Who Is Bashar al-Assad?

Friday, April 1, 2016
Sana Sana/Reuters
Joshua Landis

Director, Center for Middle East Studies, Department of International and Area Studies, University of Oklahoma

Andrew Tabler

Martin J. Gross Fellow, Washington Institute for Near East Policy

David Lesch

The Ewing Halsell Distinguished Professor of History, Trinity University, San Antonio, TX

Amy Davidson Sorkin

Staff Writer, New Yorker

Joshua Landis, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma; David Lesch, the Ewing Halsell Distinguished Professor of History at Trinity University; and Andrew Tabler, Martin J. Gross Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy join Amy Davidson of the New Yorker to discuss embattled Syrian President Bashar-al Assad. Touching on topics ranging from the regime’s endurance, to Assad’s personal background and defining personality traits, the panliests assess the current state of the conflict as it stands in relation to Assad himself. In painting a picture of what the panelists consider to be the most susceptible, yet most powerful man in Syria, the speakers track the chronology of his major decisions in the Syrian Civil War so far. 

In the Power Profile series, speakers discuss the leadership style, psychology, personality, and policies of well-known leaders from around the world.

DAVIDSON: Welcome to today’s Council on Foreign Relations Power Profile meeting on Bashar al-Assad.

Let me introduce our speakers. Right next to me is Joshua Landis—I’ll keep the backgrounds short, since you have the biographies in your—in your packets—David Lesch, and Andrew Tabler, not Tobler.

TABLER: (Laughs.)

DAVIDSON: So this is, again, a Power Profile, so I wanted to frame the discussion a little bit by thinking about what that—what that means, what the power and the profile—the personality and the exercise of governing power—mean together. Profiles are something that you can have more than one of at a given time, as Assad certainly has in his career. But then there are moments when there’s only one option for the power, where you can’t keep so many faces.

So I want to maybe start with one of those moments for thinking about Assad, and just bring the three of you back to the morning of March 30th, 2011. This is a time when Syria is on edge. Dozens of protesters—which seemed like a lot at the time—had been killed. There have been pictures of child protesters who have been tortured. There’s a great deal of pressure on the regime. Assad hasn’t been seen in two weeks, and he’s giving a highly anticipated speech to the Syrian parliament, and there’s an expectation that’s hardened into an assumption that he’s going to announce major reforms. That doesn’t happen. He comes out and talks about people being duped and conspiracies. So I want—you know, David, maybe you can start by talking about the shock of that moment and its implications—what it meant, both for this idea of who he was and the exercise of power in Syria.

LESCH: Yeah. Well, there was—during the course of my research, and involved in a particular project on Syria on which I’m working over the last three years, I had the opportunity to connect again with many people who are close to Assad, some of whom are still with him, others who are in exile or defected or left the government for one reason or another. And a consistent picture emerged when examining this, is that there was a lot of confusion, and potentially intrigue in the—certainly the weeks and the days since the disturbances in Deraa and Assad’s speech. And there was a lot of mystery of, you know, where he was, you know, what was he going to do in this speech, which I think is a seminal moment in modern Middle East history.

And what I learned from many of these people who were involved in the—in the preparation for the speech is that there were many different drafts. One person, who is a close friend of Assad who’s no longer in the government, he saw a draft about an hour before Bashar went to the Syrian parliament to deliver his speech, and it was full of concessions and announcements of reforms. And so, when Assad gave his speech in the parliament on TV and this guy was watching it on TV, he was shocked to see that it was another version. And, in his mind and other people who I met who were involved in that particular situation, they believe that some of the security chiefs got to Assad. And there has been a tug—there was a tug-of-war between a number of different individuals, some counseling, you know, that he make concessions, some that he cracked down, and that ultimately the security chiefs convinced Assad that they could put down the uprising in a couple of weeks, and then they could just go back to normal. And so he gave that speech—which, you know, reflects the fact that he’s someone that a lot of people had hope for when he came into power as a reformer.

And this was—in my view, this was his moment, you know, and a lot of people in Syria—opposition and pro-Assad—were waiting for this moment. Could he be the person they all thought he hoped he could be, finally stand up to the hardliners and do something? And obviously, he did not, and there was a great deal of disappointment—a lot of disappointment among Syrian officials and government people with whom I’ve spoken, not just the opposition.

DAVIDSON: So, in a way, each draft of that speech represents a different profile of who Assad was. Andrew, why do you think he picked up one draft rather than the other?

TABLER: I think he saw what happened in Cairo and had happened in Tunisia, and I think he feared that it was going to happen to him. I think that would be certainly a key factor, I think.

I thought it was very interesting that the drafts—it wasn’t just that there were drafts. That was well-known, and David’s completely right. It’s that they were actually given, full paragraph, to David Ignatius to write in The Washington Post as a—as a prelude to this great announcement. And then, when it completely ended up being the reverse, I realized that we were going down a very, very different road.

And I think it’s—you know, one of the things that struck me the most living in Syria, especially—and this was something that people close to the regime used to speak with me about often—was the—how much more unpredictable Bashar was than his father, and they were adamant about that. They used the word “moody.” In this case, I think he probably was on the horns of a dilemma. He could go down the road that David had mentioned, or he could try and shoot his way out of it. And unfortunately, he chose the latter, and we have this result.

DAVIDSON: Josh, do you want to—

LANDIS: Well, I think—I think what we’ve seen out of Assad is that the regime is extremely brittle. He can’t really reform. I have very little hopes that there is going to be any reform in the regime. What we’ve seen over five years is the regime shrink to a very small little part of Syria, and it would have shrunk further. And it can expand, but it can’t reform. The Alawites, I think, understand that if they begin to dissemble their regime, they’re going to fall apart.

DAVIDSON: Well, let’s just—let me just interrupt and say I’m sure most people know, but Assad and his family are members of the Alawite minority community. So maybe you could also just throw in a little bit about what that means about the personalities of the regime and about Assad’s own connections.

