Fear and Loathing in Damascus

Why does Bashar Assad so despise the Lebanese?


Last Saturday, Syria's president, Bashar Assad, spent an hour in front of his country's parliament discussing Syrian foreign policy. Some commentators focused on Assad's comments on Israel and Iraq, but they were just filler for what he was leading up to: an announcement of his intention to withdraw Syrian troops from Lebanon, where they have been stationed since 1976.

Several Lebanese opposition figures welcomed that announcement, but kept mum about a more disturbing aspect of Assad's speech: his barely-concealed contempt for Lebanon. Syria's disastrous Lebanese policy is, in many ways, the sour fruit of that contempt. One cannot properly rule over what one disdains, and Assad has habitually displayed ill regard for his Lebanese inheritance. That should be a happy occurrence, because it will almost certainly lead to the disintegration of Assad's sandcastles in Lebanon. But there is a danger that the Syrian president, overcome with rage at the persistent challenge of his Lebanese adversaries, may choose to demolish what he leaves behind.

Demolition was, anyway, what Assad threatened last summer when he compelled the late prime minister, Rafik Hariri, to agree to an unconstitutional extension of Lebanese President Emile Lahoud's mandate. This he did despite the displeasure of much of the Lebanese political class, as well as the advice of two senior Syrian officials experienced in Lebanese affairs (from having long called the shots next door): Vice President Abdel Halim Khaddam and then–Political Security chief, now interior minister, Ghazi Kanaan. Hariri was received by Assad for 15 minutes, and, as the Druze leader Walid Jumblatt recently recounted to the French daily Liberation, heard this from the president: "I am Lahoud. If [French President Jacques] Chirac wants to get me out of Lebanon, I will break Lebanon. Jumblatt has his Druze in the Lebanese mountain, but I also have Druze, and I will ruin the Lebanese mountain."

Months ago, before Jumblatt disclosed the conversation (which he got from Hariri), I heard much the same account from other sources. There was a crucial variation, however: Assad, in my (unconfirmed) version, also warned Hariri personally. In an interview with me, Jumblatt remarked that "from the first day Assad despised Hariri. He had no sympathy for him. He was a strong Sunni. The Syrians feared he was trying to overthrow them."

Last January, Assad again allowed denigration of Lebanon to get the better of him while in Moscow. Asked about relations with the Lebanese, the president remarked that Syria had failed to establish an institutionalized rapport because he wasn't sure Lebanon could build institutions. It was an odd thing to say only five months after Assad had personally undermined the Lebanese presidential election—a process that was respected even during the war years. It was all the more incomprehensible coming from a man who began his mandate after a hurried amendment of the Syrian constitution, because otherwise his young age would have disqualified him from being president.

But it was the section on Lebanon in Assad's Saturday speech that best radiated nose-pinching scorn. Hardly a mention was made of opposition demonstrations in Beirut, though Assad did try to reassure his compatriots who had watched (with the horror of the unaware) weeks of anti-Syrian sloganeering. He did so by pointing out that if the cameras zoomed out a bit, the opposition protests would look decidedly reedy (later prompting tens of thousands of anti-Syrian marchers in Beirut to shout at television cameras: "Zoom Out! Zoom Out!"). Then, Assad became paternal: "I would like to address each Syrian citizen. That toward which you feel disappointment and bitterness does not represent the Lebanese condition, but rather [the behavior of certain] groups, and we know who is behind them." Elsewhere, he observed: "A Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon will not mean a disappearance of Syria's role in Lebanon. This role is imposed by several factors, including geography, politics, and others."

Not surprisingly, Assad failed to explain who was "behind" the opposition, nor did he bother to ask whether the Lebanese might agree to a continuing Syrian role in their country. Rather, he suggested this imposition was somehow natural for Syria, even as he said, in quite an opposite direction, "We will not remain a day more if there is a Lebanese consensus on a Syrian withdrawal."

The president also observed that at the end of Lebanon's war, once Syria had imposed its writ on the country, "Some [Lebanese politicians] said they were Syrian allies and used its name, and some were merchants of political positions—they bought and sold these positions depending on their personal interests. Trading in merchandise is respectable, but trading in political positions is like the slave trade." There was some justification in the statement in that several current opposition politicians were once Syria's allies. However, Assad didn't touch on how the Syrian system in Lebanon had brought their variable behavior about, nor did he extend his argument to its logical conclusion that only complete obeisance to Damascus somehow earned respectability in his book.

But perhaps the most grating phrase came when Assad reduced Lebanese history to an expedient dichotomy between nationalism and treason: "Of course, [two] forces have been a natural part of Lebanese history for over 200 years:[forces] that extend their hand to the outside, and nationalist forces. And [the former] have failed several times: In 1958 when Lebanon joined the Baghdad Pact; in 1969 when it attacked the Palestinian resistance; in 1983 when [such forces failed] to breathe life into the May 17 agreement [with Israel]; [such behavior] will fail for as long as nationalist forces are present."

Leaving aside Assad's implicit threat and his factual howlers—"nationalist forces" could not have been around over 200 years ago, since Lebanese nationalism didn't even exist—there are few things more irritating than for a people to see its history reduced to a fortune cookie line. That is inevitable, perhaps, when the guilty party is someone afforded a Baathist education, in which events are reduced to cut-rate dogma. However, spoken to a Lebanese society where, for better or worse, there is no agreement between the communities on a unified interpretation of national history, it went down very badly.

The moral of the story is that Assad has transformed his angst about Lebanon into deep disparagement of things Lebanese. Its leaders often behave like virtual slave merchants; part of the population has historically sold itself to outsiders (while those who have done so to Syria are extolled as "nationalists"); and protesters against Syria can hardly fill out a camera lens. What's more, the Lebanese have no institutions; cannot be allowed to get rid of a president they dislike; and, to dredge up an old favorite, will tear each other apart once Syrian soldiers leave their country.

One could go on, but it is so much more pleasurable to applaud young Bashar's sneering and just wait. History tends to inflict terrible revenge on the immodest.