David Shagoury | Republican political analyst United States
July 7th, 2007

Re: ‘If you had the choice what would you change in Syria?

Throughout the developing world, peace and security can be potent elixirs for authoritarian governments to acclimate to increased political reform. Whereas a sense of insecurity can often hamper progress, as fear often breeds stasis. When Bashar Assad assumed power in 2000, US/Syrian relations were well grounded and engaged, and there were no active external threats. This sense of security proved fertile for the new, western educated President’s initial impulse towards greater liberalism, ushering in what was commonly referred to as “the Damascus Spring”. In the wake of factional concerns and increasing external threats, that liberal impulse was suspended. I believe it is no coincidence that current economic reforms are occurring as the regime has successfully passed through the U.S. imposed abyss and has a renewed sense of confidence. If we are truly concerned with the state of conditions for the average Syrian as Condi’s condemnation implies, then our current policy of isolation and destabilization against Syria should be replaced by engagement, and ultimately the very de-facto US/Syrian concordat based on mutual interests both nations had previously enjoyed to their respective benefit. If the aforementioned Syro-American concordat re-emerges, bringing forward peace and stability in the Levant, a more pro-active if less bellicose diplomatic effort on behalf of democratic improvements in the political system in Damascus would be more credible and able to produce results.

Economic liberalization is often an essential precursor for a successful transition to political liberalization. This is an ethos that the Syrian people and their government publicly accept. Syrians have suffered from conflict with Israel, but have also been transgressed by the economic paralysis that inevitably comes from a state dominated economic model that suppresses the vast natural instincts and talents inherent in their culture and evident in their ancient history. The Asaad government understands this and desires to embrace it. The recently passed foreign investment law affirms that understanding. Syrian authorities with success have sought corporate investments from Qatar, India, Britain, Iran and Europe. The new banking liberalization law has allowed private banks to slowly emerge in Syria for the first time since the Baath Party won control of the government almost a half century ago with the governments’ approbation, including attracting Lebanese banks to establish offices in Damascus. Since, despite propaganda to the contrary, the Assad government is neither endemically anti-American, nor even endemically anti-American interests, and since it has always had a prominent occidental orientation including its steadfast and principled embrace and respect of religious freedom and tolerance, we should encourage, or at minimum cease opposing investment and reconstruction of their private (non-military) sector economy as an impetus to enhancing Syria’s western values.

President Assad’s Father assumed power the traditional way in the developing world, via the military. Hafez Assad was a senior military officer who rose to the Presidency in Syria, just as Attaturk did in Turkey, Sadat/Mubarek did in Egypt, and Musharaff did in Pakistan. Unfortunately, Syria seems to have the misfortune of being the only real diplomatic victim of a flawed neo-Wilsonian ideology in current US foreign policy. Aside from the neo-Wilsonians who dominate the White House, those of us who are acolytes of Reagan know that in the developing world, democracy must be viewed as a logical means to a better end, and not THE end itself: and that authoritarian/ military governments often provide the security and stability required to reach a successful, if quite deliberate transition to the emergence of identifiable democratic rights.

The legal or constitutional basis for the virtual cart blanche powers of the Syrian Presidential system is based on the Emergency Law that was passed by the late President Hafez Assad when he won power and assumed the Presidency in the late 60s. The practical basis for the establishment of this Executive Rule was vast and based on the preceding history of post-mandate Syria. Prior to Assad’s ascension, Damascus was the coup capital of the region, suffering through coups and counter – coups. Such a backdrop breeds weakness of institutions at home and a sense of ineptness abroad. Only strong Executive authority with a passionate commitment to a unifying national identity, and a personality and intellect to match can rectify such political weakness and acute instability. In the developed world with its mature, modern democratic institutions and no sense of imperiled survival, you get the 5th Republic and DeGaulle. In the developing world, absent said institutions, where enemies with more money and better arms occupy your land, where part of your country has been severed from you by past colonial masters, and where domestic opposition can take the form of sectarian, factional or islamist violence, you get the Emergency Law and Hafez Assad. Both were the successful antidotes to their country’s most pressing ills, and later as uber nationalist figures, both were best able to direct their countrymen to accept major change towards peace as DeGaulle relinquished “Algier France” and Assad relinquished the “rejectionist” policy against Israel.