LANDIS: Well, I mean, I’m sure all of you are familiar with the Alawite sect to a certain degree. It’s 12 percent—10 to 12 percent of the Syrian population. When the French arrived in 1920, the Alawites were segregated demographically almost entirely from the Sunni community. There was no town of over 200 people in which Sunnis and Alawites lived together. Latakia, Jableh, Tartus, Baniyas, the coastal cities were all Sunni cities with large Christian minorities. There were, of course, Alawite servants, but they didn’t live there. The first censuses taken by the Syrians showed that there were—they didn’t have Alawites in the cities.

Now, the integration that’s taken place has taken place since then. And it is—it’s important, but not that important. It’s modern. The Alawites, when they came to Damascus in big numbers after Hafez al-Assad took power in the ’70s, were called muwafeddin (ph), concurrent commonly in Damascus. And I heard that word many times living there in the 1980, ’81, ’82, when I was a Fulbrighter there, and at the time of Hama. These muwafeddin (ph) is people who have come in, are alien from—who have come in from the outside. And this has been the dilemma. The Alawites were met—the Muslim Brotherhood from the beginning, in the 1950s and ’60s—Said Hawwa, the big intellectual of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, described the Alawites as unbelievers, and that this was a war of ridda, they’re murtadin (ph), because they’re apostates, and it would be like Abu Bakr, the first caliph, having to reconvert Arabia to Islam after the Arab tribes pulled away from Islam and forsook Mohammed.

DAVIDSON: And yet, Assad married somebody who is from outside that community.

LANDIS: Yes, he has, and so has the Jordanian king. And so, you know, I think this is nation-building. You know, the Saudis made love, not war. Of course, they made war first, but then they made love, and they tried to unite their kingdom on the marriage bed. And Assad was doing the same thing. Of course, he couldn’t have four wives or, you know, many more, as the Saudi kings did, but nation-building was part of the process.

But the Alawite community felt very estranged. And when they—when this first shooting began, the security people were telling everybody that they had been rolling up two or three cells of jihadists every month for the last several years, since the war in Iraq, and that if you let this demonstration of people—young boys who are young—the median age in Syria is 21, so most of those people out there didn’t know Hama, they didn’t know the bloodshed that had proceeded. They wanted reforms. But if you let them begin to go down that road of losing power, that the jihadis were going to take over. I think the regime people felt sure of that. And so, when—if Assad had been tempted to go down the road of reform, the people around him said, you’re a fool, you’re naïve, you don’t understand the region. We’re the ones who have been keeping these jihadis down. We’ve been rolling them up. We’ve been controlling them, manipulating them, sending them into Iraq. You can’t do this. You will be swept aside. And so he shot. And that’s where we’ve been ever since, and I think it will be very difficult for him to let go without fearing terrible revenge for the community and for, of course, his family.

LESCH: It’s interesting, on the subject of those surrounding the speech, I actually wrote a letter to him through a contact I had in the—in the Syrian government, and I never knew whether or not he read the letter. And it was, you know, advising him or whatever, just making some suggestions regarding what he could do in terms of reform—presidential term limits, some of this sort of thing—trying to encourage him to be the person that we all thought, you know, he could be, sort of that sort of thing. And he—the interesting thing about it is I learned, you know, a couple of years later from two different people that he did, in fact, read it. And what’s interesting about that is not so much that he read it—and obviously rejected—(laughs)—anything I said—but that there were people from two different sources close to him who brought it to him, who obviously read it and wanted him, perhaps, to go down this road.

I agree with my friends Andrew and Josh that, you know, I always thought that Assad—again, many people hoped he would change the system. It seemed that the system changed him, and that this system has a reflexive, convulsive reaction to disturbance; and they use the hammer, they don’t use the velvet glove.

DAVIDSON: Well, this is an interesting question, because it gets to the matter of agency. You know, I went back and looked at the coverage of this speed, and the Times report included this line: “What the speech did accomplish”—it had mentioned all the things it didn’t accomplish, which were many—“was to explode a narrative that had been written about the president since he took office 11 years ago, that his efforts at reform were being blocked by holdovers from the era of his father, Hafez al-Assad.” But in a way, what you’re saying is that it didn’t so much explode that narrative, but say “and they’ve won”—“and the holdovers have won.” It brings us to the question, did Assad at that moment have power? Did—

LESCH: The holdovers were gone. By 2005, you know, the Baath Party Regional Congress in that summer, I mean, he was putting his people in. Josh said it very well after the Hariri assassination and withdrawal from Lebanon, that he may have lost Beirut but he gained Damascus. And so he used that episode to really secure his way and power. And when I, you know, visited him in 2005 and early 2006, his people were in the Cabinet, they were in the Baath Party regional command, in the military security apparatus. So, you know, there is no excuses in terms of, you know, him being forced to. This was his decision, and he had power. And he could have gone one way.

It’s easy for us armchair historians or political scientists to say, you should have done this. You should have made the reforms and fought against the system. I had a top Hezbollah guy tell me—who’s pro-Assad—say that he had the people with him; he could have used the people against those hardliners.

DAVIDSON: So he could have pushed back against this message that you’ll be swept aside if you—

LESCH: He could have, but, you know, there was a gun to his head perhaps.

DAVIDSON: Or he was—or was he—I guess the question is whether he was holding the gun or if the gun was—(laughter). But the whole idea, the idea—the idea of this young aspiring reformer with the fashionable British-born wife, was this always a delusion? Was it our delusion? Was it shared by Syrians as well? Was it ever real, or were we always taking the style and not really looking at the substance, Andrew?

TABLER: I think that a lot of Syrians certainly believe it. And early on it was easier to believe because, of course, Hafez’s term had just—or he had just died. And the only way was up, really. I mean, they had survived. I think that Bashar promised a lot. And there were a lot of what became known as, you know, the Damascus Spring and then later the reforms. There were a lot of reforms that were launched. And it was into that that I come to Syria and saw firsthand. And people were giddy with the idea of reform, because what had happened in the previous decades, not just under the Assads but the political turmoil since independence until Assad, they really wanted to have some sort of soft landing to this. But unfortunately that wasn’t – that didn’t prove to be the case.

