There is no question about it; Assad is committed to reform. He has shaved his mustache again. There is no going back. As for politics, however, the matter is less certain. In an interview yesterday on Syrian state television, Assad laid out a ‘package’ of reforms, a present for the ‘eid perhaps. The parties, elections, and local administration laws will be implemented starting this week; the new media law will be issued before the ‘eid; a committee to review the constitution will be formed after the ‘eid and take 3 to 6 months; local elections will take place in December and parliamentary elections in February. In the abstract, these are positive steps. Implemented in faithful spirit months ago, they might well have have ushered in a period of relaxation in which political conflicts played out in institutions rather than on the streets, bringing natural, phased change. The regime as presently constituted might not ultimately have survived this process, but individuals and factions within it might plausibly have carved out new roles, vital interests safeguarded, while other figures made dignified exits. What is the meaning of these ‘reforms’ after months of bloodshed? They cannot be a sincere move towards a real political opening. The prerequisite of such a strategy would have been a halt to deadly violence against regime opponents. The ‘reform’ escape hatch is now shut. In fact, the regime or elements within it have slammed it shut themselves.
The regime could always count on firm support from the fearful among minority groups, who comprise perhaps a quarter of Syria’s population, along with co-opted interests. Such backing suffices to run a country (into the ground) as a merciless dictatorship, as the example of the Saddam Hussein regime illustrated. For the last decade, Syria was not run in that manner. The palpable external threats of America and Israel, the expectation of change under a new President, and piecemeal but not insignificant reforms, gained the regime an acceptance, if not following, well beyond its base. This patience on the part of the ‘center’ of Syrian society, the Sunni mainstream, went hand in hand with a relaxation of the security services’ vise. The protests put the regime’s character to the test. Perhaps they would stimulate its better nature. But the regime made no effort to play to the ‘center’ of Syrian society; it folded back in on itself. If, in a more open political system, the regime might previously yet have held some ground, that is no longer the case. Killing 2000 people removes any hope of survival through reform; detente is over, and if rule through fear is relaxed, there will be no love to temper the consequences. One cannot loosen autocratic rule and make a play for more legitimate authority while provoking the majority of the population with horrific violence. Presumably some, who would rather rule over ruins than negotiate policy, prefer it that way.
The behavior of the Syrian regime itself, which is leading it to a self-imposed doom, remains mysterious. What may grasp the inner reality? The best allies I have found in this quest are Macbeth and Hamlet, particularly the brilliant RSC adaptations of the last few years, starring, in the former case, Patrick Stewart, and in the latter, David Tennant. Robert Fisk has already suggested a resemblance between Assad and Macbeth, a man “in blood/Stepp’d in so far, that, should I wade no more,/Returning were as tedious as go o’er.” It is worth considering the possibility that he is a villain in this mold, one who can “look like the innocent flower/But be the serpent under’t”. Indeed it seems likely that someone of that cast is taking the lead. If this is Assad, then those who have met him, including myself, have been most richly deceived; “There’s no art to find the mind’s construction in the face”.
Macbeth is a warrior. His butchery has made him a hero by the play’s first scenes, having “unseamed” the leader of the revolt “from the nave to the chops/And fixed his head upon our battlements”; this bloody aspect was a virtue in protection of King and country against dangerous foreign foes. Yet he is already plagued by ambition, which is soon set in motion by “strange intelligence” from the spiritual realm, the reach of whose dark agents, according to Shakespeare, extends at least as far as Syria; they are briefly seen deployed in an act of petty revenge against a sailor “to Aleppo gone, master o’the Tiger/But in a sieve I’ll thither sail/And like a rat without a tail/I’ll do, and I’ll do, and I’ll do.” The witches’ promises of greatness seem confirmed by Macbeth’s promotion to Thane of Cawdor, but then, he is thwarted as he is passed over for succession to the throne.
The King’s arrival as his honored guest presents Macbeth with his chance, and his Lady, far from a restraining influence, spurs his wicked ambition; the love of each for the other blinds both to right and wrong. “If the assassination could trammel up the consequence”, he muses, “and catch/With his surcease success - that but this blow/Might be the be-all and end-all!” Macbeth imagines that, in this one exceptional circumstance, he may enter into evil, and then exit intact. “If it were done when ‘tis done...” What he discovers, in fact, is that far from being done, he is yet but “young in deed”. Having overcome his “initiate fear”, worse crimes await, the only satisfaction for the existential insecurity of a man who suddenly found he “could not say Amen”, and he falls ever deeper into the isolation of evil, absent from the view of the public and his minions alike. The manner in which Macbeth’s first murder leads relentlessly to ever greater killing, mirrors all too well the way in which the Syrian regime’s violent response to the first protests, perhaps imagined as an instance of exceptional evil, has led them deeper and deeper into blood.
“Now does he feel/His secret murders sticking on his hands;/Now minutely revolts upbraid his faith-breach;/Those he commands move only in command,/Nothing in love: now does he feel his title/Hang loose about him, like a giant’s robe/Upon a dwarfish thief.”
