“If you decide you want to leave journalism,” Nadim Shehadi said to me over coffee at a café on Beirut’s old waterfront, “if you feel like you've been there and done that and would like to become a dictator, you should hire me as an advisor. I'm expensive, but I'm worth it.”
Shehadi, a Lebanese-born scholar at Chatham House in the UK, has dedicated enough of his life to Middle Eastern dictatorology that he probably would make a solid advisor. He’d never actually do it, but one can be a decent human being and still figure out how it works.
“What you should do,” he said, “is establish the idea that you're indispensable, that you’re irreplaceable, that beyond you is the abyss of sectarian civil war, terrorism, ethnic cleansing, and the breakup of the state. Create problems that only you can resolve. That's the mind game Bashar al-Assad is playing with you. As long as you can't see beyond him, he's safe.”
That is, indeed, exactly what Syria’s Bashar al-Assad has been up to. His family’s regime has been using that formula to outstanding effect for 43 years.
But let’s just look at recent events.
Remember the halcyon days when the Arab Spring hadn’t yet turned into winter? What was Assad facing then? Nothing. He boasted that unlike the crooked Ben Ali and Hosni Mubarak, there was so little space between him and the people that hardly anyone could bear to see him go. But when Moammar Qaddafi faced an insurrection in Libya, disgruntled Syrians realized that even the Middle East’s worst totalitarian could be brought to their knees.
Initially, though, Assad faced nothing but non-violent Gandhi-like protests for reform. He responded by maiming and murdering thousands of men, women, and teenagers in the streets like the butchers at Tiananmen Square. He even tortured children to death.
What did he have to say for himself? He said that he was fighting Al-Qaeda. This was but a few short years after he facilitated Al-Qaeda’s bloodthirsty rampage in Iraq. He’s responsible for more American deaths than most in the region, but he told us he was acting as our proxy and fighting Al-Qaeda for us in Damascus. The word for this, I believe, is chutzpah.
The Syrian opposition remained non-violent for months even while being shot to death in the streets. Imagine watching your friends, neighbors, and family members murdered by your own government. Imagine. I would have picked up a rifle a long long time before they did. Most Americans would have. We should take a moment to acknowledge that their restraint was extraordinary. That moment in history has passed, but it happened, and should not be forgotten. Assad doesn’t get to write history. His lies were like something hatched in the old Soviet Union, which is perhaps fitting since his government was a Soviet client state and today it’s one of Vladimir Putin’s.
But since then, Syria’s opposition has picked up rifles and Al Qaeda in the form of Jabhat al-Nusra is part of the mix. Minorities, especially the Alawites, but also the Christians, are in terrible danger, as are the Kurds, Druze, and moderate Sunnis if the worst factions ever take over.
“There is a risk for the Alawites,” Shehadi said, “for everybody, but the person who is causing that risk is Assad himself. When Assad is gone, the key difference between post-Assad Syria and post-Saddam Iraq is that the whole region was against the fall of Saddam and the whole region favors the fall of Assad. The whole region contributed to the mess in Iraq, while the whole region will collaborate to stabilize Syria. The situation is completely different.”
He’s not entirely right that every state in the region will collaborate to stabilize Syria. Iran won’t. Neither will Hezbollah. The rest, however, very well may. The Sunni Arab states in the Middle East—and the Arab world is overwhelmingly Sunni—certainly will want a stable Sunni-led order in Syria. That really is the opposite of what occurred in Iraq, where the overwhelming majority of the Arab world stood against the American-backed pluralist yet Shia-led order that had replaced Saddam Hussein’s totalitarian Sunni-dominated regime.
And let’s not forget that Assad’s Syria was one of Iraq’s two most mischievous neighbors after the fall of Saddam. If Syria had been neutral and stable back then, the Iraqi insurgency would have been milder. Iran would have still done its thing and sponsored Shia militias, but the Sunni militias that Assad implicitly helped, especially Al-Qaeda, would have been weaker.
“What you have in Syria is not a civil war,” Shehadi said. “It's a revolution.”
It’s actually both. What’s left of the Syrian army is little more than an Alawite militia. The Sunni officers are long gone. Even some of the Alawite generals are defecting. All that's left is a rotted Alawite core. Meanwhile, the Free Syrian Army is almost entirely Sunni. The Syrian war is simultaneously revolutionary and a sectarian blood feud.
“It's a revolution that the regime is doing its best to turn into a sectarian war,” Shehadi said, “in order to position itself as the stabilizer. It's exactly the same thing the Syrian regime did in Lebanon. In the 1980s there wasn't a civil war here. There was instability created mainly by Syria and Iran. The Syrians and Iranians held Lebanon and the United States hostage. They killed hundreds of your Marines here in Beirut. They kidnapped journalists in Lebanon and released them in Damascus, and Assad forced the Reagan administration to say thank you every time.”