Fifty years is yesterday in Syria, so there must always be protection from the very palpable threats of that past. Presently, circumstances and external policies being what they are, systematic change would be untenable and ironically not even in the interest of the Syrian people. For now, considering current regional realities and trends, I am impressed enough with the resurrected moves from President Bashar Assad toward greater economic freedom and openness to foreign investment, and in general the rhetorical recognition of democracy as a positive principle to be pursued.

Our nation, the USA, must develop policies that work towards creating an environment in the Levant that is conducive to organic rather than imposed democratization: for the latter the regionally perceived exemplar is Iraq (and to a lesser extant Lebanon), a humanitarian and sectarian disaster that has not exactly burnished American ideals among either popular or elite perspectives in the region. Only a properly paced, organic movement that works within current government structures and respective national interests can succeed. Such an occurrence would be the future exemplar that could light the fire of democratic values throughout the Middle East, and is a long – term goal of those who truly do care about the living and political standards in Syria and the region.

I trust that the path to greater openness in Syria is virtually inevitable and will ideally take a form of consensus between the government and an increasingly informed and affluent citizenry.

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10 Responses to the Article

lirun Says:


Yazan Says:

” In the wake of factional concerns and increasing external threats, that liberal impulse was suspended.”

This is VERY untrue, The crushing of Damascus Spring came at the helm of europe’s endorsement of Bashar Assad, and came at a time when the US was living a year of isolation… September 11th came after, and even after the Iraq war Bashar still had the support of major european players…

Rime Allaf, noted [i am paraphrasing] that the regime was most venomous when it is most powerful, and when it feels safer… i couldnt agree more, the last waves of crackdowns were a clear example of this pattern.

No, Bashar was not intimidated by pressure, he was intimidated by the reformers…

Alex Says:


You are right in a way, but so is David.

Outside pressure is very bad for human rights in Syria. Why? becasue the regime always sends the same clear signal to the west (or to the Saudi press): do not think you can use the issue of political freedoms in Syria as a pressure tool. We don’t care and to prove to you that we don’t care we will put in jail your favorite and best known dissident. Go ahead and give us all the bad P.R. you want to give… it won’t bother us.

Besides, it is really stupid. If there was a balanced American policy in support of Democracy everywhere in the Arab world (including Saudi Arabia and Egypt and Jordan) then many more Syrians would have been moved by such genuine moral effort. Instead, presidents Bush and Chirac gave the Syrian regime their full “democratic reforms” energy while embracing their Saudi and Egyptian allies…. Syrian people started smiling every time President Bush tried to express his genuine disappointment over the jailing of a Syrian human rights activist.

As for crushing the Damascus spring … the regime explained very clearly to the activists at that time that they can criticize almost anything, but they should not call for revolutionary changes in Syria’s political system… the regime was not about to accept to volunteer quitting politics… did you expect them to?

As for Europe’s endorsement of Bashar .. again, that endorsement was under the impression that Bashar will accept to allow ALL kinds of reform ideas … that he will tolerate those who will ask for his removal .. example: Atassi forum meetings that started to escalate calls for reversing the decision by the Syrian parliament that reduced the minimum age of the president of Syria from 40 years to 34 years.

It is not as vague or as disappointing as many of you like to see it.

I believe that another Damascus spring is possible if

1) everyone has the discipline to avoid asking for toppling of the regime … directly or through insinuations.

2) No associations (cooperation, asking for moral support) with outsiders who traditionally put pressure on the Syrian regime

The Saudis, Chirac and Blair were practically escorting Bashar out … very politely and in a very caring and friendly way .. but they wanted to escort him out in a year or two… did you believe that he was that stupid?

