family, and a whole lot of Champagne- I have decided to unleash my MVP of 2009.  Drum-roll please…….and the winner is….Mr. Bashar al-Assad.

The winner might come as a surprise to some, but when dissecting all of his accomplishments over the past year, there is no other statesman in the world that deserves the credit and recognition of doing so much with so little .

Bashar al-Assad has not only transformed his country overnight, but he has done so in such a way that only a skilled politician could match. The Syrian economy is finally starting to improve, thanks to some innovation that was previously overlooked by the elder Assad when he was in power. Declining oil productivity has forced- and is continuing to force- the Syrian Government to address the natural-resource dependency that so many Arab regimes in the region take for granted. With the price of oil fluctuating, you would think Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States would follow the Syrian model.

Without a doubt, the greatest accomplishment of President Assad has been his political talent. Despite his government’s horrible human-rights record, he has the United States and Saudi Arabia- two countries that have been historically ambivalent to Damascus- crawling to his doorstep. Regardless of which country we are talking about, Syria is more important than ever. The West is trying to convince Assad to limit his strategic alliance with Iran, and the Islamic Republic is countering this demand with incentives for the Syrian regime. The question for the future, of course, is whether Assad is talented enough to make the right decision.

And what about his popularity among Arabs as a whole?  Well, thanks to Israel’s debacle in Lebanon in the summer of 2006, Assad has been credited as one of the main players that brought about Israel’s “defeat.” For all of their ideological and religious differences, many Sunnis and Shias portray Assad as a primary defender of Arab rights. In fact, a recent poll within the Arab World concluded that Mr. Assad is currently the most popular politician in the Middle East…an amazing development considering the globe’s persistent outcry over human rights abuses and his financial support for terrorist groups.

There is one more thing that could have contributed to Assad’s current standing; internal security. Domestically, Assad’s regime has been able to boast unity and security in an area that is frequently held hostage to violence and radicalism (a.k.a. Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and to some extent, Iran). Obviously, security comes at a price; Syria’s intelligence service is known for its ruthless espionage, and crack-downs on political activists are routine. But it is security nonetheless.

Do not be surprised if Assad gains even more stature in the coming year. With the Iranian nuclear program only increasing in significance and attention, Syria’s position will be all the more crucial. My prediction is that the Syrian regime will probably remain silent, especially if a military-strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities is in the works. But either way, I do not see how Syria could lose.

To everyone out there, HAVE A SAFE AND HAPPY NEW YEAR!

-Daniel R. DePetris


5 Responses

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  1. janbekster said, on December 31, 2009 at 11:34 pm

    Ultimately I suppose, the success of Syria will be measured in the manner which the ruling Ba’ath party manages to face up to the existential questions which will emerge in the near future, and the reasons it can provide for maintaining its monopoly on power in the country.

    The Ba’ath Party rests on the priciples of : Unity; meaning Arab unity in which Syria plays the cetral role, Socialism; state driven economy, and Freedom; from foreign domination and later on freedom from Israeli domination.

    Up till now, Syria has managed to keep the fig leaf of its claim to be the centre of Arab unity, though this claim has been wearing thin for the Syrians and the Arabs in general for some time now. Then there is the question of Socialism, and the need for Syria to liberalise its economy in order to be integrated in the world economic systen through international agreements. In this context, Lebanon remains indispensable for Damascus, in order to use its business, economic, and financial institutions to allow for an outlet of economic liberalisation, while internal Syrian economic transformations remain on tight leash. There are still no legislations and proper infra-structres in the country that permit wholesale free enterprise outlook.

    Some may suggest a Chinese model for Syria; of economic liberalisation mixed with political authoritarianism, and a relationship between Syria-Lebanon comaparable to the foremr relationship of China-Hong Kong, but Syria is no China, and there is the great challenge of peace with Israel.

    On this last point; peace with Israel, one tends to find it difficult to believe, that it is in the interest of Syria to reach a peace agreement with Israel very soon, simply because this is the last bastion of Ba’ath domination of power in terns of a raison d’etre. Without, Socialism, unity of the Arab world, and finally a state of war with Israel, what is left of the Ba’ath slogan Unity, Socialism and Freedom?.

