by Amar C. Bakshi, CNN
According to CNN, Syrian security forces killed dozens of unarmed protesters today. Over the past week, human rights groups say at least 37 people have been killed, including 2 children.
For perspective on this mounting violence, I turned to Theodore Kattouf, who served as U.S. ambassador to Syria from 2001-2003. Kattouf spent most of his career as a U.S. Foreign Service officer based throughout the Middle East. He is now the President of AMIDEAST, an American non-profit organization engaged in international education and development activities in the Middle East and North Africa.
Kattouf believes that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s glamorous wife Asma may be one of the few forces inside the Syrian leadership willing and able to restrain the president from deploying even greater violence against the protesters in his country. But it is important not to overstate her role. There are many forces at work in Syria. Patrons of the regime have a strong incentive to maintain the status quo for money and security.
For an excellent analysis of the consequences of sectarian divisions for the regime, see this New York Times article. Also, take a look at a very controversial profile of Asma al-Assad that Vogue published just last month, which focused on the "normal" side of the regime's first family without mentioning its repressive behavior and human rights abuses. But first, here are the highlights of my conversation with Kattouf:
Amar C. Bakshi: What do we need to know about what is happening Syria?
Theodore Kattouf: Syria is a less homogenous country than Tunisia and Egypt. 70% of the country is Sunni Arab. The people who occupy the positions of real power in the military, security and intelligence services come form a heterodox branch of Shiism called Alawis. They have been effectively the dominant power in Syria for 40 years, ever since Hafez al-Assad came to power in November 1970.
Syria has not had good relations with the United States for most of the time that the current regime has been in power. They have put themselves in the middle of a number of issues that the U.S. leadership cares deeply about.
- Syria shares a border with Iraq. Along with their ally Iran, Syria has been able to have some influence in Iraq - usually not in a way favorable to our interests.
- Syria remains the hegemon in Lebanon even after it withdrew its troops from that country after the assassination of the former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri on February 14, 2005.
- Syria remains in a state of war with Israel although they have kept the Golan disengagement agreement scrupulously ever since it was signed in 1975.
- Syria is a backer of two movements that the U.S. has put on its terrorism list: Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza.
What do we need to know about Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad?
Bashar al-Assad was never intended to be president of Syria. His father Hafez al-Assad was grooming his eldest son [Basil] for that role. However, that son was killed in an auto accident in 1994 at a time when the second son and current president, Bashar al-Assad, was a medical resident in London training to be an ophthalmologist.
Bashar wasn’t in London as long as people think. He did not have a lot of exposure to Western culture, because when you’re a [medical] resident you’re working all the time.
But he did meet the daughter of Syrian expatriates living in England - Ms. Asma Akhras. Asma is the daughter of a cardiologist in England….She…has a university degree in economics. She worked in banking in England briefly and then met Bashar.
Upon the eldest son’s death, Bashar came home…[and began] assisting his father with the governance of Syria….Bashar took power when he was only 34 years old….
Bashar is very tall, but not particularly imposing. He tends to be very polite, very mild-mannered. He allows his guests to speak….He has an inner confidence born of what he perceives to be a number of his successes following his father’s death in June 2000….
Bashar came to power talking about opening things up and giving the impression that not just economic reform but political reform was in the cards. Whether he intended that or not is hard to say.
What we can say is that for whatever reason he turned his back on all of that very early on. Some people were arrested. Discussion groups were told not to meet or were broken up and the like. The message went out that really there wasn’t going to be much political opening.
He seemed to be looking to China where he would try to bring economic prosperity to the country, open up the economy, but keep a good hold on political levers of power.
What would Bashar al-Assad do to hold on to power?
That is the key question…but the answer is - if you are honest and I am - we don’t know. We are going to find out. He is at a crossroads. This is a regime that has been well known in the past for using military and lethal force to put down uprisings, most famously in Hama.
But Hama was not a peaceful uprising. Muslim Brotherhood elements were armed; they were killing government officials.
It was not a fair fight, but it was one the Muslim Brotherhood had actually started back in the 70s with Hafez al-Assad’s regime. Nobody knows how many people were killed in those days of fighting. Estimates go anywhere from 5,000 to 20,000 but the lesson was not lost on the Syrian people. Since that time Syria has had virtually no well-organize internal opposition groups.
Bashar al-Assad has to decide: Is he going to follow the playbook of the people around his father who for the first thirty years put down any signs of organized political activity against the regime with an iron fist or is he going to try to get out in front of what will almost certainly be a building protest movement even if the uprising in Daraa is squelched?
The President’s [longtime advisor Bouthaina Shaaban] says, I was in the room and President al-Assad told our security people they were not use lethal force. Yet even today the shooting has gone on. Now what are we to conclude when a President has been in power 11 years and has had the chance to fill all the key appointments in the military, security and intelligence establishments, and his spokesperson says in effect he wasn’t responsible for this [killing]? It’s clear he’s trying to distance himself from it, but you can't.
I only hope and wish that President Bashar al-Assad, who I think is essentially a guy who started off as a very decent human being does not...allow himself to be pulled into - in Darth Vader terms - the dark side.
I imagine that the main pressures within the Syrian regime are for him to clamp down further.
Well, there may be countervailing pressure - his wife. I never met with Asma al-Assad but I know many people who have. She’s a by all accounts a highly educated woman who worked in banking in the West before she married him.
She grew up in England. She is a very intelligent, beautiful and chic woman and she has children and I’m sure that she does not want Syria to be plunged into a blood bath. I’m speculating but I think the speculation is based on having followed this family for a while.