WITH the ongoing tragedy that passes for democracy in Syria worsening, one cannot help but validate Lord Acton’s famous quote: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” And after serving as President of Syria for the past fifteen years, Bashar al-Assad ostensibly knows a thing or two about what absolute power is.
Since succeeding his father, Hafeez al-Assad (who led Syria for three decades) in 2000, the embattled Syrian leader now posing headaches for much of Europe has basically had the presidency handed to him on a platter: he won the uncontested elections in 2007 and did so again in 2014 against two regime-sanctioned candidates in his country’s first-ever contested presidential elections. He is currently into the second year of his seven-year term.
What al-Assad enjoys is what some political scientists have coined authoritarian rule and the regime’s lifeblood lies in capitalizing on the ethnic and sectarian rifts that exist in Syria. Even the international community’s faith in al-Assad was reduced to ashes when instead of reforming Syria al-Assad opted to silence his dissidents in more ways than one. Many of us would recall the mass protests that were televised from Syria in January, 2011 when fed up Syrians called for much-needed political reforms and re-introduction of basic civil rights.
Protestors were met with violence as the Syrian authority showed its overwhelming might, resulting in sanctions from the United States and Canada within months. After blaming the protests and subsequent fallout on the opposition, al-Assad soon found himself in a tough position. A missive from U.S. President Barack Obama in August, 2011 got right to the point: “step aside”. The stance taken by the U.S. also had the blessings of Britain, France and Germany.
Today, al-Assad still stands firm, ruling over a kingdom that has seen an escalating civil war and thousands of civilians and protestors killed and many more jailed. Repeatedly, al-Assad has cited his “strong support” from the Syrian people as justification for remaining at the helm of a country from which millions of his fellow citizens are now running in fear for their lives.
By now, the human tragedy that exemplifies Syria would have been so exposed to us that some of us might run the risk of becoming desensitized. The migrant boats carrying human cargo across continents seem the last resort for fleeing Syrians who are prepared to trade in tyranny at home for basic survival abroad. Many die en route to greener pastures that are not too welcoming at times. But having listened to some fleeing Syrians giving their harrowing stories to reporters, it seems to me that they are better off living freely where they are not wanted than living at home in fear where they can be killed.
All of this cross-continental forced migration comes at a cost, though. Just this Tuesday, BBC aired an interview conducted by its Chief International Correspondent, Lyse Doucet, with His King Abdullah of Jordan spelling out the gravity of the situation. As you read King Abdullah’s response to Doucet’s question about Jordan’s sizable intake of Syrian refugees, try to identify parallels with the Saint Lucian response when sister island Haiti was rocked to its core by a massive earthquake six years ago.
“In the psyche of the Jordanian people, I think, it has gotten to a boiling point,” King Abdullah said. “Jordanians are suffering from trying to find jobs; the pressure on the infrastructure for the government; it has hurt us when it comes to the educational system, our health care, people, just Jordanians trying to get along with their lives. Sooner or later, I think the dam is going to burst. This week is going to be very important for Jordanians to see if there is going to be help, not only for Syrian refugees, but for their own future as well.”
Clearly, Jordan now finds itself walking that tightrope between being a humanitarian to its guests and eking out its own survival, all of this due to circumstances prompted by conflicts beyond its shores. To date, Jordan has taken in 1.4 million Syrian refugees, spending an estimated 25% of its annual budget to accommodate them. The European nations are facing the burden, too, with German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, facing down her own critics at home in order to accommodate refugees.
The fundamental question in the epic tragedy is this: Are politicians that power-hungry to the extent that they are willing to risk the lives of citizens in order to remain on their perches of power?
That a sitting democratically-elected leader of a sovereign nation can choose power over the interests of his people is a slap in the face of what democracy stands for. What al-Assad is doing is blurring the lines between what he thinks his people want and what his agenda for Syria should be. He is off-target on at least one of those factors and I strongly believe the former is a given. If you asked me, no right-thinking leader wants to be remembered for ostracizing his people to the extent that they literally have to run for their lives.
While al-Assad might be seen as the poster boy for tyranny at the moment, history is replete with people who use power to promote peril and profit from it, too. What is striking about this current situation, though, is the ostensible neo-Cold War existing between the U.S. and Russia as both try to play another game of chess in their long-standing geopolitical playbook. Meanwhile, Syria suffers, ISIS feeds off it and more Syrians either die or become displaced. These are dark days for democracy, indeed.
In a few years’ time, probably when I’m too tired of seeing Syrian brothers and sisters being hauled off inflatable rafts and attended to by aid workers before being rushed to tents cities, I might just happen to see al-Assad testifying live on television at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. Long before then, though, it would be better off for many of us that some breaking news announces that he has stepped down and made way for some serious leadership for Syrians.
Sometimes we need to let go and let good judgment and governance prevail.