The Stability or Freedom Canard, Redux


Over at Syria Comment, Joshua Landis has an extraordinary, Pollyannaish post where he grades Syria on "security," and gives it an "A." But before you get the idea that Landis is using reverse logic here, whereby the higher the grade the more sinister the regime (though some criticism does squeeze through), roll this little graph off your tongue:

If the Assad regime has prided itself on anything, it has been security. Many Syrian social goals have been sacrificed on the alter [sic] of security–economic growth, freedom of speech and assembly, and openness to the rest of the world–to name just a few. Most recently, Bashar al-Asad announced during an interview on Sky TV that considering the conditions Syria finds itself in, his number one goal was security and that reform would have to come second. In retrospect, this was clearly a warning to Syria's reformers that Syria's policy toward the opposition had changed. It presaged the crackdown we are now witnessing. It is worth evaluating, then, how well the Asad regime has done in comparison to its neighbors in protecting Syria and Syrians.

I can go along with much of this, but what's that bit about "protecting Syria and Syrians"? What Assad has been protecting by imprisoning an increasing number of people is his family-led regime, not Syria; what his father protected by massacring Muslim Brothers in Hama (an episode Landis describes as the "great blemish of Asad rule") was his regime, not Syria or Syrians. After all, using Landis' logic we might applaud Saddam's massacre of hundreds of thousands of Kurds and Shiites in Iraq. Has oppression become an Orwellian byword for "protecting" a people?

A passage on Lebanon sums up Landis' logic and methodology, which assesses the merits of security in Syria and Arab countries based on comparative body counts. Lebanon had a weak central government that could not hold its competing sectarian communities together: "In 1975, the government failed, leading to the long civil war and the death of at least 150,000 of Lebanon's 4 million inhabitants. Many more were displaced and millions left the country. In total, roughly 1 out of ever 27 Lebanese was killed during the war. Lebanon gets an 'F.'"

That's no doubt true, even if Landis avoids mentioning that Syrian bombings were responsible for a respectable number of those deaths. However, his deeper meaning is that order is preferable to a pluralism that, while it may lead to what Lebanon faced in terms of violence, has also created there a freewheeling economy and society, able to contemplate competing in a globalized world, where media are fairly free, and where critics of the government don't routinely risk imprisonment or confiscation of their passport for saying the wrong thing.

But worse, as Landis knows for having repeatedly written that only the present system of rule in Syria can prevent a sectarian breakdown of the country, the Baath regime has not dissolved sectarianism; it has merely pushed it under the rug through repression, with sectarianism continuing to thrive in society. In other words the achievements of the regime are not that impressive at all, because what Lebanon faced, Syria might well face in the future. True security is sustainable security, which means security not tied to the whims of a particular leader; security where society at large participates in a voluntary way in its own protection, without coercion. Security means that a country can absorb peaceful dissent without interpreting it as a threat to stability.

This broader message here is important for the United States as it tries to figure out how to address despots in the Middle East, including many who are its allies. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice got it when she observed in Cairo in June 2005, "For 60 years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region here in the Middle East–and we achieved neither. Now, we are taking a different course. We are supporting the democratic aspirations of all people."

Bashar Assad is no paragon of stability, no matter what Landis thinks. Giving him an "A" on security at a time when the regime is arresting prominent opposition figures because they signed onto a petition the regime didn't like, because they seek to express their views freely in a Lebanese press that is not controlled, is incredible, particularly when Landis' subtext is that, comparatively speaking, Syria has been a better place than elsewhere. He expresses this in a passage so simplistic and restrictive in its outlook (utterly ignoring how 35 years of Assad rule–and 43 years of Baathist rule–has degraded a once thriving Syrian society, and turned its economy into a basket case) that you wonder how reliable an analyst Landis really is.

In conclusion, it is fair to state that Syria over the last 35 years has done as well as or better than all its neighbors at protecting its own subjects. The state has not collapsed into civil war. By preserving a stable central government without allowing it to become overly muscle bound and fascist, it has also minimized the number who have been killed or been displace due to state-sanctioned discrimination and violence. This is something that Syrians can be very proud of. It is something worth protecting.

Yes indeed, worth protecting, like an endangered species, like the dodo.