DAVIDSON: Just to throw in a reminder that Assad was only, I believe, 34 when he came to power, which is ten years younger than Marco Rubio, for perspective. (Laughs.) So and—

LESCH: And they had to change the constitution to get—because this was—

TABLER: Yeah, to 34. (Laughter.)

DAVIDSON: And you know—

LANDIS: I don’t think there’s a lot of contradiction between those things, in the sense that I think Assad came to power, he was fairly naïve, he let most of the people out of prison that his father had imprisoned for decades, the Muslim Brothers and so forth. The prison numbers got down quite low. He thought he could modernize. Without changing politics, he thought he could put a chicken in everybody’s pot. But the reality of power remained the same. He may not have understood that he was going to have to do that, or that he was going to have to—you know, he was going to face another Hama and, in a sense, come out with guns blazing.

But he learnt that. And that’s what he’s learnt over the five years, I think, is that he has got to win this war, or else he’s going to lose. And that’s what he’s done. He probably didn’t realize that he’d ever have to do this. And I think the awkwardness of those speeches that he gave was of seeing a boyish guy who was naïve trying to deny that he was going to shoot everybody. And he finally learnt, slowly, that that’s what was going to happen.

LESCH: I think, you know, one of the things, you know, talking about when he came to power and the expectations, the expectations in the West were way too high for him. The first time I met with him, and after we exchanged pleasantries and I explained what I wanted to do and all that stuff, I told him, you know, Mr. President, the biggest mistake you ever made upon coming to power in 2000 was letting it be known that you liked Phil Collins music, the British rocker. (Laughter.) And he looked at me kind of weird, but I said, no, because that information was disseminated. And it reinforced this image, this mythology that was building in the West that because he was an ophthalmologist, non-traditional path to power, because he spent 18 months in London studying an advanced degree in ophthalmology—

DAVIDSON: His father hadn’t trained him to be a dictator, the way his older brother had been trained?

TABLER: There was some training.

LESCH: Yeah, there was some. I mean, he had several years after Bassel had died. And he was being groomed, although they deny it. But there were high expectations because, you know, he was supposed to be this modernizing reformer who would make peace with Israel and with the United States because of this unusual background. But what people didn’t understand, and what a lot of us have been saying for years, is that, you know, he’s a child of the Arab-Israeli conflict. He’s a child of a superpower of Cold War. He’s a child of the tumult in Lebanon. And most of all, he’s a child of Hafez al-Assad.

That’s what shaped his world view more than 18 months in London, Phil Collins music, and the technological toys of the West—as he’s a computer nerd and avid photographer. So there was this image that, you know, totally was inconsistent with reality, and the reality of the Syrian system. So when these expectations were not met, certainly in the West, therefore the disappointment was that much greater.

TABLER: What Josh mentioned about how brittle the regime was, I remember the thing that struck me, and when I realized really how rigid it was—so when I—for a time I worked for one of Asma Assad’s charities dealing with world development. And that charity, which actually did a lot of good work, did a lot of research in rural areas and did a lot of the—it had mapped with the U.N. a lot of the demographic rural explosions that had happened in the 10 years after the Hama massacre, when everybody stayed home and there was this huge spike in birthrates.

And so the NGO that she had created was putting out all of this information, including to the palace, about here is this problem. Here is this problem we’re going to have to deal with. And you’re essentially sharing a bed with the president and still, despite all the advice that would come out of that NGO, just in that narrow sense, there were—the resulting reforms did not accommodate that growing population. So in a way he had a Sunni wife who was switched on enough to be able to map this kind of stuff, gave that advice to the presidency, but still at the same time the system couldn’t accommodate it. It simply couldn’t change. And then eventually, of course, those people overwhelmed the system when they came out on the streets in 2011.

DAVIDSON: For five years after the speech, somewhere between a quarter of a million and a half million people are dead. Four million people in Syria are refugees. It almost—you know, we’ve talked a lot. Give us a sense of what we know about Assad explains just the brutality of the war—the barrel bombs, the cities that are made to starve, the indifference to civilian life—that the way the war has been waged, not just its persistence.

LANDIS: If I could take a stab at that. I’ve tried to compare what’s going on in the larger Middle East, especially the Levant, to what happened in World War II in Central Europe. All these nations, Poland to Palestine, are the class of 1919 Paris peace conference X multiethnic, multi-religious empires. Lines were drawn, people who didn’t want to live together were stuck together. In World War II, that explosion took place and the borders weren’t changed, but the people were changed to fit the borders. Poland was 64 percent Polish, 100 percent Polish by the end of the war. Czechoslovakia, 32 percent minorities, all of them killed or ethnically cleansed by the end of the war.

That was true right down through Romania. Twelve million Germans ethnically cleansed from ethnic Europe, 6 million Jews killed, Ruthenians, others. Of course, Yugoslavia came later, 1990 exploded, six, seven nation-states made out of it. You could argue that Ukraine is being sorted out today. This is the great sorting out, as I’ve called it. The Middle East is going through a great sorting out. We’ve already seen that with the Jews being booted out of every city in the Middle East, and in Europe. They collected in Palestine, a minority, they’re the only minority that was able to, in a sense, become a majority in Palestine.

But all the other states were minority states because of the colonial experience. The Maronites in Lebanon, Sunnis in Iraq, Alawites in Syria. And those minorities are clinging on for dear life, because they see it as a zero-sum game. Twenty percent Christians in Anatolia, all ethnically cleansed during the Turkish revolution. So almost all the minorities—the Christian minorities and so forth are gone from Iraq as a result of this sorting out. And the Sunnis and Shiites fighting it out.

