After four years of war in Syria, the United States finally seems ready to talk directly to the man mainly responsible for much of the bloodshed: Bashar al-Assad, to the astonishment of many still the president of Syria.
It was the United States foreign minister, John Kerry, who uttered the magic formula last weekend: “in the end, we will have to negotiate with Assad”. Kerry followed CIA director John Brennan who had stated two days before that “the last thing that the US want to do is to allow the Islamic State to march into Damascus”.
I got a surprise for you, dear readers: in order for any negotiations with President Assad to be successful, John Kerry will have to assume the role of the Syrian president himself. How come? Let us develop the case of “John Kerry, President of Syria”, together.
Firstly: why should Bashar al-Assad negotiate at all with Kerry, who is a representative of a government that has worked strictly against him in the last four years? Assad controls a big part of Syria. A part big enough to feel safe in his seat. Assad is not very concerned about Syria as a whole, but about the well-being of himself, his family, his clan and his religious brethren, the Alawites.
Therefore Kerry will need to have presidential power in order to grant Assad, who sees himself in a favorable position, all the benefits he will ask for in a negotiated settlement. If Kerry doesn’t have the power of the US presidency then it must at least be the Syrian presidency.
"Assad controls a big part of Syria. A part big enough to feel safe in his seat"
Secondly: what is there to negotiate with Assad? Will Kerry order the anti-IS coalition to team up with Assad’s military to kick the Islamic State out of Syria? And then will they ask Assad to get lost, right after his principal adversary is out of his equation? It doesn’t take a chemical scientist to understand that this plan won’t see the fajr prayers in Damascus. Except if there is a Syrian president in office who is well shaped by the nuclear talks with Iran so he will let Assad go to Tehran, thus sparing him a trip to The Hague.
In a recent article for al Arabiya, Ceylan Ozbudak pointed out that Assad is now only a figurehead for the mentality festering in Damascus. It wasn’t Assad himself, Ozbudak wrote, who tortured the opposition, it was the very foundation of Syrian institutions, through an ideology deeply embedded in the system of Syrian daily life, nurtured by the tentacles of the deep state.
Without changing the underlying ideological structure of the whole Syrian body politic, Ceylan Ozbudak concluded, the result of the rebel forces taking over in Syria would possibly resemble an Iraq after Saddam or an Egypt after Mubarak.
Yes, true. But if Kerry would be president instead of the rebels and he would bring an all American staff with him to Damascus, maybe a thing or two would change. And maybe there wouldn’t even be a new Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo in Syria.
But why should the negotiations with Assad take place now, after four years of war? After 215,000 people have been killed. After 450,000 Syrians have been thrown into jail. After millions of Syrians have fled their homeland. After 83% of the lights have gone out in Syria, making it a dark country at night. After numerous cities have been bombed and burned to ashes. Precisely because of that. There is nobody and nothing left to govern in Syria. Assad knows that. He might as well hand the entire badland over to President Kerry and secure a golden parachute for himself.
In his foreword to a 2006 edition of Samuel Huntington’s groundbreaking book “Political order in changing societies”, Francis Fukuyama argued that the Middle East has seen relatively little political violence since the end of the Lebanese civil war, with a few exceptions. Indeed, his argument went on, many observers say that the region is too stable; the political stasis there that has overtaken most regimes in the Middle East has blocked political participation and bred resentment.
Even the United States, Fukuyama kept on explaining, owes its national unity to a bloody civil war that took the lives of more than half a million of its citizens.
Compared to this number, there is still room to maneuver in Syria, there can be another 300,000 victims to go (provided that so many Syrians are actually left). And John Kerry, as a high-ranking United States political official, certainly knows a great deal about turning a devastated nation into a prosperous enterprise. “Kerry for President” looks more and more like the winning solution for Syria.
Now here’s another challenge for Kerry: the question of religion. Protests in Syria have turned into a civil war and then into a sectarian all-out battle that is swallowing the entire region. People are not people anymore; they are either Sunni or Shia and sometimes Christians.
Signup to our newsletter and follow us on Facebook and Twitter!
If those damn Muslims just could forget about their religion, some may say, and get rational for once. If those damn Middle Eastern politicians didn’t hijack religion for their shabby purposes, I say.
How can we ask Arabs to tune down their sectarian rhetoric when we in the West have become more religiously oriented ourselves in the last couple of decades? The idea of a Muslim called Barack Obama sitting in the White House is giving many Americans a sleepless night. The unconditional love for Israel that Christian fundamentalists in the United States have is another proof of a shift from a pursuit of happiness-based nation towards a faith-based society.
As long as bigotry is the prime factor when defining policies, the Middle East will never be at peace. Middle Eastern people will never ban religion from their lives. But they must learn not to be bigots. It’s killing everybody. Not only them.
As a president for bigots, Kerry is an excellent choice. In order to have the political career he had, in order to become the US Secretary of State, John Kerry had to say on many occasions “I am a devoted Christian; in God I trust; and I love Israel”. There will be no need for Kerry to change that reflex when acting as the Syrian president.
"Even the United States, Fukuyama kept on explaining, owes its national unity to a bloody civil war"
What will be President Kerry’s plan for Syria after President Assad has left the country? Because this time, it must work. There was no Iraq after Saddam, no Libya after Gaddafi, no Egypt after Mubarak, no Yemen after Saleh. The world cannot have another training camp for testing political vacuums.
“When an American thinks about the problem of government-building”, Huntington wrote, “he directs himself not to the creation of authority and the accumulation of power but rather to the limitation of authority and division of power. His general formula is that government should be based on free and fair elections.”
“The problem, however, is not to hold elections but the creation of organizations.”
Kerry, the president, will have a gigantic task to get the elections and the broadly accepted, democratically elected parliament that he surely has in mind. For this it would need a political culture that has never been developed in Syria.
Future President Kerry: how will you solve the fundamental characteristic that stands in the way of a functioning Arab nation state – the self-centered individualism of Arab folks? People in Arab countries only trust persons of their own family, clan or tribe. The allegiance towards the state is therefore minimal and the identification with a leader from outside the circle of trust is not strong. Private interests are always paramount over public interests.
Kerry will need all the diplomatic skills he possesses to avoid falling into the trap of the “iron fist governing style” that usually is applied to the unruly people of the Arab world.
Kerry, president of Syria, has one downside though. Even as president of Syria, John Kerry will remain the foreign minister of the United States. However, this is the perfect situation where one policy is automatically synchronized with another. Kerry will not govern Syria for the love of the Syrians but for the love of the Americans. He will not sit down with Assad to negotiate a transition in order to save the Syrians from harm but to shield the West from threats coming out of the Middle East.
US senators, you can relax: there is no need to send a letter to Bashar al-Assad, backstabbing Kerry.
And for John Brennan, the CIA director, a pluralistic political landscape in Syria would hold a good thing too. As one leader of a country in transition once said: “if freedom is given to party development, at least one party will become the instrument of the CIA.”
“Diplomacy is the art of telling people to go to hell in such a way that they ask for directions”, Winston Churchill was famously quoted. Already misguided by Assad, the Syrians better not ask Kerry for directions on Syria.