Yazan, the regime is not ready to leave. Many Syrians are not ready to change their regime. We should be realistic about what political dissidents ask for when they talk… it is not ideal, it is not “democracy”, but there is a lot that we can do for now short of those … we should not ruin it by maximizing our demands again, like last Damascus Spring.

Yazan Says:

we’ve gone through this a million times, we both have the same arguments, we both read them everytime.

To summarize, what david said contained a real historic and factual error. At that time there was absolutely no one in the world who wasn’t in LOVE with our young hope… except the right wingers of israel. thats for one thing.

Comon alex, when Kilo was arrested and sentenced, the regime was at the top of the world, he had won in lebanon, he had proven his grip on the internal front with that elections, and the americans were almost begging for cooperation on iraq, pelosi’s visit was still making the news…

I really dont wanna go into the whole thing again, i am stuck in exams in a language i cant fathom. But I just couldnt not comment.

Alex Says:


: )

Again, looks can be deceiving. At that time Chirac looked like he was in love with Syria and Bashar, and was calling him every week.

Do you KNOW (as opposed to “think you you”) what were Chirac’s plans in 2001? … I think his later actions should have given you a hint. The reason I keep repeating my clarifications is that it is important to set the record straight: it is not Bashar who messed up his initially good relations with Chirac, the Saudis, Jordan’s young King, and Khaddam … it was simply a matter of time until they realized he was not going to do what they thought they can lead him to do … “reform” quickly and get out of there… pass it to another Hariri/Saudi financed mega rich political campaign that is sure to lead Syria to their satisfaction… just look at Lebanon’s super-qualified leader they picked … Saad Hariri… another young, inexperienced, son of his father… they are perfectly happy with that “democratically elected” “Majority” leadership.

Their plans for Syria were not any better and did not deserve taking any risks or consideration … why? … so that we end up becoming a client state for France and Saudi Arabia?

As for Michel Kilo, as you know, I agree that putting him in jail is a mistake. It was not necessary. But as I tried to explain above, arresting human rights activists and political activists is not only related to the regime’s relative strength or weakness facing outside pressure. It is more related to control, and to sending the right signals to anyone who believes the regime is weak enough to be influenced by pressure … this is their way of keeping things under control. Saddam would have shot kilo by his own hand. Syria’s regime out him in jail. Mubarak would have arrested 50 people in one shot (like they always do and no one reports it)

Again, it is not “right”, but I was trying to explain to you why they arrested him.

I hope they release him among the next batch of prisoners they release. I think NOW they are as confident as you explained, not when Kilo was arrested. At that time Chirac and Saudi Arabia were still very active in internal Syrian affairs.

david s Says:

Very well articulated Alex. You are exactly right when referring to Saudi and French intentions. I would elaborate further on my piece and subsequent comments, but time does not currently permit that indulgence to me. Simply put, policies towards rapproachment and a return to rocognizing Syria’s very legitimate national interests in the region will prove fertile ground for a deliberate path of economic and political democritization within current construct.

George Ajjan Says:

Good job David and I’m glad you articulated the difference in how the lofty concepts like democracy manifest themselves, depending upon the sophistication of the civil society.

Alex Says:

David, Alone Ben Meir seems to make the same point you made.

Here is the full article

Back to the Debate on Syria
July 16, 2007

For a number of years, I have been advocating the importance of constructively engaging Syria, not only to improve the prospects for a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace, but to substantially contribute to the stability of the Middle East. With security conditions throughout the region deteriorating daily, especially in Lebanon, the Palestinian territories, and Iraq, Damascus can play a significant role in stemming the tide of violence. This is why it is sadly ironic that the Bush administration, which is battling to stabilize the situation especially in Iraq, remains blind to the fact that a change of strategy toward Syria is critical to tilting the region’s political and security dynamic toward at the very least a modicum of peace and security.