Now, Syria’s the same way. The Alawites look at this world. They say, there’s no more Christians in Turkey. There are no more Palestinians in Palestine—of course, there are, but there’s not going to be a two- state solution probably. The Maronites lost. The Ba’athists lost in Iraq. They look at a very grim future. If they lost, high chances they would be ethnically cleansed. So they barrel bombed. They would use any methods in order to destroy their enemy. And they have. And that’s because they see it as a quintessentially, you know, existential fight.

And so you know, the numbers haven’t arrived to Eastern European numbers. And of course, it’s religion that defines, in a sense, nationalism in the Middle East, not ethnicity as it was in Central Europe. So it’s quite different. It’s Alawites, Jews, Sunnis, Shiites, so forth, Maronites. But what we’re seeing—you know, how do you put that back together? That’s a problem, is now do you—you know, America wants to put all those people back in power-sharing units. They’re trying to destroy this giant Sunni state that’s been created by ISIS, and to put everybody back into these 1919 states and make Shiites and Sunnis and everybody get along. And I fear that it’s going to be very difficult to do that.

DAVIDSON: What role, though, did Assad play, do you think, in making this more of a sectarian and less of political conflict, which it had some hints of—maybe it never was one, but in himself becoming more Alawite than he’d ever been, of other sides seeing it more in religious terms? What role did he play in that? What there a deliberation? What there an attempt to appeal to those senses?

LESCH: Well, you know, it’s much more nuanced than, you know, the Alawite versus the jihadist Sunnis and so forth. You know, the Alawite leadership in Syria, they’ve, you know, cultivated their ties with the Sunni business class, mercantile class. Bashar did a particularly—played a particularly active role in cultivating Sufi orders in Syria, largely Sunni. And so it’s much more mixed, his power base, than most people figure. And in fact, many Alawites were alienated, you know, from their fellow Alawites who were in power. Now they are, you know, coming together, congealing, because there’s really no other alternative. And that’s kind of the binary situation that Assad and his supporters have been trying to create in Syria since the beginning of this crisis, that he is the only alternative. He’s the least-worst, you know, alternative. And the other—the only other answer to this, the only other alternative is this jihadist state of ISIS and al-Nusra. And that’s unacceptable to most Syrians.

TABLER: I think one way that he’s made it sectarian is that—and David’s right. It is complicated. It’s not like all minorities back Assad and all Sunnis back—the Sunni community’s extremely diverse. But the one way that he has made it, I think, sectarian is that—so the biggest problem in Syria for the regime is reliable manpower. And because of the president’s response to the uprising, recruiting that reliable manpower from the majority Sunni population is difficult. So what he did, and what has subsequently happened, is that they reorganized the Syrian forces. It’s not just the Syrian-Arab Army anymore. But you have the national defense forces, which were partially trained up and organized by the IRGC Quds Force from Iran, but also invited in Hezbollah and Shia militias from Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

And that’s not new. What is—what causes problems is when they start showing up in places—when these Shia forces start showing up in places where there aren’t a lot of Shia, like in southern Syria, for example, the Shaykh Maskin battle. And so with that, it, you know, unfortunately plays into the jihadist narrative that there’s this, you know, Iranian-backed alliance supporting Assad, which is true, but then they take it a step further and say, no, actually the United States is in league with it. And then that causes all—you know, and they use it in these different ways that end up, you know, costing Americans their lives.

DAVIDSON: Talking about power, power means you can do something—or that’s one meaning of it. Could Assad end this? Could he—could he do something that would end this in some way, even theoretically? And what would that look like? You’re laughing, so you get to start.

LESCH: He could walk out the door. That would end it. (Laughs.) But he’s not going to do that.

DAVIDSON: Would that do it? Would that do it? You know, we’ve talked a lot about the structures and—

LESCH: Well, let’s put it this way, he’s not going to do it. You know, I was in Brussels—Lela (sp) was there with me—about a month and a half ago. And there was a group of NGOs working on this situation. And, you know, talking about—and we were informing Staffan de Mistura, you know, making recommendations at the time the negotiations were going on. And I just made this impassioned speech, if you will, that there’s just no way—I know these guys—there’s no way they’re going to give up power. There’s just no way. And they will fight.

They will—they think—and Assad—and I saw this even before the uprising, that the well-being of the country is synonymous with his well-being. You know, this bubble, this alternative reality that Roger Owen talked about, the preeminent Middle East scholar in his book “Presidents for Life.” You know, this alternate reality is constructed around these authoritarian leaders. And they see the world in a different conceptual paradigm. And the nature of threat is different. And so—and they define that threat and what to do about it in a very different way than those people outside of this bubble, even in Syria.

LANDIS: I think that he thinks that he’s going to reconquer the country. Russia’s going to help him. And that will make everything right. And that the foreigner, jihadist conspirators will all be kicked out, and that Syria will be saved. And that’s his slogan. That’s what he believes and that’s what he’s intending to do. And I think he believes it.

LESCH: Agree—absolutely agree.

DAVIDSON: But speaking about leaders in a bubble, let me ask you just—we’re about to open up to member’s questions—so let me quickly ask you just a lightning round thing. Next year you’re advising President Trump on dealing—(laughter)—dealing with Assad. You’re not going to get him to read a briefing book. So what’s the one phrase you want him to keep in mind when he’s dealing directly with Assad in the way that he wants voters to keep low energy in mind when they’re dealing with looking at Jeb Bush or “lyin’ Ted.” What’s that slogan you want him to have in his head when he’s dealing with that name, nickname, that one little phrase that sums—that would be helpful for President Trump.

TABLER: You mean he would be directly engaging with Assad?

DAVIDSON: Engaging maybe not in a room, but in dealing in—yeah, yes.

TABLER: I don’t think any American president will be directly engaging with Assad—

DAVIDSON: Or indirectly.

TABLER: Or indirectly. But you’re saying how would you essentially deal with this?

