WHERE IS BASHAR AL-ASSAD HEADED?
By Eyal Zisser
Also aiding Bashar's staying power is the bureaucracy. In contrast to the 1950s and 1960s, when military coups plagued Damascus, the Syrian political system is now tangled and complex. Given the proliferation of bureaucratic institutions and separate military forces, any attempt to enlist broad opposition is almost a mission impossible requiring coordination between the commanders of dozens of military and security units.
Today, Syria watchers from across the philosophical and political spectrum acknowledge that Bashar is an effective ruler who monopolizes decision-making in Damascus.  His success dashed White House hopes that it could leverage U.S pressure — mainly blunt and harsh rhetoric, together with limited sanctions — to destabilize Bashar's regime or force him to change policies. 
Not all credit should go to Bashar, though. As with his father, staying in power may have less to do with his abilities than with the character of his rivals. Bashar benefits from the absence of any international, regional, or internal power prepared to oppose him. Also, Syrians believe that Bashar's fall might mean the rise of radical Islamist forces or lead to the chaos and insecurity that has plagued post-Saddam Iraq.
Domestically, Bashar's efforts to liberalize Syrian political life have failed. The socalled "Damascus Spring," during which the new President allowed political and cultural forums to function, including those critical of the regime, lasted only until February, 2001, when the regime stepped in to crush any dissidence and arrest many participants. On May 15, 2006, State Security arrested thirteen dissidents who signed the Damascus declaration calling for greater democratic reform. 
The Syrian economy is entering a crisis stage made worse by the depletion of the country's oil reserves.  Bashar's efforts to abandon Syria's Socialist legacy and promote a free economy have had little success. The Syrian economy remains heavily regulated; most of Bashar's economic initiatives have failed. For example, few private banks have opened and those that have see financial activity limited. Proposals to open a stock market remain unrealized. Indeed, without a breakthrough in relations with the West, no progress in this area can be expected.  And now, the regime has to deal with Islamic radicalism, long dormant in Syrian political life. A repeat of Islamist terror, such as that directed toward the regime in the early 1980s, may not be far off.
Syria's international relations remain shaky. After assuming power, Bashar faced crises on multiple fronts. The Palestinian uprising in October, 2000, the more assertive U.S. policy after 9-11, and the occupation of Iraq each damaged Syrian relations with the West.
Bashar also pays a price internationally for his own mistakes. His regime's apparent role in the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri  led to the loss of Lebanon and may ultimately lead to the establishment of an international tribunal.  Assad's subsequent inflexibility soured his ties not only with Washington, but also with Paris, Riyadh, and Cairo. Perhaps Bashar was too willing to take chances, or perhaps he acted impulsively. Either way, he destroyed the balance of axes that his father had established: the Syrian-European axis to counterbalance the Syria-U.S. axis, both of which Hafez al-Assad counterbalanced with his alliances with Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
Such pariah status may, ironically, strengthen Bashar at home. On the Syrian street, his policies enjoy popularity. If the Hariri assassination and withdrawal from Lebanon were Bashar's nadir, then Israel's decision in August 14, 2006, to end the war in Lebanon without achieving its goals represented a moment of recovery and advancement, at least from Damascus' perspective.  With Israel failed in Lebanon, the U.S. military embroiled in Iraq and Washington's rhetoric exposed as empty, Bashar looks like a gambler who bet on the right horse.
Bashar's turn to Iran is evident in his regime's graphic art. When he first came to power, Bashar derived legitimacy from his father's legacy. Posters appeared all over Syria depicting a large image of Hafez al-Assad beside smaller images of Bashar and his deceased brother Basil. By 2001, the posters changed. Bashar was the central figure, with his deceased family members relegated to the background. Following the Summer, 2006, war, however, new posters appeared in Lebanon depicting Bashar's image in the shadow of those of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hezbollah General Secretary Hasan Nasrallah. 
The 2006 war in Lebanon demonstrated the close cooperation between Damascus, Tehran, and Hezbollah.  Such cooperation, amounting to a Syrian-Iranian alliance, dates to the early 1980s, when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini consolidated power in Iran. Collaboration between Tehran and Damascus has grown stronger and more intimate, with extensive intelligence and military cooperation. While most Syrians are Sunni Muslims, that the Assad family is ‘Alawi, an offshoot of Shi‘ism, helps bridge the religious divide, at least among the leadership of both countries.
But Syrians warn about the dangers of too much dependence upon the Islamic Republic. Often, these voices manifest themselves with calls for dialog with the West. Some regime spokesmen, led by Foreign Minister Walid Moallem,  Imad Mustafa,  Syria's ambassador in Washington, and Sami al-Khiyyami, its ambassador in London, declare repeatedly that Syria wants to improve its relations with the United States and, perhaps, even achieve peace with Israel.  Their ultimate aim, Syrian representatives explained in private,  was to improve Syria's economic situation and break free of the Iranian embrace. In exchange, they said, Damascus wanted Washington to reduce pressure on the regime, treat it as an equal partner, restore the Golan Heights to Syrian control, and perhaps, acquiesce to Syrian domination over Lebanon. 