One argument against a change of policy toward Damascus is that the United States would be seen as rewarding extremism and bad behavior. Proponents of this view, miss the point: Policy must, in the final analysis, be determined by the desired outcome. If moderation and cooperation are what the administration seeks from Syria and the present Bush’s policy of regime change in Damascus has obviously failed, is now not the very moment to consider new policy options? Another argument against changing policy is that dealing with Syria would be nothing less than appeasement and that the United States might as well submit to terrorism. I think the reality is the exact opposite: By not changing course, America is actually giving in to terrorism. Indeed Syria would collaborate with the U.S. in the fight against terrorism in many different ways including the sharing of intelligence as it has done immediately after September 11. A third argument is that dealing with Syria will come at Lebanon’s expense. But again, the opposite is more likely: Engaging Syria will have a positive not a negative effect on Lebanon. The reason lies in the very fact that causes America the most unease, which is that Damascus exercises the greatest control over Hezbollah and other political and security elements to the degree that it can effectively influence their behavior in one form or another. To be sure, Lebanese internal stability depends in large measure on Syria because Damascus remains entrenched in Lebanon’s social, economic, cultural, and security affairs.

But Damascus is fully aware that it must pay a price in any peace negotiations with Israel if they are to lead to Syria regaining the Golan Heights. Such a price, must however, be integral to, not a precondition of, the negotiations. Damascus has no incentive to be helpful, let alone rein in extremism, when the threat of regime change continues to hover over the government. In fact, the greater the threat to the regime, the more tight is its leaders’ hold on power, while, conversely, the more secure the regime feels, the greater is the moderation that can be expected from them. Surely, Damascus must demonstrate that its call for peace negotiations is not some tactical play for time during which it prepares for the next adventure but is part of a genuine peace-seeking strategy. Thus, Syria will have to be ready to undertake clear and transparent measures, including severing its relations with radical Islamic groups, ending its political logistical support of Hezbollah, stemming the flow of insurgents and military hardware to Iraq, and ending its support to Hamas to demonstrate its commitment to peace.

Although no Syrian official will admit it, but based on what we know, a change in policy toward Damascus will bring about much of this desired outcome because the Syrian leaders will act in their best interest and understand the limitations of their current policies, and are looking for a rapprochement with the United States. For the United States and Israel, the prospective gains are enormous, so they must not give way to doubt and thereby continue past policies that have led nowhere, except to erode regional security conditions. Syria will not go away. Regardless of the nature and the make up of the regime in Damascus, be it democratic or despotic, Syria’s national obsession with regaining the Golan and its historic and special interest in Lebanon will not go away either. As long as Damascus continues to have claims on both, it can be expected to do whatever it can to secure its own interests. Since no functioning, stable democracy is expected to emerge in Syria any time soon, the United States and Israel will be far better off dealing with a regime that has the authority to commit itself to a policy or a set of actions and take the necessary steps to back up its commitment.

Why then is there so much talk about a new summer war that may involve Syria and Israel, and possibly Hezbollah, when the channels for peace negotiation with Syria are wide open, and the regional security conditions can only deteriorate more if the current policy is left in place? Certainly, a weak Israeli government and an American administration stuck in the Iraqi quagmire may offer some explanation, but not enough to justify the continuation of a failed and disastrous policy. The Israeli intelligence community has clearly stated that Syria’s peace overture is genuine and that Syria is the key to regional stability. And in America, many influential and knowledgeable people and groups inside and outside the administration, Republicans and Democrats, including the Iraq Study Group, have strongly argued in favor of engaging Syria. But still no policy change seems in the offing. Instead, the administration continues to exert pressure on the Olmert government to ensure that no unilateral Israeli opening toward Syria is contemplated.

Given this intransigence, and if Mr. Bush’s Iraq policy offers any indication of where this administration is going, no one should be surprised if a summer war does break out, for no other reason than to break the debilitating 40-year stalemate.

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