By John Bell
It is safe to say that, until recently, the debate over Syria’s political future came down to one thing: the fate of President Bashar al-Assad. With his victory in Aleppo, and the firm support of Iran and Russia, it is also fairly safe to say that the Syrian president’s future is secure, for the time being.
What is it about Assad that has made him such a key issue? Some argued that without his rule, radical Islamists (ISIL, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham etc) would take over Syria.
This has not only presented a threat to Syria and its minorities, but it was a problem for Europe, Russia and beyond. As Russia, Iran and Assad have repeated: only Assad and his system can effectively keep them at bay.
The counterargument has been that it is Assad who is the very source of this terror. His rule had restricted political space and created enough anger that young men were driven to extremes.
It was also Assad that had sent radical Islamists to fight in Iraq against the American occupation, and more recently released them from his prisons, so they could feed the ranks of the extremists; that is to say, he is both arsonist and firefighter.
Is he really indispensable?
For some, Assad is also favoured because he is the only option that can maintain the territorial sovereignty and integrity of Syria.
His toughness and strong centralised state are sine qua non to avoid centrifugal forces. From this view, the opposition is not only radicalised, but its moderate elements are fragmented and unrepresentative – most have no local constituency. If integrity is the goal, then Assad is the key.
The counterargument is that Assad has already destroyed the country while trying to keep it whole. Armies of extremists could not have done the damage that Assad and his allies have done.
Millions are displaced, wounded or dead, thousands of others languish in prison. If he had saved Syria from the worse fate of a caliphate, his actions have still created a mentality of violence.
This is the Assad conundrum: Can you have an integral Syria without him? Can you have a healthy Syria with him?
It’s difficult to believe that the future of a country would so turn on the fate of one man. There are recent reports that Russia, Turkey and Iran are looking at a formula whereby Assad will leave after the end of his current term, possibly replaced by a less problematic Alawite.
However, that deal is not yet done, and the contradictions between those three powers, and Assad’s very role, suggest great challenges.
The rarest of 21st-century commodities
We may be looking in the wrong place. There may be a more subtle question that steers the gaze away from the man: How can Syria evolve over time in a direction that is healthy and enriching for its people?
Given the need for stability and a less radical positive evolution, one can imagine the possibility of a “benevolent dictator”, someone who holds the fort, while permitting enough space for a better system to come about.
They address both sides of the conundrum; a modern Haroun Al Rashid or China’s Deng Xiaoping come to mind, as exemplars.
However, there is little evidence that Assad or other tyrants are such figures – it would seem they are in power for their own benefit, period. Indeed, such figures, effectively “philosopher-kings” are rare and societies risk much betting on their arrival.
Both sides of the conundrum may point to something else at the societal level itself. ISIL and Assad may be linked, not in the conspiratorial sense, but in that they are both the tragic representatives of a culture of violence and authoritarianism. The evolution away from that involves a change in societal habits more than just in politics.
Syrians who suffer from both these twin plagues may shudder; that they are damned to a choice between tyranny and extremism. Many may feel ready today for a less brutal society.
However, it may well be that their politics reflect their society more than the other way around. Despite certain beliefs, their challenge may not only be from aggravating outsiders.
If that is the case, the best way forward would be to create a culture in Syria that is less primed for tyranny, whether of the ideological variety, such as ISIL, or the state-driven form, like Assad. In the longer run, such a culture and society will more firmly reject both.
This work will be quickened if countries concerned with maintaining the status quo for their own benefit lessen their meddling. Others pining for instant democracy may also need to sober up a bit.
It’s the deeper societal and cultural work, not the Assad conundrum, that’s required to move Syria slowly, but surely, towards health. And doing that requires the rarest of commodities in the rapid-fire politics of the 21st century: time. Who has the patience and outlook for such work today?
Some perspective, and a little inspiration, may be gained by knowing that the Syrian culture that produced the Umayyad Mosque of Damascus, or the cultural plenitude of Aleppo, has little, if anything, to do with the mind that produces ISIL – or Assad for that matter.
John Bell is director of the Middle East programme at the Toledo International Centre for Peace in Madrid. He is a former UN and Canadian diplomat, and served as political adviser to the personal representative of the UN secretary-general for southern Lebanon and adviser to the Canadian government.