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As fighting flared up in Lebanon in July 2006, the White House singled out Syrian president Bashar al-Assad's regime for blame. "The root cause of that current instability is terrorism and terrorist attacks on a democratic country. And part of those terrorist attacks are inspired by nation states, like Syria and Iran," President George W. Bush said on July 18. What a difference six years makes. When Bashar al-Assad rose to power in June 2000, many observers greeted his accession with skepticism if not derision. Journalists and analysts portrayed Bashar as a likable young man but lacking the leadership qualities needed to survive in Damascus's Byzantine power structure. Most believed he did not have his father's charisma, maturity, life experience, and self-control. Former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder called his talks with Bashar "ghastly," and retired U.S. assistant secretary of state Edward S. Walker, Jr., described Bashar's rhetoric as "garbage."[1] Some also said he lacked the killer instinct needed to oversee the coercive and even violent nature of Syrian politics.[2]

But Bashar has survived his first six years and become increasingly bold. Even as Syria faces domestic crisis and appears to be on a collision course with the United States, France, and many Arab states, Bashar has retrenched rather than adjusted his chosen course. He is neither committing political suicide nor acting illogically. Rather, he assesses threats to his regime to be less severe and his position to be more secure than many outside Syria believe. He calculates that persistent resistance to U.S. pressure wins the domestic and wider Arab support needed to ensure regime survival and gambles that, even if White House threats have substance, he can outlast the Bush administration and emerge victorious from his diplomatic clash. Rather than mitigate his international defiance, he will maintain it.

Tenuous Grasp on Power

Hafez al-Assad's June 10, 2000 death left a void in Syria. For three decades, he had ruled the country with an iron grip and conflated state interests with his own.[3] Throughout his final years, Assad worked to assure his son's succession. While smooth, Bashar's rise to power evoked ridicule within Syria: he was not his father's first choice; Basil, Hafez al-Assad's eldest son and anointed successor, had died in a car accident on January 21, 1994. Until then, Bashar had prepared for a career in medicine, not politics.

Bashar's accession came as Syria faced domestic, social, and economic challenges severe enough to raise the question of whether the Baath regime, which has ruled Syria since 1963, could continue to exist in the same form. Both Syrians and outside observers questioned the viability of the Assad dynasty.[4] Despite their uncertainty, many Syrians hoped that Bashar could breathe fresh air into the moribund regime. Outside observers debated not whether, but rather how long, it would take Bashar to institute the reforms necessary to take Syria into the twenty-first century.[5]

Overshadowing Bashar's succession was speculation about whether he was really in charge. Perhaps "Old Guard" associates of his father still controlled the regime. They would have no interest in reforms that would alter the status quo from which so many had derived power and profit. While such a view had validity at the beginning of Bashar's reign, the hypothesis lost relevance with the passage of time.[6]

Bashar gradually freed himself from the old guard. Many were literally old, and several in poor health. Rather than purge them, Bashar simply allowed them to reach their eighties and retire for reasons of age or health. He also succeeded to varying degrees in getting a number of branches of the Syrian government to accept his authority by appointing personal confidantes and loyalists to senior positions in governmental institutions. Some of Bashar's relatives assumed leading positions in Syrian security. For example, Asaf Shawkat, his brother-in-law through his sister Bushra, became head of the Military Security Department, Syria's most important domestic security body. Bashar's younger brother Mahir also became a key figure in Syria's military and security apparatuses.[7]

As time passed, it became clear that Bashar would not inaugurate the hoped-for changes. His efforts to introduce limited political openness—the so-called "Damascus spring"—ended in fiasco, as he repudiated the reforms he had helped initiate. Attempts to bring about social and economic changes also failed. Economic activity in Syria remained sluggish, as efforts to shift away from a command to a market economy faltered.[8]

While six years in power is no mean feat, especially when juxtaposed against the entirety of Syria's post-colonial history, the question of how long Bashar can survive remains valid given Syria's internal discord and growing international isolation. Bashar has wrecked many of his father's achievements, if not his life's work. Syria is no longer the stable and strong state it was when Hafez al-Assad died. Threats to the regime's domestic stability have increased. At present, they find expression in a spike in incidents pitting Syrian security forces against radical Islamist groups.[9] Regionally, Syria has lost its position in Lebanon. The assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik al-Hariri, a friend of the Saudi royal family, weakened Damascus's once-strong relations with Riyadh. Internationally, France and the European Union have turned their backs on Damascus. While Clinton administration officials once feted Syrian politicians in Washington, the Bush administration has withdrawn the welcome mat.