DAVIDSON: What would you tell him? When he’s, like, Jeb was low energy, he’s “lyin’ Ted,” who is this guy? What’s useful for him?

TABLER: Yeah, I mean, the fact is, it gets back to your original setup, right, like which guy is this? How do we figure out? You know, how do you figure out? Is it Bashar, the reasonable reformer or the hardline dictator who’s killed all these people? Well, the only way to cut through that, that I know of, if you would have to put it into hard dilemmas. And the only way you can put him into hard dilemmas is you’d have to be willing to follow through on whatever dilemma you put him into.

DAVIDSON: This is President Trump, so you just have to give him one-sentence advice. (Laughter.) I’m not sure there is a really easy one sentence to—I would say set up your dilemmas well.

LESCH: OK. I would say—if he was meeting with Assad, and I am President Trump right now—(laughter)—which is the first and only time this will happen—I’d say: Mr. President, you have to give up enough power. The crux of any sort of political settlement is: You have to give up enough power, if you’re still in power and remain in power for the foreseeable future, to satisfy the minimum demands of a critical mass of the opposition of the rest of the Syrian population that has moved on, that has gone on with their lives, and have been empowered with five years without the state.

DAVIDSON: So he’s the guy who’s got to give up some power?

LESCH: Yeah. It ain’t going to happen, but. (Laughs.)

LANDIS: I would say, it’s a bad deal. (Laughter.) That’s what I would say. It’s a bad deal. He said it himself many times. This part of the Middle East is a bad deal. We can spend trillions of dollars—

DAVIDSON: So your advice is stay away from there?

LANDIS: Get out of there.

DAVIDSON: The guy to stay away from.

LANDIS: There are more Shiites from one end of Lebanon to the other end of Iraq than there are Sunni Arabs. There is a majority Shiites from one end of that region to the other. Iran and Russia are committed to a Shiite crescent, if you will, a new security zone that’s there. We can fight them for it. And I’ve argued with many people about—you know, there are people in Washington, lots, who want to fight Russia for that security belt.

DAVIDSON: All right, and I bet there are people who have—who have great questions. How about you, right there? Oh, and identify yourself if you would, yeah.

Q: Hi. Claire Casey, Garten Rothkopf.

So much of this conversation—no today, but just generally—is about should Assad leave, will he leave? Is that irrelevant? What I’m hearing you say is that the institutions themselves and the regime without Assad is still unworkable.

DAVIDSON: That’s a great question, because it has been the tension running through what you’ve said.

LESCH: Yeah.

LANDIS: I don’t—I don’t think it is. I think that many of these Middle Eastern states are too brittle. You take out the leading families, like taking out the Saudi family from Saudi Arabia, what would you have left? You would have nothing. You’d have a bunch of tribes fighting each other. Probably in Jordan if you got rid of the Hashemite family the place would crumble. And I think in Syria if you get rid of the Assad family, the Alawite generals around him will fight each other, just the same what the Sunni rebels have all fought each other, because there is not a democratic tradition. They all want power. They’ve been played that way by Assad to keep them balanced so that they will have to fight each other in order to consolidate a new regime.

So if Russia were to pluck him out with his brother and all of his attendants, and his loyal people, you would get a hole in the middle of that regime that would cause chaos, coups, instability. And Russia won’t do it, because Assad has rigged—he has made the state into a—in a sense, a reflection of himself, with Alawites stacked and his family at the core, because he knows that a lot of people are trying to do just what we’re talking about. And America’s been trying to do it for decades. And he needed to coup-proof that regime. And he’s made it into a mine, so that it will turn out to be an Afghanistan if they get rid of him.

LESCH: And indeed, that’s Russia’s—one of their main arguments is, you know, what has regime change done in the Middle East with the U.S., and particularly in Iraq, and what happened in Libya? You’ve had the collapse of the state. So regardless whether or not you like Assad, this is keeping at least what’s left together and any hope of something that resembles Syria staying together.

TABLER: The problem, though, is that it’s not stable. I mean, if this is stability—I mean, I realize it could get more chaotic, but the sectarian war that’s generated, you know, and actually, you know, attracts foreign fighters, the number of migrants and the—you know, the cleaning Josh was talking about, those kinds of things are unhinging European security. Unfortunately, Assad staying is going to mean instability to a very high degree. And the question is whether we can live with that or not.

Q: Good afternoon. Ariel Cohen, the Atlantic Council.

Looking at the instabilities that you all described in Syria, Iraq, et cetera, is it in our interest to sort of facilitate and develop the ostensible alliance with the Sunnis and draw Russia and Iran in a protracted conflict there, because we don’t want them to dominate that area? Can we do that? Are the Sunnis capable of doing that? Or do we need to take a neutral sort of Obama-like position and say, well, we’re talking to everybody but we’re not committing?

DAVIDSON: I think you’ve spoken to that a little. So, David, why don’t you—do you want to—

LESCH: I have taken the position, and in some places it’s popular and in some places it isn’t, that the Obama administration as carried out the correct policy with regard to Syria. I tend to agree with what Josh has said, in that trying to interpret and calibrate your actions in an area like the Middle East, especially in what it has become, is just foolhardy, in my opinion. I mean, the mistakes that I think the Obama administration has made has been in managing expectations around this. The biggest mistake, you know, in this—certainly outside of Bashar al-Assad’s initial mistake of cracking down harshly on the protestors—was the West assuming that he was going to fall, and following, you know, what happened in Egypt, and Tunisia, and Libya, and elsewhere. And of course, that didn’t happen.

And what that did, is by saying he’s illegitimate, by telling him to step aside or step down, it backed the regime in a corner where the only choice was to fight in order to maintain power. In my mind, in meeting with Russians from very early on, they had a better understanding of the situation in Syria very, very early on, that Assad was going to stay in power and that this thing was going to be a protracted conflict for a number of years.

Q: Patrick Theros. I run the U.S.-Qatar Business Council. I served in Damascus in happier days. First of all, let me congratulate you. This is the most rational discussion group on Syria that I’ve heard in the last year. So very good. (Laughter.)

