Response to Michael Young: Will Syria ever leave Lebanon?
Michael Young very kindly published my opinion piece, "Creating a Syrian Dream," He then did me the honor of writing a thoughtful e-mail critiquing it, which I posted two days ago. I here respond to him in what I hope will be seen to be in a spirit of happy jousting friendship. Any reader who is just stumbling on this exchange will do well to read first THIS and then THIS as background.
First, let me summarize Michael’s main points.
1. Asad is not serious about Lebanese sovereignty.
2. Syria will never leave Lebanon unless it is compelled to.
3. Bashar is a weak ruler, who can’t control those around him. He can’t settle for less than his father.
4. He will become expendable and at some stage be replaced.
5. That Bashar is no longer a Baathist means nothing because Baath ideology is dead. The party is only about patronage and power.
6. Bashar is not Western oriented; rather, he is a “second-class Oriental modernizer.”
7. To be ideologically close to the west, Bashar would have to be working for true democracy, and he is not.
8. Don’t read your desires and sympathies into Bashar’s actions.
Michael’s basic argument, as I understand it, is that nothing has changed in Syria. It doesn’t matter whether Syrians believe in Baathism; the country remains a corrupt and rapacious power. Only force will drive it from Lebanon. Bashar is window dressing. What he says means little because he doesn’t hold real power, and anyway, he is a cynical rhetorician, who would rather have Lebanon than the Golan. Syria remains controlled by dark oriental forces.
I agree with Michael that Syria will not withdraw from Lebanon without a struggle. Where we disagree, is how nasty that struggle will be and whether Bashar is making it less likely to be nasty.
What kind of state is Syria
Syria is an autocratic state that is trying to become a liberal autocratic state. The vast majority of Syrians – powerful and weak – wish to be more like Jordan or Egypt and less like the Syria of old. This means allowing for NGOs to form and civil society to operate, all be it, at a very unthreatening level. It means greater pluralism (minor party activity as in Egypt), freedoms of speech, a modicum of human rights, and hopefully a bit more due process. Most importantly, I believe, Bashar wants administrative reform so he can begin modernizing the country. Even if it is “oriental” modernization; it is modernization, which is better than nothing, even if not as good as democracy.
Bashar has to do this for regime stability and to control social pressures that will soon become intolerable at present anemic economic growth rates. He needs growth of at least 6% to begin employing the gobs of young people who are being dumped into the system. It is good for Lebanon that Syria is trying to become less autocratic.
The economic argument: (MacDonald’s for the Middle East or Crony capitalism will be better than crony socialism.
Unlike his father, who was content to keep his country in lonely and backward isolation and to cling to the dwindling number of “samud wa tuhaddi” states, Bashar has shown considerable flexibility and eagerness to reintegrate Syria into the Arab world and the larger capitalist world. Why? Not simply because he was educated in the West or because he grew up in an era in which old-school Arabism was not cool, but more importantly because he must feed his people. Only by increasing trade and foreign investment in Syria can he get the country out of its present stagnation trap. (Whether he can succeed is another question – but he is trying.) At no time in Syria’s history have relations with Turkey, Jordan, and perhaps now, also Iraq, been so congenial and free. 250,000 Iraqis came to Syria this summer, using only their identity cards!
If Bashar is responsible for this opening to the world, he has more power than Michael suggests. If he isn’t responsible for it, then the dark forces controlling Syria, that Michael hints at, are not so dark and backwards as he suggests. Even if Bashar is replaced some day (and we hope he will be before he reaches 70) the pressure for change will continue. Maybe it’s a good thing that Bashar does not have the power of his father and that power is pluralized.
Syria’s need for trade, economic growth, and its desire to open up to the world is good for Lebanon. It creates a dynamic of growth, which requires peace and security, rather than war and brutality. Once Syrians understand that their lives improve because the pie is getting bigger for everyone rather than because their share gets bigger at the expense of their neighbors, Lebanon’s chances of freedom rise. This is the old argument about countries with MacDonalds not going to war. Syrians have yet to get their first MacDonalds, (They still have to go to Beirut) but they are dying for it and much closer to having one than they were 5 years ago. They are joining the capitalist world slowly but surely. That is occidental of them even if they can do it without democracy.