That was during the time of Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s ruthless late father. He’s the one who came up with the brilliant idea to sell himself as the fireman who puts out his own fires, though the elder Assad didn’t deliver any more water than his son does.
“Assad armed Hezbollah and then promised to control Hezbollah,” Shehadi said. “He sent Al-Qaeda into Iraq, then promised to control Al-Qaeda. He agitated the Kurds against the Turks and promised to keep them quiet. He blocked the Hamas-Fatah agreements, then promised to facilitate them. That's the formula. It's not rocket science. It's a mind game. And he's still doing it. He let all the Al-Qaeda people out of jail that he had in his prisons.”
All this is true, but here’s the thing: blowback is not just for Americans. Assad let slip Al-Qaeda against the United States in Iraq, and also against Lebanon in the Palestinian camp of Nahr al-Bared, and now it’s coming back, Frankstein-like, to tear him apart. His ludicrous narrative has actually become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
“But he's still in power,” Shehadi said. “He can remain in power like this. He's making deals with al-Nusra. The mukhabarat, the secret police, have penetrated everybody. That's what they do. He's playing a mind game. Listen to his speeches. They have no bearing on reality. Yet people believe him. The Washington Post wrote that he's strong because they listened to his speech and he sounded strong. There are idiots in the West who will buy that. There are idiot journalists in the West who will go to Aleppo, meet a guy with a beard who says he's going to start an emirate, and then put that in a headline. If you want to beat Assad, you have to disassociate yourself from his make-believe reality just as he has disassociated himself from the actual reality.”
Before the Baath Party and Hafez al-Assad took control of the country, Syria was one of the least stable countries on earth. Military coup after military coup toppled government after government before the current iron-fisted regime figured out how to hold it together. It did this internally with brute force and internationally by following Shehadi’s formula about how to become and remain a Middle East dictator.
But Shehadi bristled when I reminded him what pre-Assad Syria was like. “That was 47 years ago,” he said. “You're telling me that 47 years ago there were coups in Syria and Assad came and stabilized it. That's his mind game.”
“Sure,” I said, “but it’s also true. Instability is Syria's normal condition. It's not a coherent nation-state.”
What the Assads have done is effectively export Syria’s own violence and sectarian contradictions to the rest of the region, and they have done so with both their conventional army and through terrorist proxies. And make no mistake: Damascus under the Assads has exported terrorism and violence to every single one of its neighbors—to Lebanon, to Iraq, to Turkey, to Jordan, and to Israel. With behavior like that, and as a client state of an Iran that is about to go nuclear, Assad’s government, one could argue, is the most dangerous and destabilizing regime that Damascus could possibly have, worse even than a Sunni Islamist regime.
There are certainly better possible options. I’m not entirely convinced Syria will survive post-Assad, but Shehadi thinks that’s because even I am caught up in Assad’s devious mind game andthat my definition of a coherent nation-state is off. We’ll have to wait and see what happens, but in the meantime we argued about it a bit.
“What's a coherent nation-state?” he said. “A homogeneous nation-state doesn't exist.”
“It doesn't have to be homogeneous,” I said.
“It only existed in the mind of Hitler,” he said.
“I'm not saying it has to be homogeneous,” I said. “It can be diverse, but it still has to be somewhat unified. Syria isn’t unified. Nor is Lebanon, for that matter.”
“Lebanon is the most coherent place in the region,” he said.
“If you go to Christian, Sunni, and Druze areas,” I said, “you see the Lebanese flag. In Shia areas, you see the Iranian flag. That's not coherent.”
“That’s because we have an Iranian-backed state-within-a-state.”
“When I see Shia towns flying the Lebanese flag,” I said, “I'll say Lebanon is a coherent nation-state made up of diverse constituent parts.”
But I eventually saw where he was going with this, and he makes an interesting point.
“The entire world is changing,” he said. “Not just Syria. The model where a strong state controls everything is collapsing globally. The twentieth century saw the strongest states ever. In the history of humanity, what happened between the Second World War and the late 1980s never existed before. The total control of the state was a freak of history. It’s finished. The model of a homogenizing ideology is also finished. Even in Turkey, Kemalism is on the decline. Arab Nationalism is on the decline. People are emerging from the nightmare of the twentieth century. Even in England it's being done by stealth. The welfare state is being dismantled. The politicians are lying. They say they're reinforcing it and making it more efficient, but in reality they are dismantling it. Scotland is pushing for independence. In Spain, Catalonia is pushing for independence.”
Lebanon is an interesting case and could be held up as a partial example for post-Assad Syria. It has never been unified. It never had a homegrown dictatorship. It never went through a socialist phase. Lebanon never wanted those things, never tried. It has a weak central state by design. That way, no one group can seize power and rule over the others. If anyone does seize power like Hezbollah recently did, it hardly makes any difference because the state’s teeth are so few and so small. Aside from Lebanon’s foreign policy shift, hardly anything changed after Hezbollah took over the government. Lebanon is still just as freewheeling and decadent as it was before.
