Tag Archives: bashar al-assad

How Syria’s turmoil is rooted in an early-morning 1994 car crash


In the wee foggy hours of January 21, 1994, a speeding Mercedes crashed on the highway en route to Damascus International Airport.Syria Flag Icon

Its driver was 31-year-old Bassel al-Assad, the eldest son of Syria’s president, Hafez al-Assad, and he died instantly. His death scrambled what had been a long-planned succession for Syria’s aging ruler. From an early age, it had always been clear that Hafez was grooming Bassel — by far, the most popular and charismatic of Hafez’s sons — to succeed him.

His death forced Hafez to switch plans, despite more than a decade of work preparing Syria for Bassel’s eventual ascension and preparing Bassel to one day rule Syria with the same grip as his father had.

Bashar al-Assad, Bassel’s younger brother, was immediately recalled from London, where he had lived for two years engaged in post-graduate studies as an ophthalmologist. For the next six years, until his father’s death, Bashar underwent a transformation to prepare to take the reins of the family business.

Photo credit to Reuters.

Like Che Guevara in Cuba, Bassel’s face routinely greets everyday Syrians alongside Bashar and Hafez. Or at least it does in what little Syrian territory remains dominated by the Assad regime these days. As Syria’s hell continues through its fourth year, many Syrians must wonder whether their lives would have turned out differently under the other Assad son.

So as Russian fighter jets land at Bassel al-Assad airport in an escalating effort this month to boost the struggling Assad regime, it’s tantalizing to wonder what might have happened if the Latakia airport’s namesake had survived.

As Roula Khalaf wrote for The Financial Times in 2012, no one ever expected Bashar to one day become Syria’s president — least of all, probably, Bashar himself:

“Growing up, Bashar was overshadowed by Bassel,” says Ayman Abdelnour, a former adviser who got to know Assad during his university years. “That seemed to be a complex – he didn’t have the charisma of Bassel, who was sporty, was liked by girls and was the head of the Syrian Computer Society.” Bashar was “shy; he used to speak softly, with a low voice. He never asked about institutions or government affairs.” Assad was also close to his mother, Anisa Makhlouf, whose family played a central part in the regime. “A mama’s boy more than a papa’s boy,” is how one western politician describes the president.

In 2000, ready or not, Bashar assumed the presidency at age 35.

Even before Syria’s civil war began in 2011, the eye doctor-turned-strongman showed signs of weakness. There was an initial period of political freedom in the first year of his regime — though the period became known as the ‘Damascus Spring,’ the term now rankles with irony, and the thaw on political dissent clearly ended by 2002. In the wake of the US military’s overthrow of Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, the remaining Ba’athist regime in the Middle East, Assad spent much of 2003 and 2004 worried that neoconservatives might attack him next (a fear that was not entirely unfounded).

Bashar’s biggest miscalculation came in Lebanon, where nearly everyone believes Syrian forces assassinated former prime minister Rafic Hariri in 2005, a galvanizing moment for Lebanon that generated backlash among Lebanese of all backgrounds and religions. Ultimately, the furor over Hariri’s shooting forced Bashar to withdraw the Syrian troops that had occupied much of the country since Lebanon’s own civil war began in 1976.

Continue reading How Syria’s turmoil is rooted in an early-morning 1994 car crash

Was the Syrian election more successful than Egypt’s?


A month ago, I scoffed at the idea of holding a presidential election in Syria at a time of civil war, with a pre-determined outcome, while millions of Syrians are living outside the country as refugees, and when fighting is still raging throughout much of Syria.Syria Flag Icon

But a quick look at the turnout indicates that it may have been hasty to discount the election as an exercise in futility — especially coming so soon after a flawed Egyptian presidential election where apathy reigned.

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RELATED: Why is Syria holding a presidential election in the middle of a civil war?

