The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

NYT on Syria

Neil MacFarquhar of the New York Times snatched a rare interview of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad on December 1, which Assad used to call for renewed US-brokered negotiations for peace between Israel and Syria in the context . The main feeling from the interview is that Assad is growing increasingly concerned with the US disrupting regional stability -- a status quo that the Assad regime has benefited from for over 30 years.

Recent events in the Middle East, like the Israeli attack on what it described as a terrorist training camp in Syria in October, have left the impression that Damascus has little leverage and a shrinking regional role. But Mr. Assad suggested that Syria could be an important component to solving both violent conflicts in the Middle East — in Iraq and in the Palestinian territories.

There can be no peace in the region without Syria," he said. "And Syria is important for the future stability in Iraq due to its credibility and its being a neighbor to Iraq."

In contrast to Syria's previous belligerent statements about the need for an immediate end to the American occupation of Iraq, however, Mr. Assad softened his country's position. Asked how he felt about having 100,000 American soldiers as his newest neighbors, he sounded almost resigned.

"The problem is not whether you have one American soldier or a million American soldiers on your borders," he said. "And the problem is not whether they are going to stay one year or 10 years. The problem is whether the U.S. is going to become a power for achieving turbulence in the region instead of being an element of stability."

Also read the last few paragraphs where Assad makes a pathetic attempt to defend his reform program and the widespread corruption among his family.

The NYT's editorial board commented on the interview two days later with a dismissive piece on "The Syrian Leader's Curious World."

President Bashar al-Assad of Syria understands that he no longer lives in his father's Middle East, where brutal repression at home, the refusal to deal with Israel and cozy relations with terrorist groups and rogue regimes were enough to ensure decades of unchallenged power. That much comes across in an interview with our colleague Neil MacFarquhar in The Times on Monday. What is less clear is whether Mr. Assad, the son and successor of Hafez al-Assad, fully grasps the magnitude of the challenge he has inherited, and so far failed to meet.

While the NYT is undoubtedly right to highlight Syria's long-standing hardline stance towards Israel and its own lack of democracy -- it has paved the way for the hereditary republics that seem to be looming in Egypt and Libya -- its argument about Assad's rejection of a peace deal with Israel brokered by Bill Clinton in 2000 is dubious at best, considering how little is known about the deal in question or the seriousness of negotiations taking place. Past and current Israeli governments, reluctant to give up the West Bank, do not seem any more eager to relinquish the Golan Heights.