But I noticed that the word “Baath” almost never appeared in your conversation. Are there any larger than sectarian institutions left in the Levant, or have they all gone away?


TABLER: Well, yes, I mean, theoretically you have not just the Ba’ath party still functioning, you have the Syrian state. What does it mean anymore? Theoretically it’s there, at the core of the regime. It gives a veneer or some sort of Pan-Arab rallying ethos, or whatever you want to call it, theory. But the sectarianism, which was always right below the surface in Syria, I think now is the primary dynamic. I mean, it gets talked—you know, when Josh was talking about the Shia crescent. It used to be, when I lived in—first live in the Middle East, that Sunni and Shia didn’t come up as much. In Syria, it was always discouraged. Now, people talk about it a lot. Even businessmen from Damascus that I meet when they come to Beirut speak in Sunni/Shia terms, which is interesting to me because it’s in a mixed area where these things traditionally didn’t mean as much.

DAVIDSON: The woman in the back.

Q: Thank you. Hi. Barbara Slavin from the Atlantic Council. Great panel, I agree.

One of you—I think perhaps it was David Lesch—said that we thought that Bashar al-Assad was Fredo and he turned out to be Michael. (Laughter.) I think that’s your line, so I hope I’m quoting you correctly. Given everything that you’ve said, what’s the purpose of these peace talks that are going to resume, supposedly in Geneva? What’s the best possible outcome? Is it just a continuation of a lesser level of hostilities so that aid can be distributed? Do you have any expectation that it would actually lead to a quote, unquote “settlement”? Thanks.

LESCH: Yeah, good question. I have a good friend of mine who’s the U.N. liaison in Damascus. And a remarkable guy. I saw him in Beirut one of my trips to Beirut last year. And I put to him kind of that same question. I said: You’re putting your life in danger and all of this, for what? Because it’s just almost an impossible task. And, you know, very emotionally, he said: We have to try. We have to try. We’ve got to do something. People are dying. The country is falling apart. And so you have these remarkable people that are trying to do the impossible. And you know, they’ve given up these grandiose attempts, in many ways.

And some of the U.N. special envoys, you know, they came in and they announced, you know, they wanted a holiday—you know, a three-day holiday with Lakhdar Brahimi, and then Staffan de Mistura with the freeze and all that. These things never had a chance from the beginning, but there’s political pressure to do something dramatic. I think there’s been a change with the U.N. approach to this after a lot of people got to them, finally, and after the reality of this situation that you have to try this incremental slow fix. And, you know, you have to work on the humanitarian issues.

Now, on the other side of that—and the U.N. approach is the small steps hoping to build up confidence and trust and, you know, the ink blot ceasefire type of approach. But now you have Russia and the United States as well trying to congeal their regional allies behind a common approach. And that’s been a positive thing, in my view. But you know, as long as Assad is there and saying such things—and I’m not—Andrew and I were talking about this beforehand. Maybe you want to comment on it. You know, I’m not convinced that the Russians are going to really put pressure on Assad to accede to a managed transition, even though in track two talks that we’ve all been involved I with Russians, and speaking with Russian officials, they all say—one of the first things out of their mouths is, you know, we don’t really like Assad. We’re not committed to him.

Yet, gee, they’re putting in all these troops and all that. They’re committed to that—to him being a strategic ally. They’re committed to keeping this regime in power, and it happens to be Assad there. And then what we were saying about Assad and his view in terms of staying in power, I just—I just don’t see something happening with regard to these negotiations, particularly because the Kurds aren’t in there, you know, which is a major—(laughs)—a major issue in my view. And so it’s just—I just don’t think anything’s going to happen in the short term. But the key is to keep it—to keep it going. And that’s what Staffan de Mistura is trying to do—keep a process going so that it doesn’t break down dramatically, as Geneva II did.

LANDIS: You know, what the regime people say is: We would go to any meeting that de Mistura invited us to, even to the wedding of his son. (Laughter.) Then they say, well, what are we going to negotiate with this delegation that’s there? The only militia leader that’s there is Mohammed Alloush. And he owns Douma, or half of Douma. And we could negotiate to get that half of Douma back from him, but none of them own anything. They don’t own any territory in all of Syria. What are they going to negotiate with us? They want Assad to go. We’re not going to give it to them. And that’s the end of the discussion, because they don’t own any land.

LESCH: Can I just add something to that? I talked with one of the top security guys of Assad in Beirut. And it was after Geneva II. And he was the guy in the back row who was really running things, not Bouthaina Shaaban, not Jaafari. You know, this guy is the one who was running it. And he was bemoaning this Geneva II meeting. And he said exactly, you know, reflecting what Josh said. He said, I can get on the phone and stop fighting on our side on all the fronts. Now, I don’t know if they could do that again, because it’s become kind of, you know, dispersed, the regime forces. But I could get on the phone and I could stop it. Who on the—who on this delegation can call and stop the fighting on the opposition side more than one little area, one little zone? So, you know, it’s an issue.

DAVIDSON: So, in a way, there’s a power question on the other side.

LESCH: From the—

DAVIDSON: And then there’s a—

TABLER: Yeah, from the—but the Riyadh grouping does represent a number of groups from throughout the country. But the problem with umbrella organizations is that you’re never really sure—you don’t—you don’t just have one address, right. And that is—that’s a difficulty. And that’s actually the U.S. homework in the—in the negotiations, whereas the Russians have a different bit of homework. Theirs is to make less rigid a historically very rigid regime.

Q: Simon Henderson, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Thank you very much.

The title of this is “Power Profile.” At the moment, I don’t feel that I know Bashar al-Assad any better than what I did when I walked in the room. And what are the adjectives that—or the single adjectives that you would use to describe him? We’ve heard that he’s influenced by the hard-liners, the reformists, his wife. But—you probably haven’t seen it, and I haven’t seen it—but there’s presumably a personality profile of him written somewhere in the CIA. What does it say? To me he looks like a chinless geek. But is he—is he indecisive? Is he evil? Is he delusional? What are the words, the single words, you would use to describe him?

