‘I Am Searching for Assad’s Real Friend’

Monday, 15 July, 2019 - 07:15 Issue Number [14839]

In late 2004, I was having lunch with a friend in Paris. He received a telephone call from former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, who had just arrived in the French capital. I said I would be unable to meet with him because I had a flight to catch. My friend suggested that I contact Hariri right away and ask to meet him today. Indeed, I telephoned and met up with him without delay.

I entered Hariri’s house and saw him flipping through television channels. I asked him what was preoccupying him. He replied: “Believe me, I am trying to find a real friend to Bashar Assad.” I told him that Assad has numerous allies and friends, but he replied: “I mean a real friend who speaks frankly to the president. I am not aware that such a friend exists. The problem is that advisers and friends tell the ruler what they believe he wants to hear. They avoid telling him anything that may bother or embarrass him or contradict with his security agency reports. No one wants to anger the decision-maker. I know from experience that some parties claim to be friends to Syria and its president, but they are actually a burden on them because they provide wrong information or information that only serves their own interests.”

“You may question my keenness after my bitter experience with (President) Emile Lahoud,” continued Hariri. “I am approaching this issue from a strategic perspective. Any collapse in Syria similar to the collapse in Iraq will be a disaster on the country, Lebanon and the region. I do not hide to you the fact that I have a lot of reasons to be resentful of Assad, but this issue goes beyond personal reservations. My information is that Assad is leaning towards working with Iran to bring about the failure of the American military deployment in Iraq. The invasion of Iraq was a massive error, but we are here talking about Syria and its future and also Lebanon’s interest.”

“Ignore local writers of reports and their friends in some agencies in Damascus. It is not in Assad’s interest to claim victory against Rafik Hariri and Walid Jumblatt in Lebanon. He has greater and more dangerous problems to worry about. I am searching for a real friend who can tell him that the actual path that will ease his fears over the American presence on his border is different than the path he has chosen to take,” he said.

“They must also be frank with him that the economic situation is bad and needs to be addressed immediately. Unemployment is also on the rise and the situation in the countrysides is getting worse. The population is increasing and public administrations are bloated with ineffective employees,” he added.

“The party has become an old creaky machine that is operated by security officers and its relationship with the people is strictly based on intimidation. Moreover, UN Security Council resolution 1559 has placed Syria in a confrontation with the international community. It is unfortunate that the decision to extend Lahoud’s term in office has pushed Syria into a corner. It could have brought in another president who is allied to it,” remarked Hariri.

“I know that Saudi Arabia and Egypt are keen on Syria’s stability. Damascus can turn to Riyadh and Cairo to obtain guarantees related to the Americans’ intentions. It can kick off a campaign of openness that can ease the silent internal tensions and somewhat revitalize the economy and encourage investors. Lebanon, with its expertise and banking sector, can also help. This is why I told you I was searching for a real friend to Assad,” he told me.

I recalled Hariri’s comments during a recent discussion with a diplomat in London. He said that the horrors that have been committed in Syria have left deep scars and a need for revenge among the Syrians. Surrendering to emotions does not, however, end wars despite the massive losses in human life.

The diplomat added: “Let us be honest. We have no option but to be realistic about Syria. The idea of toppling the regime was taken off the table when Russia intervened in its favor. All of the parties that worked on and wished for Assad’s ouster have surrendered to this fact. Nonetheless, the current situation is very dangerous and may lead to greater problems if the Syrians are not allowed the right to determine their own fate in a manner that ends the war.”

He explained that Syria today is an open arena for a number of wars. “A war between the authority and its allies on the one hand against the Idlib-based opposition. Add to that the clear hegemony terrorist organizations have over some regions. Another war pits Israel against Iranian military influence in Syria. This confrontation could spiral out of control due to the escalating tensions in the Hormuz Strait. Turkey is also engaged in a war against Kurdish armed groups deployed on the Syrian-Turkish border. Furthermore, the foreign military presence in Syria also coincides with attempts to introduce demographic changes in order to alter old balances of power in some region. The persistence of the current situation and the lingering presence of militias may pave the way for a new round of terrorism, despite the defeat of ISIS in Syria and Iraq.”

The diplomat added: “Iran is committed to its military presence in Syria and Israel is bent on ending it. Turkey is also committed to its military presence and the Kurds are prepared to wage a long battle. Two men can attempt to gradually change this situation: Bashar Assad and Vladimir Putin. No one is asking Assad to kick out the Iranians and Turks tomorrow. He has an actual chance to make a change. He can begin by gradually restoring Syria’s right to decide its own fate, which will in turn lead to a gradual withdrawal of Iranian and Turkish forces from his country.”

“One must steer clear of the rhetoric of victor and vanquished and adopt the rhetoric of someone searching for a solution from a position of power and garner the support of the Syrian people to restore their decision-making power. Life must be restored to the Syrian state through reconstruction, the return of refugees and a number of reasonable political measures that would ultimately reduce the regional military and political influence in Syria and on its decision-making. The international community is addressing the situation in Syria from a realistic perspective. Any friend of the Syrian leadership must advise it to show some realism and launch a calm operation that would return complete power to the Syrians, with Russian support,” he went on to say.

Fifteen years separate Rafik Hariri’s remarks from that of the diplomat. Numerous major and dangerous developments have taken place in Syria and the region during this time. Both figures share the same conviction that Syria is vital for the security and balances of power in the Middle East. A united and stable Syria that is seeking its own prosperity will be embraced by the Arab world and international community. It will reflect positively on the stability of its neighbors, especially the Arabs. The stability of Syria and Iraq are a main condition to restore historic balances between the components of the Middle East.