The Internal Threat

But attrition and family empowerment did not protect Bashar from a blow from one of his father's closest aides. On December 31, 2005, Hafez and Bashar's former vice president, ‘Abd al-Halim Khaddam, granted a sensational interview to Al-‘Arabiyya television. In the interview, Khaddam said Bashar was responsible for Hariri's murder; Khaddam called Bashar unfit to rule and called for his overthrow.[10]

Khaddam's broadside against the Syrian regime signaled its weakness. That Khaddam openly said that Bashar is unfit to rule suggests he judges the Syrian president to be too weak to retaliate.[11] In later interviews, he even called upon the Syrian people to rebel against Bashar and speculated that he would not finish the new year in office.[12] His choice of venue was also telling. Al-‘Arabiyya television may be based in Dubai, but its leadership is close to the Saudi royal family. Had Bashar had a modicum of support in Riyadh, the station would never have broadcast the accusation that he was responsible for Hariri's murder.

Damascus's sharp response to Khaddam's attack—labeling him a traitor, expelling him from the Baath Party, and trying him in absentia—underscores how the interview struck a nerve. After all, for almost half a century, Khaddam had been both a friend and political ally to Hafez al-Assad. He had held the vice presidency for twenty years. He served as acting president upon his master's death. On June 10, 2000, the day Hafez al-Assad died, he played a key role in the decision taken by the People's Assembly—the Syrian rubber-stamp parliament—to approve a constitutional amendment to lower the minimum permissible age of the president from forty to thirty-four, enabling Bashar to qualify.[13] The next day, he carried out Hafez's last wish by signing two decrees, one which appointed Bashar to be commander of the armed forces and the second which promoted him to the rank of fariq (field marshal), the highest military rank. These decrees enabled Bashar to take the reins of power in Damascus.

Khaddam's public withdrawal of support did not have the domino effect in Damascus that he might have hoped. Many younger Syrian officials may have been glad to see him go, at seventy-four years of age. His Sunni origin would not have won him popularity among the ‘Alawi officer corps in the military and security establishments. Nor, as one of the most visible faces of Hafez al-Assad's regime, could Khaddam expect sympathy from the Syrian public, many of whom are disgusted with corruption and abuses by the ruling class.[14] Still, if Khaddam's interview was not the straw that broke the camel's back, it certainly added to the load.

Bashar must realize that delegation of power to family members is not enough to ensure security. Rumors of tension within the ruling family are rife as are hints that Asaf Shawkat and Mahir both have ambitions to replace Bashar. Rather than conciliate, Bashar's inability or unwillingness to purge the elite may further exacerbate future instability. Such purges, after all, have precedent. Hafez al-Assad purged the elites upon taking power. It was through such a purge that the late Egyptian president Anwar Sadat emerged from the shadow of his predecessor, Gamal Abdel Nasser. Saddam Hussein was particularly brutal in removing anyone who was not kin or a longtime associate.

The Syrian elite simply does not fear Bashar the way they feared his father, who removed Salah Jadid from power in November 1970 and had General Ali Haydar, who dared to criticize the Assad family, arrested in 1994. Absent fear, ‘Alawi generals or party members may conclude that if the continuation of Bashar's regime endangers their standing in Syrian society, they should risk disloyalty. These narrow interest groups pose a far greater threat to Syrian stability than that of any liberal opposition force, whose arguments have lost luster among the Syrian public due to the chaos following Iraqi liberation.[15]

The External Threat

The threat to Bashar is not just emanating from within. Beyond his personal handicaps, Bashar has lacked good luck. Al-Qaeda terrorists struck the World Trade Center and Pentagon on his thirty-sixth birthday. Seldom before had there been such sustained Western pressure on the Syrian government. Bashar's ineptitude compounded his troubles. On September 2, 2004, the U.N. Security Council passed Resolution 1559, calling for the withdrawal of all Syrian forces from Lebanon.[16] Less than six months later, on February 14, 2005, a Beirut car bomb killed Hariri, who had publicly criticized Syrian interference in Lebanese politics. On October 12, 2005, Syrian interior minister Ghazi Kana'an, a senior confidant once in charge of Syrian affairs in Lebanon, committed suicide. Then in October and December, Detlev Mehlis, a German judge appointed by U.N. secretary general Kofi Annan to investigate Hariri's murder, implicated the Syrian regime in the assassination.[17]

While Bashar brought these events upon himself, the crisis is deeper. During the Cold War, Western governments assumed the attitude that what happened in Damascus stayed in Damascus. Syrian leaders could purge and persecute so long as their actions did not involve those outside Syria and Lebanon. But Bashar did not recognize that the world had changed. His actions sparked a crisis in Syrian foreign relations. Hariri was close to the Saudi royal family. The French government sided with Lebanon in the aftermath of the assassination. Syrian support for the Iraqi insurgency led to open discussion of regime change from Washington.[18]

The threat emanating from Washington is the most dangerous menace facing Bashar's regime if for no other reason than the U.S. government has the means to carry it out. A military undertaking need not replicate the invasion of Iraq; the Pentagon might choose a more concentrated bombing campaign such as that which led to the downfall of Slobodan Milosevic in October 1999, or the White House might favor a combination of economic and political sanctions.

