Syrian Identity Crises

On March 17, the Harvard Arab Alumni Association held their annual conference in Damascus, Syria "under the patronage" of Her Excellency, Asma al-Assad, wife of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The First Lady is the daughter of Syrian ex-patriots living in London where she was born, educated, and pursued a fledgling career as an investment banker. In 2000 she moved to Syria to marry the president, who succeeded his father, President-for-Life Hafiz al-Assad.

Mrs. Assad delivered the keynote address of the conference in her flawless King's English. She spoke eloquently of the critical importance of youth in Syria, particularly given the fact that half the country's population is under the age of 22. Massar, an NGO she helped create is focused on youth empowerment and creating the ethos of active, responsible citizenship.

Addressing the need for reform and development, the First Lady posited that change occurs at the nexus of 'systems' and 'identity'. In charting a path forward she maintained that society's systems (political, economic, and community institutions) must evolve internally respecting unique Syrian identity (historic, cultural, and religious values).

Politicians in both the US and Syria would do well to heed her words. Americans must realize that people everywhere do not aspire to be exactly like us. While some human qualities may be universal, cultural and historical differences can be profound. In our paternalistic zeal to spread (impose?) democratic values, it is easy to overlook these important differences. We need look no further than the US promotion of the failed policy of economic "shock therapy" to post Communist Russia and our unfinished debacle in Iraq to recognize our well intended and naïve short sightedness.

But Mrs. Assad's words have important implications for her husband's leadership as well. Since 1963, Assad and his father have ruled Syria under an iron fisted "state of emergency" which tolerates no dissent or opposition and deals swiftly, decisively and violently with any public demonstration. Al-Assad the elder dealt brutally with his opposition, taking a back seat to no one including Mssrs. Mubarak and Gaddafi.

In recent years, al-Assad the younger has appeared to loosen the grip slightly, which brings us to the question of his assessment of the Syrian Arab character. Is there something in its identity that demands corruption, economic and political exploitation, refuses to accept opposition and differences of opinion, and shows intolerance with respect to issues of religious and political diversity? Or was his father's ruling style simply one that was needed on a temporary basis to create order out of chaos, albeit at a high price?

Bashar will have important decisions to make in the weeks ahead, and if he agrees with his wife it will tell us volumes of his assessment of the Arab identity. Perhaps there is an intermediate ground between an immediate "shock treatment" and transition to a western style democracy on the one hand, and the brutal, intolerant suppression of all dissent enforced by his father on the other. Is he willing or able to start a dialogue with his diverse citizenry to address their cry for meaningful reform and chart a way forward together?

The lifting of the emergency law that went into effect 48 years ago allowing the government to detain people without charges is an encouraging first step, although it comes after scores of fatalities and hundreds of injuries. There is no clarity on whether the emergency law prohibiting public dissent will also be lifted.

Of course his ultimate approach may have another possible explanation entirely. Perhaps Mrs. al-Assad's words were simply academic rhetoric, and the only thing that really matters to the power elite and her husband's government is maintaining the status quo and remaining President-for-Life at all costs like his father. Syrian youth be damned.

Stay tuned. The answer lies ahead.