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Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s Corleone Correlations

March 25, 2011 at 6:25 PM EDT
After weeks of appearing immune to Arab world protests, Syria faces escalating unrest as soldiers opened fire on demonstrators. Jeffrey Brown discusses the protests with former U.S. Ambassador to Syria Theodore Kattouf and democracy activist and blogger Ammar Abdulhamid, who was exiled in 2005.
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JEFFREY BROWN: More now from Theodore Kattouf. He served as U.S. ambassador to Syria from 2001 to 2003, part of a 31-year career in the Foreign Service, most of it in the Middle East. And Ammar Abdulhamid is a liberal democracy activist whose anti-regime activities led to his exile from Syria in 2005. He now lives in the United States and writes the blog Syrian Revolution Digest.

Welcome to both of you.

The reports are, Ammar, that this started with the arrest of some teenagers in the town of Daraa for spraying anti-regime graffiti. It clearly has grown. How has it grown? Who is involved now?

AMMAR ABDULHAMID, Syrian democracy activist: What we really have to realize, that the seeds of this revolution of course has been planted years ago.

What we are talking about here with the arrest of the children in Daraa, we are talking about sort of the immediate cause. But people got an idea that the times were suitable for a revolution, finally when, of course (INAUDIBLE) and Tunisia’s park was made and the Tunisians managed to topple their regime, and then Egyptians, and then we saw immediately how the spark really — or the wave of protests took over the region.

A lot of Syrians said, well, finally. Our time is now, seems to be. And the people who said so were actually teenagers and young people in their 20s who were inside Syria. And they went to Facebook. They went to other social networking sites and they began chatting with dissidents inside the country and outside the country. And they said, OK, I mean, we’re willing to listen now. We understand that we can do it. So what can we do?

And — but they took the leadership. I mean, it was — the discussion was about timing, about tactics, about messages that should be — they should be very careful to enunciate.

I thought for a while that it would be better to actually push the date of the revolution a little bit until the summer, because we needed more time to communicate with different groups within Syrian society. We’re a very heterogeneous society. But I was outvoted.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Ambassador Ted Kattouf, what has it grown into? What are they now calling for, and how much are they pushing for change here?

THEODORE KATTOUF, former U.S. ambassador to Syria: Well, it has has grown in Daraa at least in the surrounding villages — in one village today, people who tried to march, there’s reports that 15 of them were killed — into an anti-regime movement there.

These people originally came out demanding the release of these young kids who spray-painted graffiti, copying perhaps what happened in Egypt and the like, and were treated obviously very brutally by the police in Daraa. And that’s what sparked all of this.

But now there are new martyrs, if you will, being created every day. And the regime has just been incredibly clumsy. And it’s appalling, the violence they have used.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now fill in a little bit the picture of this regime for those who don’t follow it all the time. And this is a — the Assad regime has been known for a very tight, authoritarian grip for a long time.

But the son, Bashar, has at least given an image of trying to open it up a little bit in recent years, no?

THEODORE KATTOUF: That’s right.

The father ruled for 30 years as the unquestioned president of Syria. He put down a Muslim Brotherhood campaign against them, an armed campaign, by the way, brutally in 1982. But it was effective. And everybody got the message: You don’t do this. You don’t question the regime. As long as you don’t get involved in politics, you’ll be fine. Just go along.

The son came in, in June of 2000, and started right away to suggest that there was going to be major reforms done. And I think some of the old guard must have gotten to him and said, look, this system doesn’t run that way, doesn’t work this way. And he — he…

AMMAR ABDULHAMID: I have a slightly different interpretation…

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

AMMAR ABDULHAMID: … if I may, Ted, of how sort of Bashar acted.

I think, in the beginning, the reason there was so much — well, a little openness, actually, in comparison to the previous era was because he was still trying to find his footing. I mean, he was still young. He wasn’t necessarily completely accepted by the old guard. He didn’t know how to run a country to begin with.

I mean, he wasn’t really well-prepared or groomed for the job.

THEODORE KATTOUF: Well, he worked with his father seven years.

AMMAR ABDULHAMID: It didn’t seem to have given him a lot of indication as how to do it, because as you have seen a lot of clumsy things. And you were there, in fact, at the time. You have seen how clumsy he was in the first few years.

