Published in The Jerusalem Post on June 18, 2000
Dear Basher — Assuming the presidency of any country at age 34 has got to be daunting. All the more so when the country is an economically-bankrupt, ethnically-fractured, diplomatically-isolated, militarily-dominated, politically-corrupt and inhumanely-repressive state like Syria.
And so, your position isn’t enviable. Pulling Syria out of its own slough will be no easy task, especially since you’ve constantly got to watch your own backside. For the moment, I’m giving you the benefit of the doubt, so here are a couple of free pointers:
1. Make a choice: Do you want to be feared, like your old man, or respected? Unless you are willing and capable of slaughtering tens of thousands of your own countrymen just in order to show how tough you are, I suggest trying the latter route. In the Internet age, keeping your nation repressed and completely isolated is going to become ever more difficult. So think again about Syria’s future: you do not have to be your father’s son.
2. Act fast to make changes. I know that this runs against conventional wisdom which argues that you need time to stabilize the country and establish your regime. But what you don’t do now – from re-shaping the military to throwing out the Palestinian terrorists to opening a dialogue with Washington – will be harder later on, because the old guard will tie you down. Start by getting rid of Mustafa Tlass, your notorious defense minister who likes to pen anti-Semitic screeds in his spare time. If better ties with the West are on your agenda, dump the dour, impudent Farouk Shaara, who has worn out his welcome in Washington.
3. Beware of family. Indeed, your family is the ultimate example of the saying: you can choose your friends, but not your family. Your father was able to guarantee your succession, but now that he is gone, all bets are off. Make Rifaat your ambassador to Beijing. That’s where we send has-been Israeli politicians.
4. Take a page from Ehud Barak’s book, and leave Lebanon. It’s a quagmire that will ensnare you in years more of internecine infighting among the Palestinians, the Christians, the Druze and the Shiite fundamentalists, and bring you into endless conflict with either Israel or Iran, or both. In order to snuggle up to Washington, you’re anyway going to have to abandon the Lebanese drug trade.
5. Try Turkey as a regional ally, instead of Iran. The country is a regional powerhouse just beginning to awaken. Ankara can open doors for you in Washington and, down the road, it can help broker a rapprochement with Israel. The Turks have water too. Best of all, by ending the historic enmity between Syria and Turkey, you’ll scare the living daylights out of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and Iranian president Ayatollah Khatami.
6. Beware Mubarak and Yasser Arafat, two crotchety, unsavory guys locked into the mental mindset of the old regional architecture. The Egyptians dragged your father into the 1967 and 1973 wars and into international isolation, and the Palestinians are nothing but trouble for you. Better to take advice from King Abdullah of Jordan, who, despite his youth, has done a fine job of navigating Jordan through the nasty waterways of Mideast and global politics. For bargaining advice, consult Aryeh Deri.
7. Travel. Your father hardly ever traveled outside his comfortably-reclusive Damascus backwater. This led to mental myopia (which as an opthamologist is something you should understand), and a jaundiced worldview. A little exposure to democratic culture and values, and some personal, frequent contact with Western counterparts, should do wonders for your generation of Syrian leadership.
8. Put Syrian national interests ahead of the Palestinians and pan-Arabism. Both are spent forces. Pull a ‘Sadat’, and cut a separate deal with Israel. It is the only way to bring Syria into the modern world. How about making a surprise visit to give a lecture at Bar-Ilan University’s Begin-Sadat Center or Tel Aviv University’s Dayan Center?
9. Be realistic about what you can get from Israel. I’m telling you: swimming in the Sea of Galilee isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. In any case, Israel’s irresponsible water mismanagement and the continuing droughts are drying up the lake. There won’t be much water left within several years.
10. Find yourself a nice girl, of appropriate Arab lineage, with Western ties – just like King Hussein did. Big, international weddings are great for reputation building and expanding Syria’s almost non-existent relations with the free-world. Don’t forget to send a wedding invitation to Jerusalem.