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Foreign Policy: Unmasking the false reformer

Author: Hisham Melhem
April 22, 2011


Analysts assumed that the administration of the Western educated Bashar Assad would lead to a reformed and modernized Syria. Assad's actions reveal that this optimism was simply wishful thinking.

Over the last ten years many Western politicians and scholars took the road to Damascus holding out hope that the young Syrian President Bashar Assad who inherited power from his father Hafez Assad -- who created the first political dynasty in an Arab republic -- would lead Syria out of the political wilderness and place it on the path of political and economic reform. There was a naïve assumption that Bashar had the makings of a modern leader because he was in part Western educated, spoke relatively good English, and married a professional woman who worked as an investment banker in London. Many projected their own wishful thinking and illusions on the new leader who spoke about reform and modernization, believing that he would end more than 40 years of repressive Baathist monopoly on power that has arrested the development of a once vibrant country that boasts Aleppo and Damascus, two of the most important cities in the history of the Levant. The view was that engaging Bashar and dangling political and economic incentives would encourage him to reform domestically, remove him from Iran's orbit, and distance him from the radical Islamists in Hamas and Hezbollah, paving the way for eventual peace with Israel.

Before the demonstrations began last month, Syria had the distinct shame of being the only country with the oldest and the youngest political prisoners in the world:  The 80-year old human right activist, Haitham al-Maleh, and the 19 year old student blogger, Tal Mallouhi. In a chilling scene in one of the videos distributed by the opposition, "the banality of evil" is on full display. Rustum Ghazali -- who tormented Lebanon as head of Syrian intelligence prior to the forced pullout of Syrian forces in 2005, and who was sent by Bashar Assad to Dara'a to assure the notables of the city of their president's good intentions, says matter-of-factly: "We have released the children", a reference to the spark that ignited the uprising -- the arrest of a few children caught writing anti-regime graffiti.

In the last few weeks, Bashar's words and deeds in the face of nationwide peaceful, popular demonstrations demanding freedom and empowerment show once again how contemptuous he is of his own people. The reaction has been predictable -- a mixture of brute repression, live ammunition, mass arrests, thinly veiled bribes in the form of salary increases, some vague talk about reform, the use of paramilitary elements from the Alawi community as snipers directly targeted protesters in the city of Latakia, and now today's reports that at least 25 have been killed by security forces in a day of mass protests across the country. The regime has been true to form in trying to demonize and delegitimize the opposition as "traitors", "dupes" and "spies" serving Syria's enemies. When Bashar spoke days after protests started and with scores of dead and injured, he was his usual self: Smug, petulant, arrogant, and in denial. He accused his people of being tools in the hands of outside "conspirators" and, like other Arab despots, accused satellite television stations of incitement. His contempt for those millions of Arabs from Algeria to Yemen -- yearning to be treated as real citizens and not as mere subjects by their governments -- was jarring, especially when he described their uprisings as a "crazy fad".

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