That allowed for the openness. So, the openness wasn’t because of his decision or his reform intentions. It was because he really didn’t know how to control the society. And there was some competition with…

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, let me ask you this, because now you see him responding with a mix of one day putting out some possible reforms, including getting rid of the emergency law, but also a very — clearly, a very heavy hand of violence here.

Is this — is this the response you would expect? Is this him still trying to figure out how much support he has from within the society?

THEODORE KATTOUF: Well, it’s very interesting.

His spokesperson, Bouthaina Shaaban, was on a press conference yesterday, in which he said she heard the president order the security chiefs not to use violence. This is after 34 people, by their count, were dead.

Now, this is a man who has been president for 11 years. He’s had time to move the old guard out and put his people in place in the various overlapping security services in the military. It sounds like he’s trying to play the role of a monarch and put himself above the fray, and: I’m not really responsible for this.

But he’s at a crossroads. Bashar al-Assad, an eye doctor, a guy who studied to save people’s eyesight, who did a residency in London, who married a very educated and sophisticated woman of Syrian ethnicity but U.K. citizenship, has to decide, is he going to give in and go totally to the dark side, the Darth Vader sort of option, or is he going to take the risks and try to open up the system and stop this killing?

JEFFREY BROWN: And what do you look for from the opposition in terms of its growth and its spread to know how successful it will be, whether it has the ability to either enforce reforms or perhaps get rid of the regime?

AMMAR ABDULHAMID: Well, I mean, getting rid of the regime right now is on everybody’s mind.

To be honest with you, to us, Bashar al-Assad was a thug to begin with, and he is a thug now. He was a thug then. He is a thug now. He’s a Fredo Corleone who mushroomed into Sonny Corleone. But the idea of reform, the idea of him being — suddenly finding some kind of reform impulses is impossible right now…

THEODORE KATTOUF: I thought he was Michael.

AMMAR ABDULHAMID: He was never Michael.

(LAUGHTER)

AMMAR ABDULHAMID: He was never Michael. Michael tried to reform. And I think this is — this is exactly what people wanted…

THEODORE KATTOUF: We are going to have a disagreement about that.

JEFFREY BROWN: That’s the one disagreement you have is over which Corleone.

THEODORE KATTOUF: Exactly.

(LAUGHTER)

JEFFREY BROWN: But, seriously, what — in the next couple of days here, because you say it’s a key point…

AMMAR ABDULHAMID: It is a key point. It is — actually, what is going to happen right now, I think the opposition, both inside and outside the country, realize that this is a golden opportunity, that the street is finally moving and they are demanding.

There were people calling in the streets, saying, the people want to topple the regime. We have heard it being said in many of the demonstrations. The people in Daraa were coming out and naming Bashar and naming his brother, Maher, by name and calling them cowards.

The face — the posters of Bashar al-Assad and even of Hafez Assad in many Syrian cities were defaced, in Daraa, in Latakia, in Homs, in Damascus. So that really indicates that finally this is an anti-regime, an anti-Assange revolution. It’s not simply about minor reforms.

So, what Bouthaina Shaaban, the spokeswoman of the regime, said yesterday was about some concessions. This is too little, too late. And we have seen this kind of scenario in Tunisia and Egypt.

THEODORE KATTOUF: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, go ahead.

THEODORE KATTOUF: This is an entrenched regime.

I disagree with Ammar in the sense that, yes, there’s a lot of people who want to see probably Bashar and the regime go after 40 years, totally natural. There is too much of a gap in wealth. There is too little development in Syria. There are terrible droughts.

But, at the same time, there is a party called the Baath Party. And it is a patronage system. And there are hundreds and hundreds of thousands, maybe a couple million people, that belong to the Baath Party.

There are lots of prominent businesspeople, there are a lot of prominent people in the military, et cetera, who benefit from this regime. This regime is not going to go down easily.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right.

AMMAR ABDULHAMID: That might be the case, by the way. Just one point, but I want to point out something.

In Daraa, many of the people who actually came to the street were members of the Baath Party. I mean, these young people in these kinds of areas are always members of the Baath Party, so they can benefit, exactly, from the patronage system. And yet they came on to the street and they demonstrated in protest. The party could be part of the solution, and not only part of the problem.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, we will watch in the coming days, for sure.

Ammar Abdulhamid, Ted Kattouf, thank you very much.

AMMAR ABDULHAMID: Thank you.

THEODORE KATTOUF: Thank you.