Russians on the road to Damascus

Tuesday, 7 February, 2012

Asad Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and the country’s Foreign Intelligence Chief Mikhail Fradkov are leading a delegation to Syria today. They’re selling their visit as an attempt to persuade President Bashar Assad to implement democratic changes in the country; in fact, they’re making a last-ditch attempt to prop up a regional proxy and salvage a lucrative Middle East arms market for Moscow.

Wonder if Lavrov has read Assad: The Struggle for the Middle East by Patrick Seale? First published in 1988, it has lost little of its relevance despite the passing of time. Indeed, given what’s now going on in Syria, its 552 pages remain ultra relevant. Despite, or perhaps because of his anti-Israel prejudice, Patrick Seale remains an influential commentator on events in the Arab world and he possesses a deep understanding of the Arab mind and how it works. On page 412 of Assad: The Struggle for the Middle East, Seale displays his skills as an observer and writer when describing the cunning of Hafiz al-Asad. Sergey Lavrov might take note here:

“Over the years, Asad had developed a negotiating technique which he frequently used with foreign guests, and [Robert] McFarlane [national security adviser to President Ronald Reagan from 1983 to 1985] was no exception. He would begin by exchanging a few pleasantries. Then he might ask, ‘How is the weather in your country?’ A Western guest would usually reply to the effect that at home it was colder than in Syria , giving Asad his opportunity. ‘Indeed’, he would say, ‘it’s warm here because the United Sates is stoking the fire!’ There were two sorts of climate in the world, he would explain, one given by God, the other by the United States, and step by step he would make his point that the tension, crises and wars in the area must all be laid at Washington’s door. An American visitor would feel compelled to defend himself, starting the meeting at a disadvantage.

Asad’s next stratagem was to be extraordinarily digressive and argumentative. If the name of God were mentioned, this might set him off on a long discourse about Islam, Judaism and Christianity before he could be brought back to the matter in hand. Negotiating sessions would last for hours. More than one envoy who suffered this treatment came to the conclusion that Asad raised all sorts of irrelevant subjects simply to tire his visitors the better to control them. At the end of a wearisome session the temptation was to accept what he had to say simply to escape.”

Like father, like son when it comes to cynicism and thuggery, but Bashar al-Assad is unable to read the writing on the wall, despite being a trained ophthalmologist. It would be too much to hope, however, that the oleaginous Sergey Lavrov can persuade him to open his eyes.

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