Rather than assuaging Washington, Bashar's conduct has exacerbated the threat. He could have struck a deal—and stuck to it—in April 2003 with regard to U.S. concerns over infiltration from Syria into Iraq and thus prevented a downward spiral in relations. Had he reached an understanding with Washington in August 2004 with regard to Lebanon, he might have preserved Syrian hegemony over this neighbor. He might not face a possible trial before an international court.[19] The longer Bashar defies Washington, the costlier any future compromise will be, if such a compromise even remains possible.

Bashar's Gambit

Bashar may neither be interested in a compromise nor assume that the U.S. government will act against him. Just as his father survived crises in the 1970s and 1980s by refusing to compromise, so too may Bashar believe he can survive the U.S. storm. Bashar interprets Washington's course as part of a master plan to ensure U.S. and Israeli interests in the region.[20] Speaking before a conference of Arab lawyers in Damascus, for example, he said, U.S. policy "is meant to target Syria and Lebanon as part of an integrated project to undermine the region's identity and reshape it under different names that finally meet Israel's ambitions to dominate the region and its resources."[21] The first step was the evisceration of Iraqi power and influence; Iraq had always provided Syria with strategic depth despite historical tensions between Damascus and Baghdad. Next would come an imposed settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Third would be a "hostile" U.S.-led take-over of Lebanon that would not only remove Syrian influence from the country but would also disarm Hezbollah and perhaps even integrate the 350,000 Palestinian refugees resident there. Finally, Washington would force Syrian subservience if not outright regime change.[22]

While Syrian spokesmen say they will engage Washington in a dialogue of equals,[23] their offer is insincere. Given Bashar's assumption that the White House means to topple his regime, he sees no reason to engage Washington, let alone offer U.S. policymakers any concessions. He believes that any Syrian concession, however minor, would only lead to a cascade of new U.S. demands. That, and the reality of the Arab-Israeli conflict, precludes any replay of the sudden U.S.-Libyan rapprochement. Then-Syrian information minister Mahdi Dakhlallah explained, "Syria is not Libya since it is at the forefront of the confrontation with Israel and cannot put down its weapons."[24]

Syrian officials may calculate that the Bush administration's domestic political weakness and its difficulties in Iraq preclude an attack on Syria.[25] Assad may also believe that diplomatic tension with Washington works to his advantage in so far as the Syrian public supports him. That said, Damascus seems to consider economic sanctions likely; in March 2005, it established a committee to formulate contingencies to deal with this problem.[26] Here the limited scale of the Syrian economy works to Damascus's advantage. Its trade with Washington is minimal, and Syria remains largely self-sufficient with regard to food, water, and energy.

Conclusion

In sum, Bashar has chosen to gamble. He hopes that defiance of Washington will strengthen his position at home and that, after George W. Bush leaves office, U.S. policy toward Syria will soften. Should his gamble succeed, he could emerge more influential. However, if it fails, he may lose his regime.

George W. Bush also faces a dilemma. Bashar is openly defiant and becoming an example to other Arab leaders, suggesting the United States is a paper tiger. Bush is on the spot, for failure to compel Bashar to change course would signal U.S. weakness. Bashar's recent support for Iraqi insurgents and Syrian-backed assassinations in Lebanon are even greater manifestations of Syria's break with the United States.

While U.S.-French cooperation in the U.N. Security Council helped compel the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon, the Bush administration's pressure has yet to change the basic attitude of the Syrian regime.[27] That, coupled with the insurgency in Iraq and the rise of Islamist forces throughout the Middle East, has led some U.S. analysts to counsel accommodation with Bashar. According to these former officials and academics, a policy of carrots rather than sticks will moderate Bashar and may even help U.S. policy achieve limited goals. Washington, they say, may have to reconcile itself to Syrian support of Palestinian rejectionist groups and Hezbollah, at least until renewed Israeli-Syrian negotiations address the issues.[28]

While such strategies may have worked in the past, they cannot work if Washington seeks to maintain its post-9-11 objectives in the Middle East. Dialogue cannot turn Bashar into something he is not. It cannot alter his fundamental world-view that is diametrically opposite that of Washington and most of Europe.

