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Hafez Assad: The Impossible Figure and the ‘Bladder Diplomacy

Former Syrian President Hafez Assad

Margin: I am not defending errors or problems of Hafez al-Assad era addressed by previous posts as the one entitled “dictatorship of the proletariat from Beijing to Kafr Karmin”. Those mistakes need to be addressed with a fully- detailed view of the phase of complex history of Syria. They should be probed neutrally away from hatred or deification. I write these words, as we are on the threshold of the thirteen anniversary of his departure to give this guy a little bit of credit which some chose to ignore while others tried to deform.

Hafez al-Assad

Hafez al-Assad.. Impossible Figure and the ‘Bladder Diplomacy’

By Usama Samih Mahmoud

This article appeared on The voice of reason website on 06 June, 2013, translated by Aliaa Mahfouz Ali.

After a few days (actually it’s today) we will enter the thirteen anniversary of the departure of President Hafez al-Assad. Whether you agree with him or not,no one can deny that he gave Syria this regional role turning it into the difficult equation in the region that all major countries failed to resolve even after his absence.

Henry Kissinger recalls his first meeting with President Assad. At that meeting Kissinger tried to impose his usual rhythm by highlighting his cultural and political abilities, but Assad did not say a word. when Kissinger finished his showing off, Assad smiled and began a lecture that lasted until the early morning hours. Kissinger nagging commented on the meeting: “This was the first lesson I received from Assad”.

Negotiations continued between Assad and Kissinger for 136 hours in 12 meetings during one month. Whenever Kissinger thinks he has reached the end of any session, Assad goes back to the starting point. Kissinger said later that Assad ” using this method was able to impose his influence at the expense of days of anxiety and tension I have lived “

James Baker has also talked, in his memoirs, about negotiating sessions with President Assad. He wrote: “During eleven meetings, I realized that Assad is a man committed to his word, he is very strict and strong. If you reached with him to an agreement, he follows it literally. But the problem lies in the fact that you should undergo a battle of nerves and attend prolonged continuous meetings in order to take every word from him; especially that Assad shows no weakness at all regarding the issue of land, and supporting the armed Palestinian struggle against Israeli occupation.”

James Baker has labeled Assad’s negotiating policy as ” Bladder Diplomacy

He mentions the facts of one of the negotiating sessions that have occurred in 23/04/1991 where he wrote:

“It was the hardest and most difficult negotiations I have ever made. My prolonged negotiations about arms control with the Soviets seemed very easy in comparison. The meeting lasted for nine hours and forty-six minutes without a break in stifling unbearable room, where very little of the air is available. The windows were closed by thick olive curtains. After six hours of the meeting start, the American ambassador in Damascus Edward Dgerjian needed to go to the rest room. As Assad amplified in his prolonged talk about Sykes-Picot agreement and its bad implications in the region, the situation became very embarrassing for the ambassador. Dgerjian wrote me a note,with a very nervous handwriting, reminding me to talk about a certain political issue that had not been raised yet and he said: “Of course, the time is right for you now to go to the toilet.”

James Baker continues, “My kidneys were surprisingly overactive, so I pointed him out” The anguish look was very apparent on his face and nodded to the Syrian Foreign Minister that he needs to make an urgent call. When he went out, I revealed the nature of his task and I said “Mr. President, don’t you wonder why ambassador went to the toilet to make a phone call?”. Assad burst into laughter. When Dgerjian returned, we pretended that we do not know anything. After an hour or more, I pulled a white handkerchief and waved to Assad announcing surrender. I have to go to the bathroom. That is how I came up with the name that I will always call my negotiations with Assad “the bladder diplomacy” description that Baker continues describing (bladder diplomacy) “negotiating sessions were planned with high accuracy by Assad, they require the utmost endurance, Assad has great determination. We always sat next to each other on two big seats making me feel as if I was a dwarf in front of the Sphinx. His feet are so attached to the ground, knees are closed, hands are knotted over his lap.He does not change this position at all, while I always needed a massage session after every meeting with him, He used to look at my left at the angle of ninety degrees which made my neck always stiff. However, Assad, on the other side, didn’t show the minimal discomfort. It seems that these stressful sessions are a well-planned negotiating approach trying to win by the use of stress. Assad is the toughest negotiator I have ever met in my long diplomatic life, he is a person with is a strong will, very subtle, great toughness in defending the interests of his country and nation. He forces you to respect him whether you agree with him or not”.

