Last month, as Syrian security forces were shooting demonstrators in the streets, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton offered a modest defense of President Bashar al-Assad, noting that "many of the members of Congress of both parties who have gone to Syria in recent months have said they believe he's a reformer." Clinton would probably like to have that one back -- first, because she was shanghaing innocent legislators into defending a controversial White House policy, and second, because she was putting "Assad" and "reformer" in the same sentence.
But Clinton was hardly alone in ascribing the best of intentions to the Syrian dictator. Earlier this week, British Foreign Minister William Hague took note of several speeches in which Assad made vague and windy promises, and declared, "It is not too late for him to say he really is going to do those reforms." Not too late? Do we need any further clarity about Assad's designs?
Why do people continue to believe that Bashar Assad is somehow different from other Arab autocrats, or for that matter from his father Hafez? There seem to be several reasons. First, Bashar feels like the most plausible of Western interlocutors. Like Gamal Mubarak or Saif al-Islam Qaddafi, he is a Westernized and well-educated offspring of a thuggish leader. Unlike them, he took over his country on his father's death -- in 2000 -- and showed the gumption and acumen to survive in a ruthless environment. His wife is beautiful and speaks perfect English. Bashar, who is very well aware of the effect he produces, was wont to drive his Western visitors around Damascus, dilating on his hopes for Syria's future and warning darkly of Islamic plots. "Bashar and his wife are very seductive," says Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "You meet with them, and you're just amazed." Bashar will promise to let Lebanon stand on its own two feet, or to stop supplying Hamas with weapons. "And then," Tabler says, "it never happens."
Second, Assad really could make such a difference if he were the figure people wish him to be -- and he always seems to come so close to delivering. In 2008, Assad engaged in very serious negotiations with Israel over the return of the Golan Heights; both Israel and Turkey, which brokered the talks, said that they were on the verge of a breakthrough when Israel launched the war on Gaza, making further talks impossible. Sen. John Kerry, who has acted as a White House interlocutor with the Syrians, has made repeated trips to Damascus hoping to restart the talks, and has gone to great lengths to defend Assad because he believed that Syria held the key, or a key, to Middle East peace. Now he has made himself look rather foolish with his talk of how "generous" Assad has been in making minor concessions such as permitting the purchase of land for a U.S. Embassy in Damascus.
It is a mark of how central Syria is to the West's geopolitical calculations that everyone had their own perfectly good reason to believe in Assad's pragmatism. In the fall of 2007, French President Nicolas Sarkozy sent his top foreign policy advisors on a secret mission to Damascus. France had broken its ties with the country in 2004, when Syria was implicated in the murder of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Sarkozy and his aides hoped that ending Syria's isolation would persuade Assad to loosen his stranglehold over Lebanon. In fact, Sarkozy got nothing for his troubles save deep resentment from Lebanon's leaders, and announced soon thereafter that he was breaking off the talks.
The big breakthrough never happened -- yet everyone kept hoping, and trying. Jean-Pierre Filiu, a former French diplomat with long experience in Syria, says, "It's like a quadrille. Everyone has been changing partners 10 times -- France, U.S., U.K., Turkey. And at the end everybody is slipping back to the wall." France slipped away, and then Barack Obama's administration stepped up. For the White House, Syria offered a test case for its signature policy of engagement. The George W. Bush administration had refused to deal with Syria, even in the midst of the country's promising talks with Israel. And Syria had tightened its alliance with Iran, and continued shipping weapons across the Lebanese border to Hezbollah. So why not try talking? The White House nominated an ambassador to Syria in early 2010, sent mid-level officials to test Assad's willingness to move away from Iran and Hezbollah, and gave its blessing to Kerry's own diplomacy.