It is difficult to know to what extent these declarations reflect Assad's own views. The Syrian leader also sent contradictory messages, including threatening to exercise a policy of resistance (muqawama), just as Hezbollah did in Lebanon and Hamas did in Gaza and the West Bank. He has also suggested that, if his demands remain unmet, Syria might play a negative role in the West Bank and Gaza, Iraq, and Lebanon.  In Lebanon, at least, the Syrian regime has shown their threats to be no bluff. The list of murdered Lebanese politicians, already long, is growing.  Bashar also appears to be enacting his April 24, 2007, threat to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon that Syria would ignite the whole region, if the UN established an international tribunal to try senior Syrian officials.  Moscow's cynical policy in the region and its provision of advanced weaponry  also enable Bashar to strengthen his defiance, as does his significant chemical and biological weapons arsenal. 
Today, Bashar al-Assad is sending a similar message to the George W. Bush administration, namely, that Syria is not prepared to join a U.S. axis and that Washington should not demand that Syria do so. Such a neutralist, or non-alignment, policy might have been possible during the George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations, but it became unacceptable to the White House after 9-11.
Washington should not perceive Bashar al-Assad as totally inflexible, though. His father could change policies when he deemed it necessary, reassessing relations with Washington following the Soviet Union's collapse and also shifting from a commitment to unending war with Israel to preparedness for peace negotiations. Bashar may be likewise capable of changing policies. Bashar in 2007 is not necessarily the same ruler as Bashar in 2000. His first seven years may have led Bashar to consider adopting his father's policy to seek dialog with both Washington and Jerusalem. However, it is possible that he has reached the opposite conclusion.
Either way, Bashar is offering Washington a deal that would require the United States to abandon Iraq, leave Lebanon open to Syrian domination, and agree to a return of the Golan Heights to Syria in exchange for a return to the friendly dialog the Syrian regime held during the George H.W. Bush and Clinton administrations.  In effect, he is proposing to Washington an honorable capitulation. Such an agreement would enable Bashar to immunize Syrian society from the change he fears.
A moment of truth for Bashar came on September 6, 2007, when Israeli aircraft carried out an operational mission in northern Syria.  American media reports suggest the strike occurred to disrupt Syrian-North Korean nuclear cooperation.  Israeli officials refrained from comment in order not to corner Syria or escalate the situation further. The Syrians did not respond militarily to the attack, suggesting that, at least at present, Damascus is not interested in or ready for war.
Perhaps Bashar does not feel himself as strong as he did after the 2006 war in Lebanon, or perhaps he realizes the potential cost of war. If this is the case, then Jerusalem successfully called Bashar's bluff. Assad may believe, though, that he has the advantage of time. Since late 2006, the Bush administration has abandoned its efforts to pressure Syria into compliance with U.S. demands to remove itself from the "axis of evil" with North Korea and Iran; to stop supporting terrorists in Iraq, Lebanon and Palestine; and to play a positive role in Iraq and Lebanon.  But the U.S. quagmire in Iraq has eroded U.S. leverage. No Middle East ruler now believes further U.S. military intervention possible. Bashar may even deepen his alliance with Tehran and Pyongyang. Perhaps, if Washington cannot beat Damascus, it will join with it, as some Bush administration critics have suggested.  This, incidentally, was what the United States did with regard to Nasser and Hafez al-Assad, and it is very possible that Washington will act similarly in the not-so-distant future towards Hafez's son, Bashar.
 Yedi'ot Aharonot (Tel Aviv), June 23, 2000.
 Al-Hayat (London), June 12, 2000.
 See Flynt Leverett, Inheriting Syria, Bashar's Trial by Fire (Washington: Brookings Institute Press, 2005), pp. 57-98; David W. Lesch, The New Lion of Damascus, Basher al-Asad and Modern Syria (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005), pp. 8-19, 229-43.
 Al-Arabiyya television, Dec. 31, 2005, Jan. 1, 2006.
 Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA, Damascus), May 8, Aug. 1, 2004.
 An-Nahar (Beirut), June 14, 2006.
 Al-Hayat, Oct. 14, 2006.
 The New York Times, Oct. 30, Nov. 3, 2005; Akhbar al-Sharq website (London), Jan. 20, 2006; Al-Watan al-Arabi (Paris), Oct. 24, 2006.
 Lesch, The New Lion of Damascus, pp. 234-43; Barry Rubin, The Truth about Syria (New York: Palgrave and Macmillan, 2007), pp. 199-263.
 For more, see Robert G. Rabil, Syria, the United States, and the War on Terror in the Middle East (Westport: Praeger Security International, 2006), pp. 187-208; Financial Times, Oct. 9, 2005; The Daily Telegraph (London), Jan. 11, 2006; Associated Press, May 25, 2006; statements by Donald Rumsfeld, Agence France-Presse, June 24, 2006, and Condoleezza Rice, Agence France-Presse, June 23, 2006.
