Since the outbreak of the Syrian uprising five weeks ago, President Obama has declined to call for Bashar Assad to step down as dictator or criticize his regime on camera, while Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has let it be known that many American lawmakers "believe he's a reformer." Slippery diction notwithstanding ("I referenced opinions of others," she later explained) most in the administration would appear to hold precisely this view of the Syrian president.
Of course, no one labors under the delusion that Mr. Assad has actually reformed anything since taking over from his deceased father 11 years ago. However, while most major indices of political rights, civil liberties and economic freedom in Syria are as abysmal today as they were then, Mr. Assad typically has not been regarded inside the Beltway as the primary agent of his regime's horrific abuses of power. More often than not, he has been pegged as a relatively benevolent pragmatist struggling (with little effect) to steer the ship of state against the influence of reactionary hard-liners - lacking courage and vision, perhaps, but basically well-intentioned.
The belief that lack of presidential authority accounts for unsavory characteristics of the Syrian regime has a long history. The late Hafez Assad dubbed his 1970 seizure of power the "Corrective Movement" and portrayed himself as continually crusading to fix flaws in the system. Syrian intellectuals fearful of disparaging the Lion of Damascus often attributed the country's malaise to a sclerotic "old guard."
The blocked-reformer construct was already an integral component of the regime's legitimizing narrative when Bashar ascended to office, but he quickly made it his own. A mild-mannered ophthalmologist-in-training before the death of his older brother made him crown prince of the republic, the new president's back story and demeanor perfectly fit the part - so much so that he didn't feel the need to act the part for very long. His early advocacy of reform and toleration of limited dissent were halted abruptly once he fully asserted his authority, a turnabout attributed by regime apologists to the same geriatric nomenklatura that supposedly bedeviled his father.
Although casting an oppressive ruler as unaware of or powerless to prevent wrongdoing is a fairly common deusexmachina propaganda device in the Middle East, Mr. Assad's cult of impotence is unique in having gained widespread acceptance in the West. Many in the United States and Europe see cooperative relations with Syria as necessary for securing Israeli-Palestinian detente, the containment of Iran and other strategic gains. The blocked-reformer construct has enabled advocates of constructive engagement with Damascus to displace responsibility for its chronic misbehavior onto an imagined coterie of miscreants gunning for war with Israel, domination of Lebanon and other manners of sin.
In fact, there is no cohesive hard-liner faction in Syria with interests discernibly different from those of the president. Mr. Assad has proved to be just as skillful as his father at using patronage and punishment to prevent such a coalition from forming. The military-security apparatus is dominated by powerful anti-reformist elements, to be sure, but most are newly ascendant relatives and close allies of the president, drawn from the same Alawite minority and facing much the same fate if the regime falls. Communal solidarity and common sense will ensure that the "new guard" acts in close concert with Mr. Assad, particularly under conditions of extreme political duress.
The blocked-reformer construct has never been more important to the regime's survival, as deterrence alone clearly cannot halt the momentum of the uprising. In order to clear the streets, the regime must convince a critical mass of the Syrian people that giving the president another chance to reform the system voluntarily is preferable to the consequences of his downfall. Early in the crackdown, Mr. Assad's leading political adviser proclaimed that she had personally watched him order the security forces to fire "not one bullet" - giving him a blanket alibi for the bloodbath. Attacks on demonstrators by plainclothes rooftop snipers have further fueled perceptions of a vengeful "deep state" beyond his control. Against this menacing backdrop, the belief that the Assad regime would be more repressive without Mr. Assad in it is pervasive even among die-hard dissidents.
American officials are reluctant to directly criticize Mr. Assad, not so much because they still buy into the blocked-reformer paradigm (though some surely do) but because they want his subjects to drink the Kool-Aid. Whatever his merits as a reformer, Mr. Assad's continuation in office is considered less injurious to American interests than any of the scenarios likely to arise from his departure (a peaceful transition to democracy not being one of them). Notwithstanding its obligatory proforma denunciations of state repression and grudging willingness to consider "targeted sanctions" of individuals responsible for it, the Obama administration wants the embattled dictator to quell the uprising at the end of the day.
Of course, the hope is that the Syrian regime will emerge from the fight so battered that Mr. Assad will have no choice but to walk the walk of the reformer he has always claimed to be. This reincarnation of the old trope that adversity will force Mr. Assad to "be himself" is naive. If the regime manages to stifle the protests, even under the pretext of negotiated comprise with amenable "opposition" leaders, it won't lose the initiative again. Armed with the identities of those brave enough to speak out or get arrested and a team of specialists adept at putting this information to effective use, the real Bashar Assad may well reveal himself in the aftermath of the revolt, but we should not expect to like what we see.
Gary C. Gambill is the former editor of Middle East Intelligence Bulletin and Mideast Monitor.
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