Imprisoning or intimidating liberal critics means domestic stability but without human rights. Nevertheless, the regime survived, its foreign maneuvers worked well much of the time, and Syrian control over Lebanon was a money-maker as well as a source of regional influence. But what did all of this avail Syria compared to what an emphasis on peace and development might have achieved? Thus, this pattern might be called one of brilliantly successful disasters. The policy works in the sense that the regime survives and the public perceives it as successful. But objectively the society and economy are damaged, freedom is restricted, and resources are wasted.
Unfortunately, this type of thing is thoroughly typical of Arab politics. Syria, then, is both a most revealing test case for the failure of change in Middle East politics and a key actor—though there is plenty of blame to go around—in making things go so wrong for the Arab world. If Damascus had moved from the radical to the moderate camp during the 1990s or under Bashar’s guidance, it would have decisively shifted the balance to a breakthrough toward a more peaceful and progressing Middle East. Syria’s participation in the Gulf war coalition of 1991, readiness to negotiate with Israel, severe economic and social stagnation, and strategic vulnerability, all topped off by the coming to power of a new generation of leadership, provoked expectations that it would undergo dramatic change.
It was a Western, not an Arab, idea that the populace’s desperation at their countries’ difficult plight would make Hafiz al-Assad, Syria’s president between 1971 and his death in 2000—and Saddam, PLO leader Yasir Arafat, and other Arab or Iran’s leaders, too—move toward concessions and moderation. But the rulers themselves reasoned in the exact opposite way: faced with pressure to change they became more demanding.
Often, at least up to a point, this strategy worked as the West offered Syria more concessions in an attempt to encourage reforms, ensure profitable trade, buy peace, and buy off terrorism. Of course, they were acting in their own interests but what is most important is that these included solving the issues which had caused conflict, building understanding and confidence, and proving their good intentions toward the peoples of the Middle East.
Yet to the dictatorial regimes this behavior seemed not the result of generosity or proffered friendship but rather from Western fear of their power and an imperialist desire to control the Arabs and Muslims. Frequently, too, it is seen as a tribute to their superior tactics which fool or outmaneuver their adversaries. This perception encouraged continued intransigence in hope of reaping still more benefits. Eventually, this process destroyed any possibility of moderation, though not always Western illusions.