 "2006 HDI Ranking," Human Development Report 2006: Beyond Scarcity: Power, Poverty and the Global Water Crisis (New York: United Nations Development Program [UNDP], 2006), p. 285.
 "Ranking: Countries," 2007 Index of Economic Freedom (Washington, D.C.: Heritage Foundation, 2007), pp. 355-6.
 A Global Competitiveness Report, 2006-2007 (Geneva: World Economic Forum, Sept. 26, 2006).
 As-Safir (Beirut), May 17, 2006; Ar-Ra'y al-‘Amm (Kuwait), Apr. 26, 2007.
 Asharq al-Awsat (London) Apr. 17, 2007; As-Safir, Aug. 28, 2007.
 Nimrod Raphaeli, "Syria's Fragile Economy," Middle East Review of International Affairs, June 2007.
 Detlev Mehlis, "Report of the International Independent Investigation Commission Established Pursuant to Security Council Resolution 1595 (2005)," United Nations, New York, Oct. 21, 2005.
 "The Situation in the Middle East," U.N. Security Council Resolution 1757.
 Bashar al-Assad, speech, SANA, Aug. 15, 2006; Syria Today (Damascus), July 3, 2007; Tishrin, July 9, 2007.
 Author interview with European diplomat, Tel Aviv, June 12, 2007; Carsten Wieland, Syria at Bay, Secularism, Islamism and ‘Pax Americana' (London: Hurst, 2006), pp. 127-9.
 See Robert G. Rabil, "Has Hezbollah's Rise Come at Syria's Expense?," Middle East Quarterly, Fall 2007, pp. 43-51.
 Al-Hayat, June 21, 2006.
 Newsweek, Apr. 24, 2007.
 Faruq al-Shar', Syrian vice-president, The Christian Science Monitor, Mar. 8, 2007; Al-Watan (Kuwait), June 25, 2006.
 Ha'aretz (Tel Aviv), June 20, 2007; Reuters, July 12, 2007.
 Author interview with two former U.S. diplomats, Tel Aviv, Apr. 13, Aug. 23, 2007.
 Author interview with former U.S. diplomat, Tel Aviv, Aug. 23, 2007.
 For more, see Nicholas Blanford, Killing Mr. Lebanon: The Assassination of Rafik Hariri and Its Impact on the Middle East (London: I. B. Tauris, 2006); Al-Mustaqbal (Beirut), Nov. 23, 2006; An-Nahar, June 23, 2007.
 Ha'aretz, Apr. 25, 2007.
 Lee Kass, "Syria after Lebanon: The Growing Syrian Missile Threat," Middle East Quarterly, Fall 2005, pp. 25-34.
 Andrew Semmel, acting U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for nuclear nonproliferation policy, The Washington Post, Sept. 14, 2007.
 David W. Lesch, Syria and the United States: Eisenhower's Cold War in the Middle East (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1984), pp. 138-89; Bonnie F. Saunders, The United States and Arab Nationalism: The Syrian Case, 1953-1960 (London: Praeger, 1996), pp. 21-54.
 Dennis Ross, The Missing Peace: The Inside Story of the Fight for Middle East Peace (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004), pp. 137-63, 509-90.
 Ha'aretz (Tel Aviv), Sept. 8, 2007.
 CNN, Sept. 10, 2007; The New York Times, Sept. 11, 2007; The Washington Post, Sept. 13, 2007.
 David Schenker, "Losing Traction against Syria," The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, Policy Watch no. 1290, Sept. 21, 2007; Fred Kaplan, "Let's Make a Deal," Slate Magazine, Sept. 16, 2007.
 Leverett, Inheriting Syria, pp. 147-66; The Iraq Study Group Report, The James Baker and Lee Hamilton Commission (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Institute of Peace, 2006).
The Middle East & the Problem of Syria
American Foreign Policy -- The Middle East
Middle East -- Arabs, Arab States,
& Their Middle Eastern Neighbors
The Middle East & the Problem of Iran
Islamism & Jihadism -- The Threat of Radical Islam
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Eyal Zisser, Director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University, is the author of Commanding Syria: Bashar al-Asad and the First Years in Power (London: I.B. Taurus, 2006).
The foregoing article by Eyal Zisser was originally published in the Middle East Quarterly, Winter, 2008, and can be found on the Internet website maintained by the Middle East Forum, a think tank which seeks to define and promote American interests in the Middle East, defining U.S. interests to include fighting radical Islam, working for Palestinian Arab acceptance of the State of Israel, improving the management of U.S. efforts to promote constitutional democracy in the Middle East, reducing America's energy dependence on the Middle East, more robustly asserting U.S. interests vis-à-vis Saudi Arabia, and countering the Iranian threat.
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