Syria fortifies Obama in his indecision

The New York Times gave readers a double-whammy of Syrian statements on Tuesday. Its correspondent in Beirut, Anthony Shadid, landed interviews with presidential adviser Bouthaina Shaaban and with Rami Makhlouf, the powerful maternal cousin of President Bashar Assad, who represents the financial front of the regime.

Shadid was allowed into Syria for only a few hours to conduct the interviews. You have to wonder whether this provoked much debate in the newspaper’s offices. The condition transformed the correspondent into a stenographer, and the New York Times into a platform, for the dual messages emanating from Damascus. This irked quite a few people. However, it’s also fair to say that Shadid has kept the Syria story on the front pages of his daily, at a moment when the attention in the United States has been drifting elsewhere.

What did Shaaban and Makhlouf say? The essence of Shaaban’s remarks was that the Syrian regime had gained the upper hand against the uprising. “I think now we’ve passed the most dangerous moment. I hope so, I think so,” she said. Shaaban repeated the government line that Syria faced an armed rebellion, and disclosed that she had been tasked with initiating a dialogue with dissidents. “We see [the Syrian events] as an opportunity to try to move forward on many levels, especially the political level,” she added.

Makhlouf’s comments sounded more ominous. “If there is no stability [in Syria], there’s no way there will be stability in Israel,” he warned. “No way, and nobody can guarantee what will happen after, God forbid, anything happens to this regime.” He observed that the regime had opted to fight, insisting that all its members were united: “We will sit here. We call it a fight until the end.” He also issued a transparent threat: “They should know when we suffer, we will not suffer alone.”

Some have suggested that the two messages reveal a split in the Syrian regime. That’s not convincing. The messages were not that different, and to put Shaaban on the same level as Makhlouf is absurd. Shaaban is viewed as a spokesman for the president, but she plays no central role in the Assad-Makhlouf constellation. She doubtless needed a green light to go ahead with the interview, one that required some measure of approval by Makhlouf and Assad’s younger brother Maher, both of whom have taken an eradication approach to the protests. Makhlouf, in turn, needed no authorization whatsoever.

What Shaaban said was likely intended to be interpreted in the United States as a marginally soft statement by Bashar Assad. In contrast, Makhlouf offered the harsher alternative if the president’s approach was rejected by the international community. It was a classic good cop, bad cop routine, and those familiar with Syrian manners will be little surprised by the ploy. That’s why it seems far-fetched to assume that we are witnessing a fundamental rift in Syria’s ruling family.

The reason for this is that there is no serious alternative to what the Assads and the Makhloufs are doing today. They can either stand together behind repression, or fall apart. That’s hardly to justify the regime’s butchery of hundreds of unarmed civilians. Rather, it’s to affirm that the Syrian leadership is incapable of undertaking anything different. There simply is no reform option, and there never was. Genuine reform means dislodging the bricks holding up Assad-Makhlouf authority. Bashar Assad’s open-ended presidency, the crony capitalism practiced by his cousin and other members of Syria’s elite, the abuse practiced by the all-powerful security services, even Alawite predominance, would never survive a system shaped by free elections, the rule of law, and the existence of independent media.

The New York Times interviews were made possible by the deep uneasiness in the Obama administration with moves that might destabilize the Assad regime. The Syrians are good judges of their adversaries’ weaknesses, and what they see in Washington is a president who prefers the Assads to the possibility of chaos. They realize that the measures taken until now by the United States and Europe have been relatively gentle, therefore wholly ineffective. Add to that the U.N. Security Council’s recent failure to condemn Syria and official Arab support for Syrian stability, and you will grasp why the Assad regime saw an opening to reinforce American paralysis.

Nor can the Obama administration ignore that the Syrian leadership regards American dithering as a sign of implicit approval of its actions. Indeed, Shaaban described the recent statements of President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on Syria as “not too bad,” and the sanctions against Syria as manageable. That can only mean one thing: If Washington fails to clarify its views on the carnage in Syria through effective policies, the killing and the arrests there will continue, with the U.S. bearing partial responsibility. The White House’s uncertainty can be measured in human lives.

The Syrian protesters are right in not pursuing their salvation in Washington, let alone Brussels, Paris, or London. This is not an American administration overly outraged by the viciousness of dictatorships. Even in Egypt, Obama only turned against Hosni Mubarak when he was left with no other choice – although doing so against an old ally while sparing Assad suggests that Obama is like the coward who will yell at his wife to avoid a brawl with the neighbor.

What all this could also mean, however, is that the Syrian regime is wrong in pursuing its salvation in foreign capitals. Ultimately, Assad, his legitimacy in tatters, will have to win out against his own people. That will not be easy, not when the president has had to order the military occupation of several of his major cities. The regime’s behavior is a daily insult to Syrians, one they will not readily forget.

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” (Simon & Schuster), listed as one of the 10 notable books of 2010 by the Wall Street Journal. He tweets @ BeirutCalling.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 12, 2011, on page 7.




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