Rather, Washington should pursue a different path. When the Syrian regime feels that a threat is real and not just theoretical, it can change direction. The Turkish military's October 1998 threat of military confrontation with Syria is a case in point: only when Damascus believed Ankara to be serious did it abandon its support for the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) terrorists targeting Turkey. A credible military threat did more in a month than more than a decade of diplomatic démarches and demands.[29] Bashar has placed his bet. The question is now whether the Bush administration will call his bluff.

Eyal Zisser, head of the department of Middle Eastern and African history and senior research fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University, is author, most recently, of Commanding Syria: Bashar al-Asad's First Years in Power (London: I. B. Tauris, 2006).

[1] Daniel Pipes, "Will the Assad Dynasty Last?" The Jerusalem Post, June 6, 2001.
[2] Ibid. See, also, Asharq al-Awsat (London), July 4, 2000; Al-Hayat (London), July 17, 2000; Al-Jazeera television (Doha), July 10, 2000; Yedi'ot Aharonot (Tel Aviv), June 11, 2000; Eyal Zisser, "Will Bashshar al-Asad Last?" Middle East Quarterly, Sept. 2000, pp. 3-12.
[3] Moshe Ma'oz, Asad: the Sphinx of Damascus (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1988), pp. 105-90.
[4] Asharq al-Awsat, July 4, 2000; Uri Sagi, former head of Israeli army intelligence, described Bashar al-Assad as "unbaked dough," Ma'ariv (Tel Aviv), June 18, 2000.
[5] Al-Hayat, July 17, 2000.
[6] Eyal Zisser, "Does Bashar al-Assad Rule Syria?" Middle East Quarterly, Winter 2003, pp. 15-23.
[7] David W. Lesch, The New Lion of Damascus: Bashar al-Asad and Modern Syria (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005), pp. 229-43.
[8] Alan George, Syria, Neither Bread nor Freedom (London: Zed Books, 2003), pp. 30-63.
[9] Al-Hayat, Jan. 24, 2006.
[10] Al-‘Arabiyya television (Dubai), Dec. 31, 2005; Reuters, Jan. 1, 2006.
[11] Al-‘Arabiyya, Dec. 31, 2005.
[12] BBC News, Jan. 6, 2006.
[13] Tishrin (Damascus), June 12, 2000; Syrian Arab News Agency (Damascus), June 10, 11, 2000.
[14] Al-Jazeera, Jan. 2, 3, 2006; Al-Hayat, Jan. 3, 4, 2006.
[15] Al-Hayat, Jan. 23, 2005, Oct. 24, 2005; An-Nahar (Beirut), Oct. 22, 2005.
[16] U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559, Sept. 2, 2004.
[17] Al-Jazeera, Feb. 14, Mar. 5, Sept. 9, Oct. 21, 2005; Reuters, Oct. 21, 2005.
[18] The Washington Post, Oct. 23, 2005; The New York Sun, June 8, 2005; The Christian Science Monitor, Nov. 9, 2005; Al-Jazeera (Dubai), Sept. 5, 2005; Paul Craig Roberts, "Condi Rice and Syrian Regime Change: Could Somebody Recommend a President?" Counterpunch, Oct. 25, 2005.
[19] Al-Jazeera, Apr. 6, 2004, Jan. 23, 2005, Mar. 29, 2006; U.N. Security Council Resolution 1664, Mar. 29, 2006.
[20] Bashar al-Assad, comments on Syria's policy in Lebanon, CNN, Oct. 12, 2005.
[21] Syrian Arab News Agency, Jan. 21, 2006.
[22] Bashar al-Assad, speeches on Nov. 10, 2005 and Mar. 4, 2006, Syrian Arab News Agency.
[23] Tishrin, Jan. 22, 2006.
[24] Syrian Arab News Agency, Jan. 24, 2005.
[25] See, for example, Imad Mustafa, Syrian ambassador to the United States, "Syria Today: Challenges and Crisis," lecture to Middle East Studies Association conference, Washington, D.C., Nov. 19, 2005.
[26] Al-Hayat, Mar. 15, 2006.
[27] Lesch, The New Lion of Damascus, pp. 176-97.
[28] Flynt Leverett, Inheriting Syria, Bashar's Trial by Fire (Washington: Brookings Institution Press, 2005), pp. 147-66; Joshua Landis, "‘The Saga of France and Syria Relations' by Marwan Kabalan," weblog, syriacomment.com, accessed May 26, 2006.
[29] Ely Karmon, "A Solution to Syrian Terrorism," Middle East Quarterly, June 1999, pp. 23-32.