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There’s no doubt that the Syrian vote fails by any standard of a free and fair election — by American terms, by European terms, by Indian terms, by Indonesian terms. There was no question that Bashar al-Assad (pictured above), who has been Syria’s president since 2000, would win the vote, just like his father, Hafez al-Assad, remained in power since 1971, typically with somewhat predictable support:


Still, it’s incredible that Syria, where parts of the country still remain under rebel control, the race officially commanded turnout of 73.42%. If those numbers are to be trusted, and that’s a huge question, it means that Syrian turnout, at a time of war, was around 25% higher than turnout in Egypt’s presidential election last week. Stunningly, there are reports of thousands of Syrian refugees living across the border in Lebanon streaming back into Syria earlier this week to take part in the elections. Now, there are also reports that Syrian workers have been essentially forced en masse onto buses to vote:

“Of course I’m voting for Assad. First of all, I can’t not go vote because at work we’re all taken by bus to the polling booth. Second, I don’t know these other candidates. And also, I live here and have no options to leave – I don’t know what would happen if I don’t vote for Assad,” said a teacher in Damascus, contacted on Skype.

But if the point of the election was a show of strength and mobilization among Syrians living within territory that Assad currently controls, the Syrian regime can credibly claim some kind of victory, if not necessarily a democratic mandate.

Whatever the truth, it’s more than the ‘great big zero’ that US secretary of state John Kerry declared it yesterday in a hasty  trip to Lebanon, which is still stuck in the middle of a presidential crisis that began last month and that has continued since former president Michel Suleiman left office on May 25.   Continue reading Was the Syrian election more successful than Egypt’s?

U.S. move to support anti-Assad allies jeopardizes Lebanon’s stability

Hassan Nasrallah

The United States doesn’t typically like to hand gifts to Hassan Nasrallah, the longtime leader of Hezbollah, the Shi’a militia that remains a key player not only in the domestic politics of Lebanon, but throughout the Middle East. freesyriaUSflagSyria Flag IconLebanon

But when news broke last Friday that U.S. president Barack Obama was preparing U.S. assistance to arm Syrian rebels in their fight against Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad, that’s in effect what the United States has done by broadening the two-year civil war in Syria, a conflict that neighboring, vulnerable Lebanon has largely managed to avoid in the past two years.

Hezbollah’s recent military mobilization against the mostly Sunni rebels, however, in support of Assad, was already rupturing the national Lebanese determination to stay out of the conflict.  The U.S. announcement of support for the rebels, however tentative, gives Hezbollah a belated justification for having expanded its own military support to Assad, and risks further internationalizing what began as an internal Syrian revolt against the Assad regime.

The U.S. decision to support anti-Assad rebels

The United States is signaling that it will provide small arms and ammunition to only the most ‘moderate’ of Syria’s rebels, though not the heavier anti-aircraft and anti-tank weaponry that rebel leaders have said would make a difference.  But even if the Obama administration changed its mind tomorrow, the damage will have already been done in the decision to back the largely Sunni rebels.  No matter what happens, Hezbollah will now be able to posture that it’s fighting on behalf of the entire Muslim world against Western intruders rather than taking sides in a violent sectarian conflagration between two branches of Islam.

Supporters of U.S. intervention credibly argue that Hezbollah’s decisive intervention earlier in May and in June in Qusayr, a town in western Syria, led to an Assad victory that will inevitably make Syria’s civil war longer and deadlier.  Hezbollah’s decision to intervene on behalf of Assad was a key turning point that marked a switch from indirect and clandestine support to becoming an outright pro-Assad belligerent in Syria, which brings tensions ever closer to exploding in Lebanon.  Furthermore, Russian support for Assad, Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s increasingly strident opposition to Assad, as well as implicit Iranian support for Hezbollah, means that Syria is already a proxy for geopolitical positioning, whether U.S. policymakers like it or not.

But that doesn’t mean that the active support of the United States will suddenly make things better in Syria — after all, the United States has a controversial track record over the past decade in the Middle East.  It’s winding down a 12-year war in Afghanistan that, though it pushed the Taliban from power within weeks in 2001, has done little to establish lasting security or foster a truly national government.  Its 2003 invasion of Iraq, which toppled one of the two Ba’athist regimes in the Middle East in removing Saddam Hussein from power, and the subsequent U.S. occupation still failed to prevent vicious Shi’a-Sunni sectarian fighting that approached the level of civil war between 2006 and 2008 and that still simmers today.

