US embassy cable - 95DAMASCUS5748

HAFIZ AL-ASAD: LAST DEFENDER OF ARABS

Identifier: 95DAMASCUS5748
Wikileaks: View 95DAMASCUS5748 at Wikileaks.org
Origin: Embassy Damascus
Created: 1995-11-01 14:06:00
Classification: CONFIDENTIAL
Tags: PGOV PREL SY IS XF
Redacted: This cable was not redacted by Wikileaks.
R 011406Z NOV 95
FM AMEMBASSY DAMASCUS
TO SECSTATE WASHDC 9941
INFO AMEMBASSY PARIS 
AMCONSUL JERUSALEM 
AMEMBASSY TEL AVIV 
AMEMBASSY RIYADH 
AMEMBASSY LONDON 
AMEMBASSY AMMAN 
AMEMBASSY CAIRO 
AMEMBASSY BEIRUT 
C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 02 DAMASCUS 005748 
 
 
LONDON FOR TUELLER; PARIS FOR ALLEGRONE 
 
E.O.  12356:  DECL:  11/1/15 
TAGS:  PGOV, PREL, SY, IS, XF 
SUBJECT:  HAFIZ AL-ASAD: LAST DEFENDER OF ARABS 
 
1. CONFIDENTIAL - ENTIRE TEXT.  CLASSIFIED BY: 
CHRISTOPHER W.S. ROSS, AMBASSADOR.  REASON: 1.5 (D) . 
 
2. SUMMARY: THE IMAGE OF HAFIZ AL-ASAD AS THE LAST 
LINE OF DEFENSE AGAINST ISRAELI ATTEMPTS TO 
"OBLITERATE" THE ARAB IDENTITY IS AN INCREASINGLY 
PREVALENT THEME PUT OUT BY THE SARG, AND WILL ONLY 
INTENSIFY IN THE RUN-UP TO AND AFTERMATH OF THE 
NOVEMBER 16 CELEBRATION OF 25 YEARS OF ASAD'S RULE. 
ALTHOUGH UNREALISTIC RHETORIC IS PART OF THIS 
IMAGE-BUILDING, ASAD'S "ARABISM" SHOULD NOT BE 
DISMISSED AS MERELY A PLOY.  GIVEN THE LACK OF 
FORWARD MOVEMENT IN THE SYRIAN TRACK AND GREATER 
SUSPICION OF ISRAELI MOTIVES, WE THINK ASAD WILL 
INCREASINGLY VIEW ANY NEW PEACE PROCESS PROPOSALS 
THROUGH THIS ARAB NATIONALISM OPTIC.  ONE COMPONENT 
OF THIS OPTIC IS THAT ISRAEL IS ULTIMATELY SEEKING 
TO "CORNER" SYRIA, AS IT HAS MANY OTHER ARAB 
PARTIES.  END SUMMARY 
 
3. ALTHOUGH THE SYRIAN POLITICAL SYSTEM HAS ALWAYS 
SOUGHT TO CREATE FOR HAFIZ AL-ASAD A DOMESTIC AND 
EXTERNAL IMAGE AS AN ARAB -- RATHER THAN STRICTLY A 
SYRIAN -- LEADER, THE HYPING OF ASAD'S DEFENSE OF 
ARAB RIGHTS HAS INTENSIFIED WITH THE LACK OF 
PROGRESS ON THE SYRIAN TRACK AND ISRAEL'S GROWING 
RELATIONS WITH OTHER PARTS OF THE ARAB WORLD.  THE 
THEME THAT ISRAEL IS SEEKING TO "OBLITERATE" THE 
ARAB IDENTITY VIA WHAT ASAD CALLS "MIDDLE 
EASTERNISM" IS AN INCREASINGLY COMMON FEATURE OF 
SYRIAN RHETORIC. 
 
4. BUT IT IS NOT JUST RHETORIC.  WE BELIEVE IT 
COLORS HOW ASAD PERCEIVES PROPOSALS MADE IN THE 
SYRIAN TRACK, AND SYRIA'S STANCE TOWARD THE REST OF 
THE PEACE PROCESS.  WE ALSO BELIEVE THIS 
SLEDGEHAMMER-LIKE PUBLIC RELATIONS TOOL WILL COME 
DOWN EVEN HARDER AS SYRIA BEGINS TO CELEBRATE THE 
SILVER ANNIVERSARY OF THE "CORRECTIONIST MOVEMENT," 
ASAD'S 25 YEARS IN POWER.  THE SYRIAN BA'TH PARTY 
IS INDEED ONLY A SHELL OF ITS FORMER SELF, BUT ONE 
OF THE FEW FACETS THAT REMAIN IS ITS IDENTITY AS AN 
ARAB -- NOT JUST SYRIAN -- MOVEMENT. 
 
