Last chance for Syria’s Asad to reform

As such, it was not a surprise that in his speech Asad blamed much of the protests on foreign “conspirators.” Anyone who has spent time in Syria recognizes this paranoia. This conspiratorial mindset is commonplace. The problem is that there have, indeed, been foreign conspiracies in Syria over the decades to lend credence to such claims. So Asad thought he was preaching to the converted — certainly that was the case within the parliamentary chamber in which he spoke. But this is less the case for those outside of the building, where a new Middle East has changed perspectives and the level of demands by ordinary citizens. By blaming unseen forces of conspiracy, the government denied responsibility for and recognition of the very real socio-economic and political problems of a rising voice in Syria expressing frustration with the government for a lack of accountability, corruption and political repression and for rising poverty.

Asad also spoke with very little specificity about reforms, contrary to what most had expected. The next day he did announce the formation of a committee to study the lifting of the almost 50-year-long emergency law, although the concern is that it might be replaced by the same thing by another name. There were other tentative moves, much too tentative in the eyes of many. This is not to diminish the difficulty of effecting change in Syria, a country where institutional inertia makes any type of dramatic reform halting at best … not to even mention established interests in the military-security apparatus, the government and in the business community that might not look fondly upon reforms that threaten their socio-political and economic positions. Asad has to bargain, negotiate and manipulate to get things done, some of which have been impressive, but he has had more than 10 years of gathering loyalists around him to do more.

If I could once again meet with Asad today, I would tell him that he needs to use the popularity he still has in the country to build a critical mass of support for real change before a critical mass of opposition makes any concessions less than the removal of the regime unacceptable, the latter happening in Tunisia and in Egypt. He has already lost a healthy chunk of goodwill in his country by appearing to be too much like a typical Middle East dictator out of touch with reality. There is now too big of a gap in the Middle East between the expectations of dispossessed populations and the muted ability of archaic systems of government to respond. Syria cannot muddle through this as it has other crises in the past.

Asad mentioned in an interview in the midst of the protests in Tunisia and Egypt that his country was different — i.e., safe — because he had adopted sagacious foreign policies, not ones aligned with Israeli or American interests. True, Syria is different in some important ways, but those differences only bought him some time. He is not off the hook. He missed an opportunity to get ahead of the curve, and he is in grave danger of falling too far behind it, with stark choices ahead of him unless he finds the courage, wherewithal and imagination to do by other means now what he should have done before a room of sycophants in Parliament last week. The game may not be over, but it is definitely in the bottom of the ninth.

Lesch is a professor of Middle East history at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas. Among his many books are The New Lion of Damascus: Bashar al-Asad and Modern Syria; The Arab-Israeli Conflict: A History; and The Middle East and the United States: History, Politics and Ideologies.