Syria is both a most revealing test case for the failure of change in Middle East politics and a key actor — though there is plenty of blame to go around — in making things go so wrong for the Arab world. If Damascus had moved from the radical to the moderate camp during the 1990s or under Bashar’s guidance, it would have decisively shifted the balance to a breakthrough toward a more peaceful and progressing Middle East. Syria’s participation in the Gulf war coalition of 1991, readiness to negotiate with Israel, severe economic and social stagnation and strategic vulnerability, and new generation of leadership provoked expectations that it would undergo dramatic change.
It was a Western, not Arab, idea that the populace’s desperation at their countries’ difficult plight would make Hafiz al-Assad — and Saddam, Yasir Arafat, and other Arab or Iranian leaders, too — move toward concessions and moderation. But the rulers themselves reasoned in the exact opposite way: faced with pressure to change, they became more demanding.
Often, at least to a point, this strategy worked, as the West offered Syria more concessions in an attempt to encourage reforms, ensure profitable trade, buy peace, and buy off terrorism. Of course they were acting in their own interests, but what is most important is that these included solving the issues which had caused conflict, building understanding and confidence, and proving their good intentions toward the peoples of the Middle East.
Yet to the dictatorial regimes, this behavior seemed not the result of generosity or proffered friendship but rather from Western fear of their power and an imperialist desire to control the Arabs and Muslims. Frequently, too, it is seen as a tribute to their superior tactics which fool or outmaneuver their adversaries. This perception encouraged continued intransigence in hope of reaping still more benefits.
Eventually, this process destroyed any possibility of moderation, though not Western illusions.