DAVIDSON: Which again, might be useful for President Trump. (Laughter.)

TABLER: So I think the appropriate term here—I mean, and I’ve, you know, struggled with this over the years and when I lived in Syria. And I earlier used the word “moody.” I think that’s true. And—but it doesn’t mean that he’s not intelligent certainly and able to maneuver.

I think the term that I’ve settled on is “borderline personality.” I think it—he sometimes has bouts of where he’s extremely rational and you can deal with it and then other times when I, for the life of me, can’t figure out what he’s doing. And I don’t think the people around him can either.

DAVIDSON: All right. Quick, what words?

LESCH: “Measured” and “desperate.” Measured because he doesn’t make decisions decisively or dramatically and he likes to think things over. Whether that’s an active or passive approach, it depends on the situation. Desperate, I think, now because I think he realizes that, you know, for one, this dream he had of Syria being, you know, this internationally recognized country that’s integrated into the world community just isn’t going to happen. And he realizes that he’s—he has to rely on the Russians and the Iranians and Hezbollah to stay—to stay in power.


DAVIDSON: How about your words?

LANDIS: Yeah, I think he’s rational. He’s—he is very limited by his world. He got out to Europe once. He’s gotten a Syrian education, which isn’t a great education. And he’s—the job was way too big for him. He’s shy. He’s a little bit indecisive. But he’s allowed the people around him in a sense to—he forms a consensus with the—with the major security guys around him. He’s got a loyal crew that are working hard and doing—but he’s in a very brittle regime where he cannot give up power for the Alawites because all the people around him will be killed very quickly.

And I think that’s the major constraint. He’s trying to keep those people alive. And the entire Alawite community, vast majority, agree with him. And you can argue that he’s backed them into it and he should have just flown away and they would have been OK, but that’s—you know, he did save his crew, and ultimately he dragged his entire, you know, nation into this conflagration. But he may come out of it with the people of the coast alive. And if he does, then he will see himself as being a victor.

DAVIDSON: I think part of your question was also about Assad as a family member. Who does he—who’s—when he—who is his family in his view? Who are the people at the table who are part of the Assad family, who he listens to? Do we know?

TABLER: Yeah, I mean, we have—you know, we have his immediate family—and I brought this along; I didn’t think we were going to use it—but this is—this is on our institute’s website. And this talks about the members of the Assad regime. And here you have—the red lines are blood relations. The white ones are non-blood. And then it’s broken down by sect.

So we know who’s in the regime. I think the hardest part is the visibility inside of the regime in terms of the relationships between these people at any one time is difficult to ascertain. And therefore it gets down to if you decide to pressure such a regime or take military action against such a regime, for example, you don’t really know exactly what’s going to happen. We know who’s there. We just don’t know what they would do in certain situations.

LANDIS: And the family—you know, if we compare it to the Saddam Hussein family, which, I think, is an apt comparison because both are—represent small minorities that dominated their countries through a single party, Ba’ath Party, for a long time.

The Assad family is fairly functional. They’ve never killed anybody within the family. They’ve always been polite. Even Rifaat al-Assad, who did try a coup when his brother had a heart attack in ’84, gave—got three chances: sent out of the country, came back in; sent out of the country; came back in, finally sent into exile with billions of dollars.

And—but nobody in the family has ever been killed by another family member. And there is—we can argue about, you know, the—before he was a family member, the brother-in-law—

TABLER: (Inaudible.) (Laughter.)

LANDIS: But once he became a—once he married the sister, they were good to go, and he was made head of intelligence. He was in.

So, you know, there’s the sort of Mafiosi paradigm. But the family has been—is a middle class family. Hafez al-Assad was a dignitary who signed petitions under the French, the father, Sulayman al-Assad. So there’s three generations of being fairly upper middle class Alawites, which is very poor, but they came from good stock.

Saddam Hussein was an orphan who was taken in by an uncle, who was a criminal, and he became a criminal himself. And he killed lots of his family members. So he didn’t hold people together through consensus and using the soft touch as much as the Assads did.

Now, obviously once that falls apart, that soft touch—Syria was a much softer-touch place than Iraq was, but now it’s fallen apart and it’s becoming like Iraq. And—but the family has held together in large part because it hasn’t been a terribly dysfunctional family. It listens to the people around them and unlike Saddam’s family, which was extremely dysfunctional and crumbled quite quickly.

DAVIDSON: Back there.

Q: Hey. Mark Kimmitt.

Back to the question of power profile, you said that he had about a three-year tutelage from when Bassel died until he took over—maybe. But the issue that I’ve got is if he’s being tutored by Hassan Khalil, Assef Shawkat, Bushra, Maher, Rifaat, how could he then have declared the Damascus Spring? That’s not exactly a reformist group.

TABLER: And he had served in Lebanon, you know, as well in the armed forces. It’s a good question. I’ve—I think the one—the one thing that struck me early on in going to Syria—and I started going there in 2000, 2001, shortly after he died—is that—was that he—somehow the expectations that David talked about that he was actually a Westerner or had been westernized were completely false. I mean, he was just not—he did not spend a lot of time there.

Why he decided this, I think there are a couple of theories. One is that he thought he was naïve, which we talked about earlier. There’s also the—perhaps the model of the Hundred Flowers Campaign, right. You let some people out of prison, you see what they say, and you see who goes back in. And then you blame it on the old guard, which they did. They blamed everything on the old guard, when actually it was the security apparatus, which was probably closest to him.

Beyond that, I don’t know.

LESCH: If I can add, I mean, a little, you know, different theory—and again, we ultimately don’t know what was in his head. I mean, I actually believe that he intended to incrementally reform the system but he just ran into this, he inherited a dilapidated, stultifying system, the so-called old guard; and realized that he just could not make the changes he wanted. And he wasn’t able to do so really until, you know, five or six years in his tenure in power.