It’s the same familiar kind of bloody sectarian violence that now features in Syria, the remaining Ba’athist regime in the Middle East.

Moreover, the risks to Lebanon are now even more staggering.  Lebanon, which had been set to hold national elections last weekend on June 16, has instead postponed those elections indefinitely, because negotiations among Lebanon’s various religious confessional groups to draft a new election law have taken a backseat to the more pressing task of keeping the country together.

The U.S. came to its decision in light of a determination that Assad had used chemical weapons against at least a small segment of the rebels, thereby crossing a ‘red line’ that Obama established in August 2012 in the heat of the U.S. presidential campaign last year.  But as The Washington Post‘s Ernesto Londoño reported last week, U.S. advisers had already been working quietly with Jordanian officials for months in order to reduce the chances that Syria’s stockpiles of chemical weapons will fall into misuse by either the Assad regime or by the opposition.

It still remains unclear just what the Obama administration believes is the overwhelming U.S. national interest in regard of Syria — though the Assad regime is brutal, repressive and now likely guilty of war crimes, there’s not necessarily any guarantee that a Sunni-dominated Syria would be any better.  Last Friday, U.N. secretary-general Ban Ki-moon indicated that he opposes the U.S. intervention in Syria because it risks doing more harm than good.

As Andrew Sullivan wrote in a scathing commentary last week, the forces that oppose Assad are a mixed bunch, and there’s no way to know who exactly the United States is proposing to arm:

More staggeringly, [Obama] is planning to put arms into the hands of forces that are increasingly indistinguishable from hardcore Jihadists and al Qaeda – another brutal betrayal of this country’s interests, and his core campaign promise not to start dumb wars. Yep: he is intending to provide arms to elements close to al Qaeda. This isn’t just unwise; it’s close to insane….

Do we really want to hand over Syria’s chemical arsenal to al Qaeda? Do we really want to pour fuel on the brushfire in the sectarian bloodbath in the larger Middle East? And can you imagine the anger and bitterness against the US that this will entail regardless? We are not just in danger of arming al Qaeda, we are painting a bulls-eye on every city in this country, for some party in that religious struggle to target.

I understand why the Saudis and Jordanians, Sunni bigots and theocrats, want to leverage us into their own sectarian warfare against the Shiites and Alawites. But why should America take sides in such an ancient sectarian conflict? What interest do we possibly have in who wins a Sunni-Shiite war in Arabia?

The ‘rebels’ are, of course, a far from monolithic unit — the anti-Assad forces include all stripes of characters, including the Free Syria Army, a front of former Syrian army commanders dismayed at Assad’s willingness to commit such widespread violence against the Syrian people, but also including more radical Islamist groups such as the Syria Islamic Front, the Syria Liberation Front and even groups with non-Syrian leaders with global links to al-Qaeda, such as Jabhat al-Nusra, which is comprised of radical Salafists who want to transform Syria into an Islamist state.

Liberal interventionism strikes again

When Obama announced earlier this month that he was promoting Susan Rice as his new national security adviser and Samantha Power as his nominee to be the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, I argued that it was a victory for liberal interventionists within Obama’s administration and that it could mean that the United States takes a stronger humanitarian interest in Syria.  Many other commentators, such as Wonkblog‘s Max Fisher, downplayed that possibility, arguing that their promotions meant ‘not much’ for U.S. policy on Syria, and that ‘there is good reason to believe that Power and Rice are not about to change U.S. policy in Syria.’

That, of course, turned out to be a miscalculation.  Less than 10 days after the Rice/Power announcement, the Obama administration is now ratcheting up its involvement in the Levant on a largely humanitarian, liberal interventionist basis, with the plausible possibility that a U.S.-supported no-fly-zone could soon follow.

The key fear is that the Obama administration’s ‘humanitarian’ response may result in an even more destabilizing effect on Lebanon. Continue reading U.S. move to support anti-Assad allies jeopardizes Lebanon’s stability

Remembering the 10th anniversary of the U.S.-led Iraq invasion

iraq cartoon

Retired U.S. colonel Ted Spain lists 10 mistakes that the United States made in its Iraq invasion in March 2003 in a succinct and insightful piece in Foreign Policy today.USflagiraq flag icon

Virtually all of them — from the intelligence failures to the inability or incapacity to provide for post-invasion law and order to the flippant attitude of the U.S. to building diplomatic ties in advance of the invasion — have to do with inadequate pre-war planning.

