Six Years

Six years ago, I was in the US State Department, serving as a deputy to Special Envoy for Middle East Peace George Mitchell. Having met in late February and early March 2011 with President Bashar al-Assad and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu respectively, I was advancing a Syrian-Israeli peace mediation that was gaining momentum and showing promise. It was a rare moment of cautious optimism in a career dominated by the Middle East and its relentless disappointments; a moment about to expire in a hail of gunfire. 

Six years later the consequences of Mr. Assad deciding to apply lethal force to peaceful protesters are staggering. 

  • The Syrian state is all-but-gone. Its titular leader serves Iran and Hezbollah.
  • Large numbers of Syrians are dead, displaced, disabled, terrorized, traumatized, tortured, hungry, and sick. 
  • Waves of terrified humanity have flooded Syria’s neighbors and surged into Europe, creating—through no fault of their own—political challenges eagerly and cynically exploited by the Kremlin and its acolytes. 
  • Islamist extremists have found in Syria fertile soil to plant roots: soil well-watered with blood spilled by a regime and external enablers pleased to focus their fire on civilians. From secure bases in Syria they overran large parts of Iraq.
  • A United States that deliberately refused to protect a single Syrian in Syria from a government engaged in civilian mass homicide compromised its reputation internationally, put partners and allies at risk, and made a mockery of the words “Never Again.”

All of this was brought about by a person, a family, and an entourage that elected, quite consciously and stupidly, to use violence as the first resort against people whose grievances over police brutality could have been addressed and resolved in a civilized manner. True: Assad and his lieutenants may have calculated, in the wake of Egypt’s Mubarak and Tunisia’s Ben Ali falling, that overwhelming violence alone could preserve the regime. And, after six years of experience, there can be no doubt of the bottomless contempt held by the ruling elite for the great mass of their countrymen. The man who, to this day, denies the existence of barrel bombs, has articulated not a word of regret for what has happened to people he was supposed to protect.

Indeed, it was most likely cold contempt that inspired the regime to go violent instantly: the visceral feeling that ‘There is only one thing these people understand’ often held by leaders alienated from their constituents. This contempt—felt deeply by the ‘Golden Youth’ generation of regime kingpins that succeeded Hafez al-Assad and his colleagues—rendered Bashar al-Assad unable to recognize that he had an asset enjoyed by neither Mubarak nor Ben Ali: the belief and hope of many Syrians that their young president would someday cleanse the system of its thieves and torturers and make Syria something other than an exporter of its best and brightest. That belief and that hope were, in retrospect, illusory.  But they were illusions that could have been fully exploited by thinking people willing to treat others with dignity.

Had Mr. Assad and his first lady traveled to Daraa, met with the aggrieved, listened to the grievances, restored children to their parents, parted with some compensation, and removed some violence-addicted security officials, he might have restored order and enhanced his reputation. To the extent he had any intention at all to change the nature of politics in Syria, Deraa offered an opportunity. Syrians suffering from drought, unemployment, corruption, and chronic governmental incompetence still hoped that Bashar might, over time, make the requisite changes. For Syria’s president and his entourage, it was an opportunity missed. It was an option not even tried.

In reacting as he did to parents protesting the detention and ill-treatment of teenagers who had spray-painted anti-regime slogans, the president who once headed Syria’s computer society miscalculated badly. Images of brutality in Deraa covered the country electronically.  Once it became clear in the coming weeks that Deraa was not a one-off incident—that this was how the Syrian government would react to all peaceful protest—Bashar al-Assad’s legitimacy as chief-of-state vanished. 

Six years later, Mr. Assad is tempted to declare victory. It is a temptation he will not resist. Yet the declaration is hollow. His country is in ruins and, to the extent he rules, it is as a satrap of Iran. The two countries that have rescued him—Russia with its air force and Iran with foreign fighters from Afghanistan, Iraq, and Lebanon—hold him in contempt. But he has enabled Russia’s president to tell his people that Russia—having beaten an alleged American regime change agenda in Syria – is back as a great power. And he has enabled Iran to turn the part of Syria he claims to rule into supply locker for Hezbollah in Lebanon. He has, quite literally, ruined everything for his people.

All of it has been unnecessary. Yet Syrians are nothing if not persistent and resourceful. Ultimately they will overcome the family, the so-called Islamic State, Al Qaeda, Iran, and all the other criminals who have beset a country whose sons and daughters have graced Western democracies for generations. They will need help in doing so. Ultimately the United States will restore a reputation so needlessly and carelessly sacrificed. But this will require Washington and its partners to work patiently in support of legitimate governance for all of Syria. Without legitimacy, Syria will be an open sore, disgorging the best of its people and attracting the worst humanity has to offer.

Six years of suffering for Syria and its people, are six years too many. And those who declare victory now—those chiefly responsible for the wreckage that is Syria—will not escape accountability. But the gap between that which exists and that which is right, is oceanic. The consequences of leaving it unbridged will be dire for all concerned. 

Frederic C. Hof is Director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.

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Image: Photo: A girl waves an opposition flag during an anti-government protest inside a 2nd century Roman amphitheater in the historic Syrian southern town of Bosra al-Sham, in Deraa, Syria March 4, 2016. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Faqir