And you know, I always have this image—and some people in Damascus at the time—you know, they had this—they were telling me this, that—you know, that with, you know, the Damascus Spring, which—you know, radio stations and private newspapers and salons and so forth and prisoner releases—that, you know, some of the security apparatus just came around to him and said, you know, hey, we—this is not how we do things; this is going to cause a lot more problems. And therefore Damascus winter set in due to that.

And so he finally realized that he couldn’t do what he wanted to do.

Q: John Negroponte.

You have a very difficult task. I mean, having overseen leadership profiles or briefed them to the president or to other leaders in our government, it’s not an easy thing to do. And you can get things really right, but you can also get them terribly wrong. And—but obviously it’s worth working at.

I have a question about how the Israelis see Bashar, because I—my impression over the years has been that their impression of the Syrian leadership is more benign, they see it as in their interest that he stay in power. I don’t know if that’s still their attitude. But how do they view him?

DAVIDSON: Great question.

LESCH: I was—pursued that very question in Israel. And I—you know, I met with—on one occasion—this was before the uprising—you know, the chief of staff of the Israeli military at the time, who thought that he was weak, which was—tended to be a dominant view when he came to power, that he was weak and incompetent, was Fredo, you know.

And then I met with his deputy, who thought, you know, very much differently, that he had some promise, that, you know, he could keep this thing together.

And of course as the uprising came in, there’s been this divide, you know, in Israel to a certain degree, you know, regarding, you know, is it best to see him go and therefore Iran and Hezbollah are weakened or, you know, he’s a devil-we-know type thing and we want stability.

I had one Israeli top general tell me, you know, during—a couple of years ago in answer to that question, and he basically said—and this was recently repeated by another Israeli military leader, I think, last week or something—that we’d rather have ISIS on our border than Iran and—because we can—because, this general told me, we can deal with those guys. Iran is a much—is a much bigger problem from their perspective.

TABLER: My last conversations with—in Israel is that they have been confused. It was—they used the Menachem Begin line from the Iran-Iraq War: We wish both sides well. (Laughter.) And I think that’s true.

The—but the problem—and David said it right—you know, ISIS and jihadist groups for them are a tactical threat, not a strategic threat. The problem is the reliable manpower pools that Assad has had to rely on are organized largely by the Iranians on the ground. It’s not only, and they’re not only Iranian. Don’t get me wrong. But they don’t like the fact that Hezbollah and these Shia militia are showing up in Shaykh Maskin in the south.

That’s in their sphere of influence, and they were—they say they were promised by Putin when Bibi went to meet him after the—shortly after the intervention that the Russians would not support such campaigns, because the Russians are in southern Syria doing turns over the Golan Heights, right. So in exchange for that, you know, looking the other way, they weren’t supposed to support Iranian forces.

But then they did. And this is a big concern for Israel going forward. And I—and I—and I honestly don’t know how they’re going to deal with it. I would expect with more strikes.

DAVIDSON: All right. We’ve only got a couple of minutes left. So quick question from there.

Q: Hi, Jeff Smith, the Center for Public Integrity.

The overall impression I get from the conversation so far, which has been excellent, is of a lot of players who are stuck. We’re stuck. Assad is stuck. The Russians are stuck. And so in a very unfair way, could you please open your crystal ball and tell us what you think will be present five years from now in Damascus?

DAVIDSON: That’s a great question. What’s the—

Q: I’d like you to just look forward. You’ve given us a really good sense of where things are right now, but project forward from where we are right now. This is an unfair question. I know it’s difficult, but I’d still like to hear what you have to say.

DAVIDSON: And we’ve got two minutes.

LANDIS: If I could start, I’ll give—I’ll just complete the little painting I started out with. If the United States and the international community had been willing to spend real money in Syria, one would have done a Yugoslavia and created a Sunni state where ISIS conquered easily. We’re not going to do that because we’ve stuck to our international borders and our plan of power sharing amongst all these different sects and returning Iraq and Syria to there.

And that means that we bowed out really. America is busy destroying the Sunnis of Iraq with a very sectarian Shiite regime. Russia is busy destroying the Sunnis of Syria with a very Shiite sectarian regime. And we’re both cooperating, in a sense, to destroy the remaining Sunni powers that remain in there. They will be oppressed. It’ll be unstable. Assad will win, I think, a large hunk of Syria, if not all of it, back over the next three or four years, and—with Russian help and Iranian help. And there will be a Shiite crescent that will probably go for the next 20 years or something defining that security zone, and America is going to increasingly be anxious about a(n) unstable Gulf with low oil prices.

And that’s where I see our—I see a lot of instability. I see us in the middle of this great sorting out. And I think we’re going to see great instability and oppression in the Middle East for the decades to come.

DAVIDSON: Wow, that is—

LANDIS: My bright picture. (Laughter.)

LESCH: On that note, right? (Laughter.)

DAVIDSON: Perhaps that’s where—that’s where we need to end, since we’re at the hour. If you have a quick—

TABLER: I only have one last thing. So a colleague mine saw Assad a few days ago, and one of the big takeaways from his meeting was that Assad said openly in the meeting that he was very eager to get along—get a process going because—before the general election here in the United States, which, of course, if you read President Obama’s interview in The Atlantic, it wouldn’t be a surprise why, right? I mean, Syria has become, unfortunately, a very controversial issue. Barack Obama’s very staked out on this. The presidential candidates are not as staked out, but, you know, certainly Hillary Clinton has a different—has a slightly different view, I think, than Obama, but hardly anything clear that would—that would lead us to a direct military intervention or anything like that.

DAVIDSON: That’s a fascinating note to end on. And I’m sorry we didn’t get to talk more about the American election and so many other things.

Thank you all so much for coming today and for all the great questions from members. Thanks. (Applause.)


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