Today, Singapore, 26/09/2006
Syria, a member of George Bush’s “Axis of Evil” has been under President Bashar Assad’s reign since 2000 when he took over from his father Hafez Assad who ruled the nation with an iron fist and considerable finesse for almost 30 years until his death. Bashar was only the runner–up after his father’s anointed replacement, elder brother Basil died in a car accident in 1994. So far this Western educated, internet savvy scion of the Assad clan has not been able to live up to the expectations that have been put into him not only by the Syrians themselves and the country is dithering along economically and politically.
Since Bashar came to power there have been radical changes in Syria’s strategic environment. It began with Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon (which Syria still considers home turf to the extent that there is no Syrian embassy in Beirut), causing the Lebanese to want the Syrians out as well. This was followed by the outbreak of yet another Intifada in Palestine, in the wake of which came the election in Israel of Arik Sharon who Syria considered to be a hard-liner. The 9/11 attacks and the resulting Global War on Terrorism, the occupation of Afghanistan and the invasion of Iraq and disposal of Saddam Hussein’s regime rounded off this almost total upheaval of Syria’s surroundings. The only element of stability left were the relations with Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon which have put Syria at odds with most other Arab countries. These relations, a carry-over from the days of Assad the father, are based on mutual utility and Shia affiliation with Syria’s ruling Alawite sect representing less than 10 percent of the population in predominantly Sunni Syria.
Syria’s President has had an exceedingly difficult time managing these strategic changes, vacillating between loyalty to his late father’s risk-averse worldview and the need to adapt to new realities while exhibiting distinctly limited understanding of the foreign policy implications of his actions and statements. Bashar is aware of the need to accommodate the U.S. at some level, if only because Washington alone can pressure Israel which continues to occupy the Syrian Golan Heights. Nevertheless Syria persists supporting radical Palestinian terror groups like Hamas’ military wing and Palestinian Islamic Jihad based in Damascus thus remaining on Washington’s list of terror sponsoring countries. Bashar keeps flaunting Syria’s alliance with Iran, its allegiance to Hezbollah and occasionally supports the insurgency in Iraq, further alienating the US which is now calling for sanctions.
Courting Europe periodically to counterbalance Washington’s antagonism did not prevent Bashar’s security apparatus’ deep involvement in the recent assassination of Rafik al- Hariri, Lebanon’s former Prime Minister and bosom-buddy of French President Jacques Chirac. Bashar, driven by Syria’s need for Lebanon’s considerable economic contribution, can’t resist dabbling in internal Lebanese affairs to the chagrin of the Europeans and the US who would like this interference to end.
His attitude towards Israel is complex – he apparently has not yet adopted his late father’s recognition that a diplomatic solution is Syria’s only option to recover the Israeli occupied Golan Heights. Proficient at portraying the Jewish State as Syria’s and the Arab world’s nemesis he gives free rein to anti-Semitic and extremely hostile statements primarily for domestic consumption. At other occasions, particularly when the U.S. starts breathing down his neck for his part-time support of the Iraqi insurgency, he clamors for peace negotiations to recover his territories. At this time, the Golan Heights appear to be more an instrument to play the US and Israel than an actual aim of Syrian policy.
Bashar keeps promising his citizens gradual democratization, warning occasionally of the chaos that would ensue from a regime change. The truth be told, Bashar’s regime has been losing clout from day one, first being forced to leave Lebanon after Israel’s withdrawal in 2000, then, when the US invaded Iraq with which Bashar had developed a mutually beneficial relationship and lately due to the UN investigation over the Hariri assassination.
Weak as he is, presently there is no apparent alternative to Bashar, not among his family or Alawite brethren and not among other ethnic groups in Syria who remain politically sidelined.
It should come as no surprise then that Israel isn’t jumping to negotiate with such a weak and wavering regime, in particular when the price Israel has to pay is known and requires returning the strategically important Golan Heights, anathema to much of the Israeli electorate. Peace with Syria will have to wait.