It reminded me of a cartoon that a friend rediscovered from The New Yorker over the weekend (pictured above), a poignant commentary on just how much hubris American policymakers, chief among them the Pentagon strategists under the leadership of U.S. Donald Rumsfeld, displayed in March 2003 before the Iraqi invasion.

It’s unclear today that the United States or the Middle East is more secure for having removed Saddam Hussein from power.  Lawrence B. Lindsey, at the time head of U.S. president George W. Bush’s national economic counsel, was essentially sacked for suggesting that the war might cost up to $200 billion.  It ended up costing $800 billion, nearly 4,500 U.S. troop deaths, 32,000 wounded and today, the U.S. military doesn’t even have so much as a small outpost in Baghdad since the absolute withdrawal of U.S. forces in December 2011.

Furthermore, the horrific prisoner abuse scandal at Abu Ghraib cost the United States whatever moral legitimacy it still had left a year after the invasion, which morphed from a quest to rid the country of phantom weapons of mass destruction into an aimless occupation to develop a democratic Iraq into a darker, counterinsurgency effort to stop a painful sectarian civil war.

And that’s even if you believe that the faulty intelligence that led U.S. political leaders to believe that Iraq was harboring weapons of mass destruction (it wasn’t — Saddam was posturing in large part to posture vis-a-vis Iran) was merely gross negligence and not outright manipulation and fraud.

Saddam was certainly no angel — and with the civil war in neighboring Syria reaching nearly a two-year anniversary under strongman Bashar al-Assad, the two countries provide quite a damning indictment for the Ba’ath Party (حزب البعث العربي الاشتراكي) in the two countries where it has been the dominant party in the last half of the 20th century.

But it’s certainly clear that Iraq is no better off for having suffered through the invasion and its aftermath.  Iraq today is, mercifully, a long way from the sectarian violence that marred in the civil war from 2005 to 2008 but today, clear strains exist among the Sunni, Shi’a and Kurdish Iraqis.

Millions of Iraqi citizens were either displaced in the sectarian violence or fled the country entirely, and an estimated 120,000 Iraqi citizens were killed in the fighting. 


Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki (نوري المالكي) (pictured above), who leads a Shi’ite coalition in the Iraqi parliament, is hardly a secular democratic leader, and protests have increasingly opposed his government in recent months — despite a 50% increase in Iraqi oil production since taking power in 2006, Sunnis in Baghdad now stridently oppose the al-Maliki government.  The Iraqi parliament passed a law earlier this year limiting the speaker of the Iraqi parliament and Iraq’s prime minister and president to just two terms in office — that means al-Maliki will not govern Iraq after expected parliamentary elections in March 2014.

Those elections, by the way, will occur just months before another war-torn country in which the United States still has troops, Afghanistan, is set to select a successor to the term-limited president Hamid Karzai (حامد کرزی) after 12 years in office.

Iraq ranked in 2012 as the ninth-worst failed state in The Fund for Peace’s failed state index.  It’s perceived as the world’s 18th most corrupt country in 2012 according to Transparency International.  Though it’s made many gains in the past five years, it still ranks as just 131 out of 186 in the United Nations Human Development Report for 2013.

Above all, it bears repeating:

An estimated 120,000 Iraqi citizens died

You can’t place the blame for all of those deaths directly on the U.S. military or the Bush administration or Donald Rumsfeld.  But it’s indisputable that the invasion that the United States launched 10 years ago this week led to the unraveling of Iraqi civil society that unleashed the violence that led to those deaths.

If there’s one overweening lesson that the next generation of American security experts take away from the Iraqi war, whatever strides or obstacles that Iraq faces in the decades ahead, it’s that inadequate planning can doom even the most flawless initial invasion into a decade of painful, costly and terror-filled destabilization.

Thanks to Timothy Stewart-Winter for the cartoon by Robert Mankoff, which ran in The New Yorker in 2003.