In another context, Karim Pakradouni the former President of the Lebanese Kataeb Party in his book, “The Curse of Homeland” mentions how Assad did not submit to the red lines, but he draws the lines. When the United States sent an envoy to President Assad in 1989, carrying a list of four candidates for the presidency of the Republic of Lebanon to choose from, Assad without hesitation named number 5.

Yes, it is Hafez al-Assad, who came to Lebanon and fought a crazy war through which he fought everyone, without exception, and without any ally. Even the Soviet Union, then was an opponent because of the assassination of Kamal Jumblatt, in 1978. the Syrian army faced the Palestinian factions, some Iraqi forces, left-wing factions, the Socialist party, the battalions ( Kateb party) troops ( Quat party), the Liberals, the tigers, the Guardians of the Cedars, Hezbollah, the Lebanese army, the Israeli Army, the Marine Corps, the American Sixth Fleet, the French paratroopers, and the overall forces of NATO. Assad forced his policy on everyone and came out victorious keeping his own will.

After a series of operations against the forces of NATO and after the Syrian air-force defense shot down two America jets and captured the pilots, Assad sent a message to Ronald Reagan in which he said: “You can kill us, but you can not prevent us from dying with honor”. After the escape of the Sixth Fleet from Beirut, The New York Times published a large picture of President Hafez al-Assad titled as a great president of a small state, and a small picture of Ronald Reagan titled as a small president of greatest country.

Hafez al-Assad.. is the only president who was under lights in his presence and in his absence!

At the funeral of Jordan’s King Hussein Bin Talal, in February 1999, Hafez al-Assad took all the attention and had an interview all the Arab media and the world in spite of the presence of the delegation of senior Israeli that was supposed to snatch the limelight. That was a first of its kind situation. The delegation composed of Israeli President Ezer Weizman, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Ariel Sharon, in addition to other delegations of U.S. presidents George H. W. Bush, Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Crown Prince Charles.

In the same year, it was the funeral of King Hassan II of Morocco, and the absence of President al-Assad was the most highlighted event. His absence was the hot topic of all international media to the extent that it took over the presence of the Israeli delegation and the rest of world presidents.

Finally, to return to the bladder diplomacy, this diplomacy was not limited to the negotiating sessions, but it was also the guideline for the entire Syrian foreign policy. Assad was the best to bet on time, and won the bet. The policy of endurance, or the bladder diplomacy, exhausted the successive Israeli and US governments. When Israel decided to turn the tables and bet on time for the departure of Assad, and follow the principle of Abu Nawas “use poison as a medicine”, Israel lost the bet. Since the nineties, Mossad never stopped chasing President al-Assad to several parts of the world to pick up a few drops of urine for analysis, and estimate his death day. Israel was fed up with this bet, and impatiently waiting for the absence of Assad from the scene. But over thirteen years on the absence of Hafez al-Assad, it becomes clear that Israel lost the bet, the bladder diplomacy still exist, and Hafez al-Assad is still present despite his departure. He keeps to be at the spotlight in his absence as in his life.

So this is Hafez al-Assad.. The impossible figure who in his presence turned all numbers to zero, and in his absence any equation becomes equal to zero.

Be confident today that who said “forever, Hafez al-Assad” was not selling out, or buttering up, and it was not a mere coincidence. Who fought President Assad yesterday, is fighting his ghost today. His enemies can do nothing but saying “damn souls.”

At the end of Patrick Seal’s “Conflict over the Middle East”, he asks president Assad:

– How do you see the conclusion of this book?

President al-Assad answers: ‘Say the conflict is still going on‘.

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  1. Richard

    You present this very well. Regardless of which side of the political spectrum one finds oneself, this is a an example of the conviction of principles the Syrians can be proud.

  2. James

    I had gained the impression, even from people who support the Syrian government against the current terrorist insurgency, that President Hafez al-Assad, unlike his son, was a brutal dictator who had, on more than one occasion, brutally suppressed popular uprisings by killing many thousands of Syrians.

    This article gives a clue that circumstances may not have been quite as black and white.

    Conceivably, in circumstances where Syria shared a border with Israel, from which it had faced a number of attacks and through which 543,400 Palestinians had fled to seek refuge, according to Wikipedia, and was in close proximity to a number of other countries ruled by hostile governments including Saudi Arabia, Iran, ruled by the Shah until 1979, and Egypt, ruled by Anwar Sadat ,in addition to the military forces of the United States and its European allies, social unrest driven by even genuine popular grievances could easily be manipulated by agents of those hostile powers.

    Whilst the suppression of these uprisings may have seemed harsh and brutal, could the outcomes have been even more tragic and bloody for Syria if Hafez al-Assad not acted as he had?


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