They Love Their Lions: Syrian Druze residents of the Golan Heights demonstrating in 2010 in orchestrated support of Bashar al-Assad and his late father Assad. Between the two of them, they've held an iron claw on Syria for more than 40 years. (David Silverman/Getty Images)
Assad is Arabic for lion. Lions are clever. As Middle Eastern lions go, none have been more so than
Syria's Assads--first Hafez, in power for 30 years until his death in 2000, and now his son Bashar, whose cherubic face is, like so much in the Assad family business, a deceptive facade. The Assads are all about power. They wouldn't have held on to it for four decades, they wouldn't have built one of the world's most effective, most rigid police states if it wasn't so. And they wouldn't still be in power if they didn't know how to play the game of appearances and tilt just enough with the wind to keep their masses from finally rising up and saying, as they have in Tunisia and Egypt: enough.
Bashar al-Assad's latest tilting: reform chatter.
"If you didn't see the need of reform before what happened in Egypt and Tunisia, it's too late to do any reform," he tells the Journal. Not that Syrians are taking to their streets (that we know of). They haven't been in the habit of doing so, not since 1982, when the Muslim Brotherhood in the large Syrian city of Hama rebelled and Assad surrounded the city with tanks, as if it were Stalingrad and his was the Nazi army, and shelled the city to rubble, murdering between 10,000 and 20,000 people, overwhelmingly civilian. It's what New York Times Columnist termed "Hama Rules," rules that applied again when Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated in 2005. As Friedman described the rules, ""You want to play here, you'd better be ready to play by Hama Rules - and Hama Rules are no rules at all."
Syrians needed no translation after Hama. The massacre lives in vivid memory. So they don't take to the streets as readily as in relatively lesser murderous Arab and Middle Eastern regimes. That's not to say that they wouldn't, of couldn't trigger a mass uprising, or that Assad this time might have a little less room to circle the tanks and let loose. The best they had in Hama in 1982 was faxes, and not very functional ones. Today Syrians have their cell phones, their Twitter, their Facebooks. A live massacre wouldn't look good on TV. But Assad has his one ace, which he pulled before the Journal reporter: he's not an American ally, which, according to the Syrian president, gives him more breathing room in the eyes of the people, because he hasn't made deals with Israel--which also explains why he hasn't made deals with Israel over the Golan Heights: a deal is easily possible. Israel is no longer too interested in the Golan. But Syria is still interested in strategic belligerence with its southerly neighbor. It's utterly cynical. It's also why Sun Tsu is Assad's Kama Sutra.)
So Assad is talking reform. Municipal elections, which amount to nothing truly reformist since no local mayor or city council man could ever threaten the national regime. Also, some vague media-law reforms, unspecified. Maybe he'll let Own, Oprah's new channel, be part of basic Syrian cable packages (though it already is: most Syrians have satellite television, most don't pay for it).
In more pragmatic veins, the Journal reports of Assad's latest moves, "His government already made adjustments to ease the kind of economic pressures that have helped fuel unrest in Tunisia and Algeria: Damascus this month raised heating oil allowances for public workers--a step back from an earlier plan to withdraw subsidies that keep the cost of living down for Syrians but drain the national budget. Tunisia, Algeria and Jordan have also tried to assuage protesters by lowering food prices."
But Assad was just as quick to dismiss any suggestions of truly open elections and substantial reforms. His excuse is the perennial excuse of tyrants and dictators: the people aren't ready yet. They're not educated enough yet. Of course, you'd think after 40 years of unilateral rule, these two lions would have had plenty of time to strong-arm Syria's educational system into brilliance incarnate. They haven't, and they won't, for the very reason Assad implicitly stated: an educated population is a demanding population. Why bother. It's not only cheaper to keep the people dumb. It's also safer, as far as the overlord's power is concerned. It worked for the Catholic Church for a millennium. It's been working for the Assads for 40 years.
Meanwhile, Syria is maintaining its alliance with Iran, maintaining its dealings with Hezbollah in Lebanon--very successful dealings of late--and enjoying its position as the Middle East's unlikely spoiler and occasional power broker. Syrian influence over Lebanon has returned in full, after a five year absence, and look at its reward: for the first time since the assassination of Hariri--an assassination Syria more than likely orchestrated with Hezbollah--the Obama administration has sent back an American ambassador to Damascus. Robert Ford clocks in his first hours this month. The American Embassy is up and running again in Al Mansour Street. And Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, bless her clueless heart, was delivering a few months ago the sort of vacuous, non-committal bromides on Syria that have once again made her less than famous in the past week over Egypt: "We've had some candid, productive discussions at several levels, including my own with my counterpart, that it's not only our Administration but leading members of Congress and other Americans who have reached out to the highest levels of the Syrian Government," she told an Al Hurra interviewer. (Al Hurra, Arabic for freedom, is a US-based satellite Arabic channel paid for by the US government.) "We want to have a constructive relationship with Syria. We want to see Syria clearly end any support for terrorism or destabilizing Lebanon or in any way supplying arms to Hezbollah. So I think there has been some greater understanding, but we still have a lot of work to do."
No lioness, that. Assad knows it too well.
"Is it going to be a new era toward more chaos or more institutionalization? That is the question," Assad told the Journal. "The end is not clear yet." Of course not. And he's going to make sure that clarity remains his alone as he keeps everyone else off balance.