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April 13 2011

Syria Comment » Archives » SYRIA’S PRESIDENT ASSAD: WHY IS ANYONE SURPRISED?” by Brian J. Davis, Canadian Ambassador to Syria, 2003-2006uesd | 2011-04-12

Something that is sometimes forgotten is that neither Assad nor any of his closest confidantes (other than his wife) have real experience living in open, successful societies. They are a very inward group, interested in their own survival, in enjoying a luxurious and quasi-feudal lifestyle, and in furthering their wealth and power. They are not equipped to provide Assad with advice based on true understanding of how open economies and societies work or how to succeed in a global economy. One way or another, virtually every close advisor brought on board with international knowledge and experience has been undermined by the clique and fallen by the way side. I can remember long personal discussions with three such people, who were themselves often bewildered by the close-minded responses they got to suggestions and advice they put forward. Thus, while Assad genuinely wishes to see the Syrian economy grow, he does not really know how to make it happen.

As an example, in meetings with Assad and some of his senior advisors and ministers, I had discussions about the importance of the “rule of law“ to economic development. I often asked: what company will invest millions of dollars to establish operations in Syria, if it cannot be confident that the legal system will treat it fairly when the inevitable disputes arise? It was obvious in those kinds of discussions that while everyone nodded their heads in agreement, there was little true understanding of the implications. Nor was there any serious effort to consider how the legal system, as just one example of an area badly in need of reform, might be revamped to create a key underpinning for attracting foreign investment.

part 2/2 - excerpts

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Syria Comment » Archives » SYRIA’S PRESIDENT ASSAD: WHY IS ANYONE SURPRISED?” by Brian J. Davis, Canadian Ambassador to Syria, 2003-2006uesd | 2011-04-12

Assad is a cautious, conservative leader. While he has slowly acquired the knowledge and skills of a President since assuming that mantle upon the death of his father in 2000, he lacks the natural instinctive talents of a leader. He is not the kind of person who will take risks or be creative. He likes to take his time to study an issue and he is particularly fond of placing these into a logical framework of cause and effect.

As for being a “reformer”, too much is made of his time as a student in the UK. He was there for a very short time and was cocooned in the expatriate Arab community. He did not immerse himself in genuine every day British or European life that would have exposed him to democracy, freedoms and the exercise of civil rights. Indeed, his formative years were spent under the family tree. Using a tired but, in this case, appropriate aphorism, he is an apple who has not fallen far from that tree. Assad is not a cosmopolite and expectations that he would be the “reformer” are simply misplaced.

Bashar Assad is a decent, intelligent man but without particular charisma or strategic brilliance. I believe he genuinely wants to be a popular president. He and his wife have made strides in this regard. They have been far more visible to the common Syrian, trying to demonstrate a human touch by dining publicly in restaurants, driving their own cars, and making more public appearances than his father. He took a lively interest in information technology even before becoming president and has continued to nurture this sector, striking a responsive chord with the Syrian youth.

Because he is perceived to have stood up to the U.S. (with regard to Iraq) and to Israel (through his support for Hezbollah and Hamas), he has achieved considerable popularity on the “Arab street” across the region. This distinguishes him from President Mubarak of Egypt and President Ben Ali of Tunisia, who were seen to have aligned themselves with western powers, rather than fighting for the rights of Arabs, especially those of Palestinians. It remains to be seen if that popularity will endure, given his efforts to smother the current wave of demands for more freedoms being made to him.

part 1/2 - excerpts

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