It doesn’t shock me that Bashar would say he is willing to compromise over the Golan’s border and then let Buthaina Shaaban deny it. This is standard diplomatic ambiguity. It is no different from Powel saying, “Let’s talk” to Syria and Bolton saying, “Never!” The door is now open if the Israelis are willing to try it. More importantly, When Bashar stated that Syria would give up Lebanon when it gets Golan, he is signaling Israel that he is willing to link the two, although his father refused to. Hafiz tried to insist that Israel had no right to control Syria’s relationship with Lebanon. Negotiations on Golan were about the Golan and that was it. In contrast, Bashar suggests he is willing to talk about the whole nine yards. This is greater flexibility from Bashar than Hafiz showed. The Lebanese should see it as a good sign.
If Israelis still “prefer the Syrians in Lebanon rather than on the Golan,” as you quote Rabin saying, that is a problem for Lebanon – but it is Israel’s fault, not Syria’s. Why not ask the Lebanese to pressure Israel to get out of the Golan and come to the bargaining table? Without Lebanon to sweeten the pot, Israel will never consider giving back the Golan, and Syria will have one more excuse to stay.
Words and ideology make a difference
Just yesterday you wrote a fine article about how institutions, like the Lebanese constitution, make a difference. It is not easy for Syria or Lebanese friends of Lahoud to get him a second term as president because the law has weight and historical momentum. The word of the Syrian president is not much different than the law. (Probably more reliable) If Bashar says that Syria has “no territorial ambitions in Lebanon” often enough, people will begin to believe it and expect it to be true. Talking about Lebanese sovereignty is very different than Hafiz’s “The Lebanese and Syrians are one people in two countries.” The latter is ingeniously ambiguous and very Baathist. It evokes to the notion of one Arab nation. Sovereignty is quite different. It means something in international law and in peoples’ minds. A sovereign state implies that the people of that state are their own nation – at the very least it isn’t a direct denial of Lebanon’s distinct peoplehood as the old “one people” line is.
You pooh-pooh the notion that the demise of Baathism as an ideology and system of belief is important. I think you are wrong. The idea that the Arab people formed one nation with a sacred destiny was powerful, religious, and the single most important source of instability in the region last century. The Greaters – whether Greater Syria, Greater Arabistan, Greater Israel, the Fertile Crescent Plan, or even Greater Lebanon – have been the source of endless bloodshed and unhappiness. For Bashar to even begin to dilute Greater-Arabistan-think should not be underestimated. Such worldviews are like the proverbial aircraft carrier – they take a long time to turn around – but they have a lot of firepower.
Corruption and greed are quite different forces than ideology. They are easier to negotiate. People may cry over losing money, but only ideology and the loss of nationhood and identity can turn one into a suicide bomber.
“I believe that the Baath is God, who has no partners, and Arabism is a religion with no peer.” This line, written by a Baathist poet, was quoted by Thahir Ibrahim in al-Quds al-Arabi the other day. He invoked it to show how far Syrians went in “exaggerating their ideological commitment to the Baath in the 1960s and 1970s.” He explains what an ideological opening Syria has seen recently only to decry the lack of any real political opening. It will be easier for the Lebanese to combat greed than nationalism.
Lebanon is the problem
Finally, there is no doubt that Syrians will not quit Lebanon for the beauty of Lebanese eyes. Only when Lebanon acts like a distinct and unified nation, will it have the power to get rid of Syrian influence and troops. Your criticism turns on Syria’s shortcomings, which admittedly are legion. But Lebanon’s shortcomings are the real reason Syria occupies the country. Every country would like to decide what its neighbor does and to dip into its honey pot. All have tried. Syria is not unusual in this. What makes the relationship between Lebanon and Syria so unequal is not Syria’s evilness or “oriental” cast of mind, but Lebanon’s weakness and internecine bickering. Perhaps, the day that Lebanon agrees to carry out its first census since 1930 and overcomes its sectarian rivalry, will be the day it shows some unified backbone in just saying, "Get out." So long as every top political and military figure in Lebanon strokes Syria nicely everytime they want something, Lebanon will have a Syrian presence.
I would suggest that it is not I who makes “the mistake of reading one’s desires and sympathies” into the region. It is easier to attribute dark forces to one's neighbor than to see them in one’s own country.