It will not be long before Bashar al-Assad will sit naked and battered, haemorrhaging to death on the curb of history like other uninhibited despots before him. As his regime hurtles chaotically out of control amidst an ever-reddening blur of desperate savagery, allies are solemnly administering Last Rites, predators and victims are circling for a feast they have long yearned for, and the many lies, secrets and bones buried in the family mausoleum are finally about to be dug up.
Amongst the secrets is one already mentioned in popular circles by the late singer, Ibrahim Qashoush. A few months ago, Qashoush stood on a platform in central Hama and sung in support of the uprising like he usually did. However, one of his lines was a late addition: ‘O Maher [Al-Assad, the brother of Bashar] you are a coward; an agent of the Americans’. Though apparently inconsequential, a few days later Qashoush was found dead with his throat slit open.
Such secrets pertaining to the agency of the Assad family are already obvious to those who know the regime most intimately. The minoritarian Assad regime has long deployed and exploited fraudulent notions of pan-Arabism and political resistance only to mandate its existence. For beyond the popular sloganeering, the Assad regime is deeply intimate and at ease with its alleged enemies.
The Assads’ blatant historical cooperation with the United States of America on key strategic issues and latent agreement with Israel are easily demonstrated. And these forty years of treachery to the ‘Arab and Palestinian cause’, supposedly the cause de celebre of Damascus, have left visible remnants in Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine and, of course, Syria that are visible to all.
Case One: Israeli-Syrian Peace Negotiations and Mutual Confidence
The Golan Heights, a plateau of great strategic importance at about a fifth the size of Lebanon, has been occupied by Israel right throughout the tenures of Hafez and Bashar al-Assad. The Syrian military, however, has not engaged the Israeli Defence Forces in an attempt to liberate its own occupied territory since 1973. Instead, an agreement in 1974, signed by the government of Hafez al-Assad, has allowed Israel to extend a de facto annexation over the Golan Heights with no challenge.
Furthermore, Hafez Al-Assad had even promised Benyamin Netanyahu to give up parts of Syrian territory to Israel in a prospective peace deal. Far from ‘liberating Palestine from the river to the sea’, as Al-Assad once claimed he’d do, he offered to give up the Hermon to Israel so that the Jewish state might keep an eye on its eastern border. Netanyahu, in statements documented by Israel’s leading paper Yedioth Ahronoth, says: “He gave me the Hermon. I must say that I was surprised, but he gave me the Hermon and I was pleased.”
Such concessions, which contradict the apparent commitment to ‘liberating Palestine’ and instead seek to achieve peace and recognise Israel, are a historical forte of the Assad regime. The 1991 Madrid Peace Conference, which the Syrian government participated in and followed up with direct talks with Israel right throughout the 90’s, was a precursor to flirtation and talks between the two parties the following decade.
Between September 2004 and July 2006, the Syrian and Israeli representatives reached a ‘formulation for peace’ through secret talks. The Assad regime was willing to sacrifice Hamas, its alleged ally, in an attempt to appease Israel in the agreement. These negotiations continued unhindered under Turkish mediation between 2008 and 2010, despite Israel’s Operation Cast Lead in 2009 that led to the death of more than a thousand civilians in Gaza.
This willingness on the part of the Assads to make peace with Israel, normalise relations with it and recognise its existence paints an image contrary to the popular rhetoric of the Syrian regime. And it is for this very reason that Israel’s leading security and political officials have expressed great concern at the thought of the Assad regime collapsing.
For example, Amos Gilad, the Director of Political-Military Affairs at the Israel Ministry of Defense, stated that the removal of Assad would be a ‘devastating crisis fοr Israel.’ Similarly, Israel’s prominent daily newspaper, Ha’aretz, ran an editorial immediately after the start of the Syrian uprising declaring Assad to be ‘Israel’s favourite dictator of all’ and that ‘it seems Assad has wall-to-wall support here, as though he were king of Israel’.
Such sentiments have also been expressed by the Syrian regime itself. Rami Makhlouf, President Bashar al-Assad’s cousin and one of his confidants, waved the stability card at Israel during his May interview with the New York Times when he stated: “If there is no stability here, there’s no way there will be stability in Israel.” As such, only through the survival of the Assad regime can Israel maintain its stability and security, creating a relationship in diametric contradiction to the grand claims of the Syrian regime and its supporters.
