It isn't often that the British journalist Patrick Seale takes the Syrian government to task. Best known for writing two highly influential tomes on Syria—The Struggle for Syria (1965) and Asad: The Struggle for the Middle East (1988)—Seale had virtually incomparable access to the late President Hafiz Assad, even as he routinely rationalized, albeit with sporadic criticism, the behavior of the "sphinx of Damascus."
But recently, just before Syria's 10th Baath Party congress, Seale displayed unsettling agnosticism about the Assad regime, the most palpable sign yet of his growing doubts about decision-making in Damascus. The shifting attitudes of a journalist hardly count as news these days, but Seale is a unique case. Throughout the 1960s, '70s, and '80s, he was a sympathetic observer and frequent player in matters Syrian, pursuing a peculiar brand of journalism blending advocacy, political message transmission, and informed analysis. In his writings, he was always careful to protect his access to the Syrian leadership. This meant fudging over certain details that might have embarrassed the Assad regime (Seale's enemies were blunter, describing him as a Syrian "propagandist"), but always in exchange for exclusive information. Whether you agree with Seale or not, you can't ignore him on the topic of Syria.
Seale's gradual metamorphosis is a sign not only of his disillusionment with the Assads (some would say it came decades too late), but more importantly perhaps with the notion of a progressive Arab nationalism—as a buttress to regional autonomy from Western encroachment—that Seale has implicitly or explicitly peddled for decades in his writings. That doesn't mean he has given up on the idea, but what largely remains today, in his columns particularly, is not confidence in a golden Arab future, but Arab nationalism's more tedious sidekick: disapproval of the West in general and the United States in particular.
How important was Seale to the Syrians? At one time he was a main conduit to the West for authoritative information on and from the regime. It was to him, for example, that Syrian officials leaked valuable details of the country's negotiations with Israel after 1991—an effort designed to shape future talks between the two parties—which Seale published in a series of indispensable articles in the London-based Al-Hayat in November 1999. And it was he who, following the abortive negotiations between Hafez Assad and President Bill Clinton in Geneva in March 2000, proposed, again through Al-Hayat, a median solution between Assad's demand for a complete Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak's insistence on retaining a strip of land around the Sea of Galilee.
The latter article was interesting in that Seale seemed to acknowledge that Assad had missed an opportunity to conclude a deal by failing to offer practical counterproposals of his own. For someone then regarded as a semi-official interpreter of the Syrian mindset (to the extent that Seale was invited to Israel to brief officials on the Syrian position), this was a minor precursor of subsequent reservations. But Assad was very sick at the time, and two months later he died. Seale would not have the same access to Bashar Assad that he had to his father.
Seale continued to defend Syrian behavior in a general way, noticeably writing little about Syria's hegemony and multiplying errors in Lebanon. However, in an article two weeks ago he showed that his faith in the Assad regime's ability to reform was nearing an end. The language was diplomatic, but not the meaning. The reason for the resentment was that Syrian security forces had just arrested nine members of an independent Syrian discussion group, the Jamal Atasi forum, the last remnant of the civil society movements that thrived during the brief "Damascus spring" of 2000-2001, when a number of similar endeavors were tolerated by the regime.
Seale wrote that the "harsh response by the authorities is regrettable and counterproductive," and went on to reveal, when he needn't have: "The Atasi group is not, however, the only victim of Syria's security services. There have been several arrests at Damascus airport and elsewhere, as well as reports of political kidnappings. Armed robberies have also taken place by criminal gangs, some of them linked, or so it would appear, to disorderly cousins of the president, or even to his brother Maher Assad, a commander of the Presidential Guard."
Accusing members of Syria's royal family of sundry crimes means stating the obvious, but it also means crossing a red line for those who don't want to break with the regime. Nor did it stop there. Consider this revealing (if somewhat Jesuitical) passage: "The U.S. appears bent on regime change in Damascus, on the grounds that Syria is providing a rear base to the Iraqi insurrection. France, in contrast, has no wish to overthrow Assad, but it does want him to commit himself to substantial political as well as economic reforms. It would welcome a tough statement from the president that if any Syrian were found to be implicated in the murder of Lebanon's former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, he would be put on trial and punished."
There was Levantine subtlety here, but in so many words Seale was admitting to Syrian involvement in the murder, even as he carefully stitched it all together with a conditional while putting it into France's mouth. In reality, as Seale knows (but such a disclosure would really have been too much), the Hariri hit could only have taken place with Assad's approval, explicit or tacit. On matters such as major assassinations, decisions are taken to the top.
But that was already a lot from Seale in one article, and his condemnation was noteworthy for coming on the eve of a three-day Baath Party congress that was supposed to be a seminal moment for Syrian reform. It was also justified: The congress did very little more than allow Bashar Assad to replace his father's party dinosaurs with a few of his own. Indeed, while Assad before the congress was said to have wanted to weaken the stranglehold of the Baath, he instead chose to use the party to consolidate his power, ensuring that Syria would continue to shuffle through the dankness of a Brezhnevism warmed over.
An interesting footnote to the story, beyond Seale's judicious leap from the sinking Baathist ship, is that on the way down he probably crossed Flynt Leverett climbing aboard. Leverett, a former National Security Council official and John Kerry campaign staffer, has apparently decided to fill the void as Western barker for the Assad regime. He's just published a book titled Inheriting Syria: Bashar's Trial by Fire, but it was a piece in the New York Times last March that first showed where he was coming from.
Leverett warned the Bush administration against pushing the Syrians too hard. He argued that if the U.S. destabilized Assad in Lebanon, no one could predict what would follow a possible Baathist downfall in Syria. Instead, he observed: "The Bush administration can elicit more sustained improvements in Syrian behavior on Iraq and terrorism by using the threat of intensified criticism of Syrian hegemony in Lebanon—including Security Council action—as a badly needed stick in the repertoire of policy options toward Syria."
The point would have been mildly arguable had not the Lebanese by then made amply clear their resolve to end 29 years of subjugation to Syria. While they were demanding freedom, Leverett was whispering that it was better to allow the Syrians to remain in Lebanon so American "sticks" could be wielded against them there. It was realism at its most essential; it was also craven, and it was surely a splendid idea as far as the Assads were concerned, since there was nothing they would have liked more than to enter into a transaction with the U.S., where sticks could be coupled with carrots.
Seale knows that game well. And while he may be loath to describe his disenchantment with Syria's Baathists as a divorce, his silence about the dud congress was eloquent. The peoples of the Middle East began questioning the Arab nationalist enterprise long ago; only in the West does one still hear its creaking springs, mostly among denizens of the Middle East studies field. Syria, with Lebanon, was the birthplace of Arab nationalism. Credit those who concede, even reluctantly, that it may also be its graveyard.
Reason contributing editor Michael Young is opinion editor at the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut.