ANTALYA, TURKEY – When U.S. President Richard Nixon visited Syria in 1974, Syrians lined the streets of Damascus to greet him. Not all were delighted by his visit, though. “Isn’t that Nixon the same one you have been telling us for years is an evil man who is completely in the control of the Zionists and our enemies?” an 8-year-old boy asked his father. “How could you welcome him and shake his hand?”
Today, that boy is president of Syria.
Though the United States is currently focused on destroying Syria’s chemical-weapons arsenal, its long-term goal is to remove Bashar Assad from power. To do so, however, requires understanding the xenophobia that reigns in Syria.
America must focus its efforts on unifying the bickering rebels of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and find a charismatic leader who can lead the drive to topple Assad. Only this approach can persuade Syrians that the campaign to destroy their country’s chemical weapons is not aimed at imposing a neo-colonial order, but rather at protecting them from a regime run amok.
Indoctrination in Syria begins at a young age. From the first day of school, Syrians are taught that America and its ally, Israel, are mortal enemies seeking to keep Syria weak. According to the ruling Ba’ath Party’s dogma, Syria is being targeted because it will not capitulate, remaining steadfast to the Arab and Palestinian cause. It is the last line of defense holding back a U.S.-Israeli stampede over Arab rights.
When Assad declared in a recent speech that, “Western powers sent al-Qaida terrorists to turn Syria into a land of jihad …to weaken Syria,” Westerners chuckled incredulously. But such talk resonates with Syrians, who have been taught to see a foreign plot behind every move.
It is a game that the regime plays when its back is against the wall. When the government’s mea culpa and promise of reform failed to quell an Islamist rebellion in 1980, it shifted tack, portraying its opponents as the fruit of an Iraqi-Jordanian conspiracy.
After the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri in 2005 led the international community to finger Syria as the culprit, Assad stonewalled a United Nations tribunal investigating the matter and silenced domestic critics by once again conjuring foreign bogeymen scheming to weaken the country. The U.S., which had hoped to use the episode to pressure Assad, was forced to relent, eventually offering him an olive branch.
Indoctrination is strongest in the military. Since it came to power in 1963, the Ba’ath Party has endeavored to create an ideological army reflecting its pan-Arab values. The line between military and party has always been blurry. Syrian officers have traditionally served in the Ba’ath Regional Command, the party’s highest body. One of the books used by the army’s political department, which I found at the infantry school in Aleppo after it fell into rebel hands, illustrates how the regime indoctrinates its officers.
Political and Psychological Preparation for Enlisted Officer Candidates lists Syria’s enemies — from the Muslim Brotherhood and the “Arab right” to the “racist Zionists.” It explains how “imperialists” and “Zionists” have historically colluded to prevent the Arabs from achieving unity and economic integration. Chapters close with the role that the Ba’ath Party has played in thwarting such plots.
It is a narrative that Syrians know well. From the 1940s to the 1960s, Syria was the playground of neighboring powers. Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia all competed to draw the country into their orbit, while scheming to keep Syria weak and divided. Bashar Assad’s father, Hafez Assad, ended their intrigues, transforming a regional backwater into a Middle East power.
The onset of civil war in 2011 opened a new chapter in the struggle. Syria’s neighbors are again pouring money and weapons into the country to topple the regime, enabling Assad to invoke the foreign genie plotting to destroy the last revolutionary Arab regime. As Assad’s narrative gains traction, fence-sitters will gradually embrace it, thus strengthening his societal support. For this reason, Western military intervention would not precipitate Assad’s immediate downfall.
Libya witnessed such a turn. In former leader Moammar Gadhafi’s hometown of Sirte, residents told me that they ceased fighting with the rebels and joined Gadhafi’s forces when NATO intervened in their revolution.
Turning the Syrian population away from the regime will require much more than destroying the country’s chemical weapons and dangling the threat of a Western bombing campaign. Washington must find a Syrian military leader known for his pan-Arab bona fides to take charge of the FSA and mold it into a cohesive fighting force with a strong chain of command. Without a homegrown George Washington, the government will continue to depict its opponents as conspiring against Syria for its devotion to the Arab cause. No amount of threats will change that.
Barak Barfi is a research fellow at the New America Foundation. © 2013 Project Syndicate