5. IN THE RUN-UP TO THE NOVEMBER 16 FETING OF THE 
CORRECTIONIST MOVEMENT, ASAD IS BEING EXTOLLED AS 
"THE FIRST ARAB STRUGGLER."  HE IS BEING REFERRED 
TO MORE AS AN ARAB LEADER THAN THE SYRIAN LEADER, 
AND AS THE SUPREME DEFENDER OF ARAB RIGHTS.  ASAD'S 
ARAB IMAGE PERMEATES ALL EVENTS HERE -- POLITICAL 
OR OTHERWISE.  THE MINISTER OF CULTURE RECENTLY 
OPENED AN INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL IN DAMASCUS 
(WHERE AN AWARD-WINNING TUNISIAN FILM WAS EXCLUDED 
BECAUSE ITS DIRECTOR HAD TRAVELLED TO ISRAEL) WITH 
AN EXPRESSION OF APPRECIATION FOR PRESIDENT ASAD'S 
CONCERN FOR THE ROLE OF CINEMA IN ENLIGHTENING THE 
PEOPLE AND GIVING AN IDEA ABOUT THIS COUNTRY WHICH 
IS FACING A FIERCE ENEMY WHO TRIES TO ANNEX MORE 
ARAB LANDS IN DEFIANCE OF UN RESOLUTIONS."  WHETHER 
IT IS THE PREPARATORY MEETING FOR THE UPCOMING EU- 
MEDITERRANEAN CONFERENCE IN BARCELONA OR THE UN'S 
WOMEN'S CONFERENCE IN PEKING, SARG REPRESENTATIVES 
DO NOT MISS AN OPPORTUNITY TO SHOW THAT SYRIA IS 
CARRYING THE ARAB RIGHTS MANTLE, EVEN IF, IN THE 
SARG'S MIND, OTHER ARABS ARE NOT.  AS THE NOVEMBER 
1 OFFICIAL RADIO COMMENTARY SAID SUBTLY, "WHEN 
SYRIA PLAYS THE ARAB TUNE, THE ARAB MASSES REPEAT 
IT AFTER HER." 
 
--------------------------------------------- -- 
ASAD MISREADS THE ISRAELIS -- BUT DOES HE CARE? 
--------------------------------------------- -- 
 
6. IT IS OFTEN SAID THAT ASAD MISREADS THE ISRAELI 
POLITICAL EQUATION.  SARG KNOWLEDGE OF ISRAELI 
DOMESTIC POLITICAL DYNAMICS IS INDEED INADEQUATE. 
BUT THAT IS NOT THE REAL POINT.  EVEN IF THE SARG 
HAD PERFECT KNOWLEDGE OF THESE DYNAMICS, IT WOULD 
NOT ACT DIFFERENTLY, BECAUSE OF ITS OWN SELF- 
IMPOSED PSYCHOLOGICAL AND IDEOLOGICAL CONSTRAINTS. 
ASAD WILL DO A DEAL IF IT IS EVIDENTLY A GOOD DEAL 
FOR SYRIA, AND HE WILL NOT DO A DEAL IF IT IS NOT - 
- REGARDLESS OF WHETHER RABIN FALLS AND ASAD IS 
FORCED TO DEAL WITH A LESS FLEXIBLE LIKUD 
LEADERSHIP, OR IF THE PROCESS IS SENT INTO THE DEEP 
FREEZE WITH NO PROSPECT FOR THAWING.  A RECENT INR 
ANALYSIS FOR THE SECRETARY ACCURATELY SUMMARIZED 
MANY OF ASAD'S PEACE PROCESS-RELATED VIEWS AS 
"UNRECONSTRUCTED."  BUT THE MOST RELEVANT POINT IS 
THAT ASAD SEEMS PERFECTLY HAPPY -- AND INDEED 
PREFERS -- TO LIVE IN THAT UNRECONSTRUCTED WORLD. 
IT REQUIRES LESS CHANGE ON HIS PART. 
 