Samy Gemayel, a member of parliament and the son of former president Amine Gemayel, had interesting things to say about all this. I asked him if Syria will still be viable as a state in the future. He blew out his breath in a loud exhale and paused several moments before answering. “It’s only viable if the Sunnis rule,” he said. “But I don’t believe they’ll accept the Alawites and Kurds as partners unless they have a federal state or a confederation. Otherwise they’ll need a partition.”
We shouldn’t forget that Syria’s borders were drawn not by Syrians, but by French imperialists. The Alawites wanted a state of their own north of Lebanon and south of Turkey in the green part of Syria between the Mediterranean and the an-Nusayriyah Mountains. They actually had a semi-autonomous Free Alawite State, complete with their own flag, before the French forced them back into a merger with the inland Sunni Arab region. The Kurds in the north and northeast likewise never wanted to be part of Syria. They wanted, and still want, an independent Kurdistan of their own. If the people of Syria had drawn their own borders, the country would be smaller and more cohesive than it currently is. It has only been held together thus far because it has been ruled by a totalitarian terrorist state.
“Look,” Gemayel said, “you have to understand something. There is no multicultural country in the world that can survive without some kind of a composite state. All multicultural nations are federal states. Belgium, Switzerland, Canada are all federal states. Spain doesn’t like to be called a federal state, but it is in fact a federal state. Multicultural states that don’t go to federalism go to partition like Yugoslavia. It’s very difficult without federalism. You’re asking people who are very different, who have different attachments to the region around them, to rule the country together. It’s impossible.”
Gemayel went on: "Neutrality and federalism are pillars of stability in multicultural states. Federalism gives tranquility to people inside the country, and neutrality gives them stability in international affairs. That’s why Switzerland is a neutral federal state. Because historically the French Swiss used to side with France and the German Swiss with Germany. So when France and Germany fought with each other, the French Swiss and German Swiss fought each other until Switzerland became neutral."
Iraq has something like a federal state. The Kurds in the north are sovereign in all but name. If Syria’s various pockets are given a similar autonomy in the future, it might hold together. But if the Alawites continue to rule with brute force, or if extremist Sunnis seize power in the smoldering aftermath and take revenge on the Alawites or impose another iron regime on minorities, Syria could very well break apart or remain an unstable war zone indefinitely. Mind game or not, all that is true. Après moi le déluge, as France’s Louis XV famously said. Assad is doing his worst to make sure that’s exactly what happens, not just because he’s a bastard (although he is) but because he and the Alawites fear they otherwise might not survive.
But a federation is a possibility once everything settles down, and if it’s implemented more or less correctly, Syria may finally cease being a menace to its neighbors as well as to itself.
Lebanon isn’t a federal state, nor is it neutral. The Syrian and Iranian regimes have used Hezbollah to seize pieces of the state for their own ends—namely, foreign policy and internal security. But Lebanon is almost a de-facto federal state, thanks in part to the pact the Lebanese made for themselves, but also thanks to geography. The mountains have been a refuge for the country’s Christians and Druze for a thousand years, and together they make up almost half of the country. No Muslim rulers, either Sunni or Shia, have ever been able do to that region what the Assads have done to Damascus or what Egypt’s pharaohs and military dictators so easily manage in the wide and flat Nile delta.
So while Lebanon isn’t exactly a model for Syria, it’s halfway to being a model.
“Lebanon skipped the 20th century,” Shehadi said. “We are now ahead of the game.”
In 2005, Peter Grimsditch, the British-born publisher of Beirut’s Daily Star newspaper, described Beirut as a city that thrives on “civilized anarchy” and added there’s nowhere he’d rather live. “I haven’t been anywhere in the world where I feel the power of the state bearing down on me less,” he said. “Europe is absolutely intolerable.”
You can live like a free human being there. I know, because I’ve done it, and I was doing it when I met Grimsditch. I have libertarian sympathies myself, but Lebanon is a great teacher of libertarian limits. The state is so weak that laws might as well not even exist. The state is so weak that foreign-backed militias can take over big chunks of the country.
Even so, it’s clearly better than living in a country with far too much government, which is what Syria has had the entire time I’ve been alive. It’s what a huge swath of the planet suffocated beneath in the twentieth century just as Nadim Shehadi said. If Syria is going to survive in one piece after the fall of Assad, it will need to be less like the Soviet Union and more like Lebanon. That’s what Shehadi says anyway, and I think he’s right.
His advice about how to become and remain a Middle Eastern dictator works very well indeed in a fractious country with a powerful centralized state, but it’s much harder to pull off in a place where dispersed communities contentedly govern themselves.
“If Syria is to become like Lebanon, though,” I said, “it will have to be like Lebanon without its militias.”
“Lebanon,” he said, “will be a very different place without the Assad regime next to it.”
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