Macbeth's ascent in raw power makes him less secure than ever. Banquo, the only other who knows of the witches’ prophecy, is a thorn in his side. The scene in which Macbeth orders Banquo’s murder, superbly written as it is, is elevated in Stewart’s portrayal to sublime terror. This scene is a reference for all those who doubt the capacity of political leaders to order, in secret, unthinkable deeds, and the capacity of others to obey. He reveals his purpose slowly, indirectly at first, circling like a shark ever closer to his true meaning. He has chosen his agents well; one “Whom the vile blows and buffets of the world/Hath so incensed that I am reckless what I do/To spite the world”; the other, “So weary with disasters, tugged with fortune,/That I would set my life on any chance/To mend it or be rid on’t.” Finally, Macbeth arrives at his point: “though I could/With bare-faced power sweep him from my sight/And bid my will avouch it, yet I must not,/For certain friends that are both his and mine,/Whose loves I may not drop, but wail his fall/Who I myself struck down. And thence it is/That I to your assistance do make love,/Masking the business from the common eye/For sundry weighty reasons.” Is this the Hariri assassination? The Shabiha?
There has been no recognition by Assad of misdeeds, of the breadth and depth of opposition, of mass demonstrations and their suppression. The only really positive and reality-tuned remark was a mention that in his meetings with youth he had noticed a sense of marginalization. More than compensating for this were a few alarming moments in the softball (if not beach ball) interview. His talk about political reform was directly undercut by his account of his meeting with the Ba’ath leadership a few days ago: “The Ba’ath party molded the past and present of Syria for five decades. So the discussion revolved around what the mechanisms are through which the party can develop its work to remain in that position in future decades.” Asked if ‘as some say’ he had chosen the ‘security solution’ to Syria’s troubles, he responded: “There is no such thing as the security solution, nor the security option. There is only a political solution.” Fair enough. Then, a true, but a troubling swerve nonetheless: “Even those countries that go to war, with their armies, do so for a political aim, and not a military aim.” There were many remarks about Syria’s readiness for war.
This is a dangerous time for the Middle East, perhaps even more dangerous than at the height of the Bush-Cheney regime. Then, the warmongers searched in vain for further provocations from countries determined to play a subtler game. Now, there are influential players on both sides who may see their political interests best served by open and theatrical conflict. The need of many governments to ‘change the subject’ has never been greater. The situation is fluid, with major countries like Egypt back in play. The potent combination of fear and ambition, the driving force of many of Shakespeare’s most tragic villains, has ample substance with which to wreak its transformations.
For some time I have been weighing the Macbeth hypothesis against another: that Assad is more like Hamlet, whose downfall is not his own deep seated villainy, but his inner irresolution, the inability to bring himself to cut out the foul rot at the heart of his family and court, someone who puts on an “antic disposition” as his only defense from the combinations lined up against him, a man who watches indecisively as the death toll rises, swearing to bring justice every morning and by nightfall, having missed every chance, forced to gaze in the mirror and ask, “Am I a coward?” Hamlet is a private man, drawn by tragic events back to “this warlike state” from the quiet of his studies at Wittenberg. He takes little pleasure from the “heavy handed revel” of the court. He knows there is “something rotten in the state of Denmark”, where “rank corruption, mining all within,/Infects unseen”. He thinks, and thinks, and thinks about what to do. In fact, he knows what he must do, but misses every opportunity to do it.
“I do not know/Why yet I live to say ‘This thing’s to do;’/Sith I have cause and will and strength and means/To do’t... while, to my shame, I see/The imminent death of twenty thousand men,/That, for a fantasy and trick of fame,/ Go to their graves like beds, fight for a plot/Whereon the numbers cannot try the cause,/Which is not tomb enough and continent/To hide the slain?”
By this reading, Assad were brought down perhaps as much by a fatal flaw in his environment as by his own peculiar failings, the tendency to rally around family, relations, near and distant kin, at the expense of the country. There may be a Macbeth at work in the shadows, I thought, but is it him? In favor of the Hamlet scenario, I considered the weirdly disjointed response of the Syrian government, the repeated occasions in which civilian government figures and presidential confidantes such as Walid al-Mu’allim and Bouthaina Sha’aban say something will happen or something is about to be announced, and then - nothing. Would it be fantastical to suppose, I wondered, that in order to undercut those genuinely in favor of concessions and reform, and to safeguard power and privilege, some in the regime may have set off violence in order to change the story away from that of peaceful demonstrators and force a ‘security solution’ on the leadership? The deep rooted fears of a powerful but insecure minority may drive the most spectacularly irrational action. A tale, in short, “Of carnal, bloody, and unnatural acts,/Of accidental judgments, casual slaughters,/Of deaths put on by cunning and forced cause,/And, in this upshot, purposes mistook/Fall'n on the inventors' heads”. In this apparent divorce of power centers, I recalled the ‘showdown’ between Hafez al-Assad and his brother Rifa’at in the early 1980s, which really resembled more of a slow, inexorable game of chess played at the heart of the Syrian state with divisions, brigades, and battalions. Yet as far as we can tell, there is no such game of chess going on; the military and security services are united. In whose hands? Who knows.
And yet I increasingly believe that to lend too much weight to this hypothesis would be to give the benefit of the doubt where it is not due, however difficult it is to imagine these abominations of government as the work of a young, mild-mannered president who was once a symbol of hope to many. There is no sign that Assad is moving outside of his 'comfort zone' as an authoritarian leader, even as Syrians demonstrate that living under authoritarian rule is no longer in their 'comfort zone'. That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain? At least I’m sure it may be so in Syria.