Case Two: The Gulf War and Syria’s Cooperation with the United States
During the 1991 Gulf War, the Assad regime chose to actively support the US-led campaign that resulted in the death of thousands of Iraqi civilians. Despite the fact that Saddam Hussein was fighting a coalition led by the West and lobbing scud missiles at Israel, Hafez al-Assad still opted to side with the United States of America and send in troops to support the campaign. Singlehandedly, such should have been sufficient to nullify the regime’s pan-Arab and resistance credentials forever.
Furthermore, the Syrian regime cooperated with the United States of America in Lebanon. President Bush Senior and subsequent presidents entrusted the Syrian regime with controlling and occupying Lebanon for fifteen years following the Taef Accord to end the Lebanese Civil War. The security agencies of both countries also cooperated extensively during the war in subduing Palestinian resistance groups and arming militias loyal to their mutual strategic interests.
This cooperation between the US and Syria also extends to intelligence, the most notable recent case being that of Maher Arar, who was transferred between Syrian and American hands under the charge of being a member of Al-Qaeda. Ironically, this process took place during the tenure of George Bush, who allegedly designated Syria as part of the ‘Axis of Evil’, and had supposedly cut off relations with Damascus after the assassination of Rafiq Al-Hariri in Lebanon in 2005.
Such cases demonstrate a heightened level of confidence and trust between Washington and an autocrat who has demonstratively and apparently done nothing but denounce the United States of America. Of course, the real relationship between the Assads and American administrations of the past four decades was beyond strong; one manifestation of which is in the confidence between Bashar al-Assad and John Kerry, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and an ardent pro-Israel senator.
Kerry, Congress’s point man on engaging the Syrian regime, met Assad six times in two years and called him, along with Hillary Clinton, a reformer even after the violent crackdown in March of 2011. Assad even found a confidant in Kerry according to the Wall Street Journal. The Journal recounts how‘Kerry described how the Syrian leader bemoaned the growing conservatism in Syria’ and the fact that Assad’s wife ‘had to wear a head-scarf when visiting Damascus’s historic Umayyad mosque’.
Assad’s strong relationship with American senators, House representatives and diplomats is further demonstrated in cables released by Wikileaks. In a meeting in March of 2009, just five weeks after the end of the Gaza War, Assad met American diplomats and denounced Hamas as ‘uninvited guests’ akin to the Muslim Brotherhood his father massacred in 1982. And in contrast to such enmity towards resistance forces, Assad emphasised that he ‘saw two key common interests between Syria and the US: peace in the region and combating terrorism’ and that the two administrations ‘shared a common interest on 70 percent of the issues at hand’.
Case Three: A Bloody Contribution to the Palestinian Cause
One of the great ironies of the Syrian regime’s history is that its mechanised divisions have murdered Palestinians above all. In 1976, the Syrian military invaded Lebanon to assist right-wing Christian forces, who happened to be allies of Israel, against the Palestinian forces led by Yasser Arafat. A few weeks later they again lined up alongside racist Christian militias, such as the Guardians of the Cedars, to commit unspeakable atrocities in the Tel az-Za’atar refugee camp.
Over three thousand Palestinian refugees, essentially the most downtrodden and oppressed of any community in the Middle East, were slaughtered in cold blood by Syria and the Christian, Israeli proxies in Tel az-Za’tar. To add insult to injury, the camp was then bulldozed and its refugees relocated and scattered all over Lebanon, many to be eventually slaughtered by the Syrian-Israeli double-agent Elie Hobeika and his militia in the Sabra and Shatila massacre.
Bashar al-Assad recently revived his father’s fetish for Palestinian blood by using gunboats and ground troops to attack a refugee camp off the Syrian coast in August, 2011. Dozens were killed and over five thousand people were forced to leave according to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency.
The Assads might not have been blatant and direct allies of the West and Israel like some other forces in the region over the past four decades, but they were definitely complicit to the international, West-dominated political order. They were without doubt in agreement with the United States of America on strategic issues and in active, serial cooperation with Israel. All the while, they upheld a popular façade of resistance and anti-Americanism. As Israel’s foreign minister said in November 2010, ‘Assad is enjoying the best of both worlds’.
While the regime may have funded resistance groups for an array of purposes, its own artillery has only found the flesh of those in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. Not a single bullet has been fired over the Golan Heights or at Israel for forty years, and that remains a supreme reality that supersedes all the rambling propaganda the regime is now putting out.
So when the brave people of Syrian rip down the imaginary curtain once and for all, the resistance paradigm in the Middle East will not be compromised. In fact, the seeds for a genuine and authentic challenge to Israel will be taking form and re-shaping the Levant forever. This is the beginning, not the end.
Abdul-Latif Halimi is a student based in Melbourne, Australia with an interest in the affairs of Syria