    Any Syrian organised political force under the circumstances, can claim much more than those anachronistic slogans. Even the Ba’ath would not be able to claim them anymore.

    khairi janbek.paris/france

    • Dan said, on December 31, 2009 at 11:35 pm

      This is precisely why the Syrians will do everything in their power to sabotage a peace process with the Israelis. Traditional Arab opposition to Israeli policies- including its occupation of the West Bank and its annexation of the Golan Heights- continues to dominate the Islamic discourse. And to its credit, Syria has transformed itself into a primary party in the dispute; one that resonates with the Arab public. Like you said, a Syrian compromise with Israel on the Golan Heights is simply not a smart political (or strategic) move for Assad at this point. The status-quo is enormously beneficial for Damascus, and will remain so as long as the Palestinian/Arab struggle is exemplified.

      I am not sure I agree with your statement about Syria’s position within the “Arab unity” debate. You claim that the argument is “wearing thin” for the Syrians, but reality on the ground does not seem to hold this up. Bashar Assad has emerged as the most popular politician in the Arab world, thanks in large part to his connections with Hezbollah in Southern Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. We can not- and should not- discount the importance of Hezbollah’s “victory” against Israel in 2006. It has not only strengthened Hezbollah’s stature in Lebanon, but has given Assad a tremendous amount of positive P.R. Palestinians in particular are quite supportive of Assad, even though he follows the Shia-brand of Islam. Name another politician in the Islamic World that has this amount of clout.

      • janbekster said, on December 31, 2009 at 11:36 pm

        My point is that, Syria cannot pursue peace with israel seriously, before it actually sets its own house in order and settle the economic question before anything else. It has its own internal imperatives to worry about, more than any strategic considerations related to Israel.

        Now, Mr. Assad may be popular or otherwise with the Syrians and the Palestinians, but certainly not for his pursuit of Arab unity, a notion which has been dead a long time ago for all Arabs, and more so, since Mr. Assad is pursuing alliances with non-Arabs such as Turkey and Iran. Of course Syria has the right to seek its own alliances, but that has nothing to do with Arab unity.

        khairi janbek.paris/france

  2. Dan said, on December 31, 2009 at 11:36 pm

    I was not speaking about Arab unity per say. To the contrast, I was placing Arab unity within the context of Israel (I admit this is rather generic). There may be enormous differences between Sunnis and Shias in the Middle East; in fact, there are widespread incidents of violence between both groups. But when Israel is added to the equation, Arabs of all sects tend to unite against what they label as “Zionist” aggression on Muslim soil. Assad understands this, and he has transformed Arab discontent with the Israelis in his favor.

    You are absolutely correct when you argue that Arabs are skeptical of Iranian motives. Iran’s nuclear program is only the most recent example of this scenario. Generally (and I am trying to be as objective as possible), Persians and other non-Arabs in the region are usually viewed in a negative light…however accurate this may be. However, I am sure most Arabs would prefer a Syrian alliance with Iran and Turkey than a Syrian alliance with Israel.

    In my own personal view, I am not so sure that Assad’s partnership with Iran and Turkey is a major concern for Arabs in the Middle East. Call me crazy, but this is the same leader that continues to pour millions of dollars into the coffers of Arab militant organizations. It is hard to castigate a leader on his Arab credentials when he is one of the only figures providing Hezbollah and Hamas with tactical and logistical support.

    It is actually ironic; Assad is the one man in the Middle East that can hold alliances with all sectors of the Islamic World; Sunni and Shia, Arab and Persian. Heck, even Lebanese Christians tend to follow his direction.

    • janbekster said, on December 31, 2009 at 11:37 pm

      Just to clarify what I am saying, and that is, Syria has the right to pursue its own startegic interests which it does, but I predict the regime will find it increasingly difficult in the future, to justify its monopoly on power without its three mainstay slogans.

      On Arab unity there is no one single evidence that Syria is or has been pursuing this goal even sicne the 1970s, let alone now, and mind you in fairness, the regime has always been secular in its outlook. I gave the example of alliances with Turkey and Iran, not to indicate Arab worries, but rather, Syria’s preference of close relations with non-Arab states over Arab states; something might strike one as peculiar for a state pursuing Arab unity in the manner of the Ba’ath slogan “A Single Arab World; With an Immortal Message”.

      By its support of some Palestinian factions, Syria is harming the concept of Palestinian unity let alone serving the interests of Arab unity, and why?, Iran’s support of the same Palestinian factions is actually bringing closer the materialisation of Arab unity?.

      As for the Lebanese Christians, they had always a checkered history of relationship with Syria. Some have always been the allies of the regime since the 1970s, and some have been its adversaries. Ultimately, let’s remember that Syria and late President Assad snr. entered the Lebanese civil conflict, on the request of the Christians and on their side, against the Lebanese nationalist forces and the Palestinian groups.

      khairi janbek.paris/france

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