7. ALTHOUGH SYRIANS WOULD ARGUE THAT IT IS 
"CONCERN" AND NOT "FEAR" WHICH DRIVES THEIR VIEWS 
OF ISRAELI MOVES, THE OBJECT OF SUCH FEELINGS IS 
THE SAME: THE BELIEF THAT, IN THE WORDS OF AN 
OCTOBER 31 OFFICIAL RADIO COMMENTARY, ISRAEL IS 
ATTEMPTING TO "CORNER" SYRIA AS IT HAS DONE ITS 
OTHER ARAB NEGOTIATING PARTNERS (EXCLUDING THE 
LEBANESE), AND EVEN SOME OTHER ARAB STATES WHICH 
HAVE COMPROMISED ON THE ARAB BOYCOTT AND OPENED NEW 
AVENUES FOR GOI POLITICAL AND ECONOMIC CONTACTS. 
(COMMENT: EVEN PARANOIDS HAVE ENEMIES.) 
 
------------------------------------- 
MORE FODDER FOR ASAD'S "SPINMEISTERS" 
------------------------------------- 
 
8. ASAD IMAGE BUILDERS HAVE NOT NEEDED THE UPCOMING 
CORRECTIONIST MOVEMENT ANNIVERSARY TO PROVIDE THE 
BACKGROUND FOR THEIR WORK.  EVEN BEFORE THE 
CONGRESSIONAL VOTE ON MOVING OUR EMBASSY TO 
JERUSALEM, TWO REGIONAL EVENTS GAVE THEM AMPLE 
OCCASIONS: THE AMMAN ECONOMIC SUMMIT AND QADHAFI'S 
EXPULSION OF THE PALESTINIANS.  THE FORMER PROVIDED 
THE PLATFORM FOR SYRIAN CRITICISM OF PREMATURE 
NORMALIZATION.  EGYPTIAN FM 'AMR MUSA'S REPORTED 
CRITICISM OF SOME PARTIES' "RUSH" TO NORMALIZE 
HELPED ASAD MORE THAN IT DID MUBARAK BY ECHOING 
ASAD'S LINE IN A MILDER FORM (NOTE: THE NOVEMBER 1 
OFFICIAL RADIO COMMENTARY ALSO CRITICIZED THE 
"RUSH," USING THE SAME WORD MUSA DID -- "HARWALA"). 
 
9. IN AUTHORIZING THE ENTRY OF STRANDED 
PALESTINIANS EXPELLED BY QADHAFI, ASAD ACHIEVED THE 
GOALS QADHAFI TRIED TO ACHIEVE THROUGH HIS 
EXPULSION ORDER, WITHOUT ANY OF THE INTERNATIONAL 
AND ARAB CRITICISM THE LIBYAN LEADER SUFFERED.  IN 
ONE FELL SWOOP, ASAD GOT TO DEMONSTRATE WHAT SYRIA 
CALLS A FUNDAMENTAL FLAW OF THE ISRAELI-PLO 
AGREEMENTS -- THE LACK OF THE RIGHT OF RETURN -- 
AND SIMULTANEOUSLY RECEIVED GLOWING PRAISE FROM THE 
STRANDED PALESTINIANS.  (COMMENT: IF WE WERE 
CONSPIRACY THEORISTS LIKE THE SYRIANS, WE WOULD 
ALMOST THINK ASAD PUT QADHAFI UP TO HIS EXPULSION 
ORDER.)  AT THE RECENT NAM SUMMIT IN COLOMBIA, THE 
SARG EVEN TOOK IT UPON ITSELF TO BLOCK COSTA RICA'S 
MEMBERSHIP IN THE NAM BECAUSE THAT COUNTRY 
MAINTAINS AN EMBASSY IN JERUSALEM. 
 
------- 
COMMENT 
------- 
 
10. AS ASAD CONTINUES TO TRY TO BUILD HIS LEGACY 
AND HELP HIS SON AND OTHERS ASSUME COMMAND AFTER HE 
DIES, THE IMAGE OF ASAD'S LEADERSHIP OF 
"THE BEATING HEART OF ARABISM" CAN ONLY INTENSIFY. 
HE WILL VIEW ISSUES IN THE SYRIAN TRACK THROUGH THE 
OPTIC OF ARAB PUBLIC OPINION, EVEN IF IT IS ONLY 
THE IMAGE OF THAT OPINION HE HAS CREATED FOR 
HIMSELF.  THIS PERSPECTIVE, WHILE USEFUL TO HIM IN 
THE CONTEXT OF HIS DEALINGS WITH THE ISRAELIS AND 
OTHER ARABS, IS ULTIMATELY AN IMPORTANT SOURCE OF 
INTERNAL LEGITIMACY FOR A MINORITY REGIME WHICH 
SEEKS TO PREEMPT POTENTIAL OPPOSITION AT HOME. 
 
 
ROSS 

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