Assad Learned From His Father To Keep Syria’s Options Open

18 August 2010

By Mohamad Bazzi

Ever since the February 2005 assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, Lebanon has been at the centre of a power struggle between Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United States.

In a televised appearance on Monday, the Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah tried to shift attention from internal Lebanese bickering to an old enemy: Israel. He offered what he described as evidence implicating Israel in Hariri’s killing. Hezbollah’s political opponents were not convinced.

Lebanon remains on edge amid concerns that an international tribunal is preparing to indict members of Hezbollah for involvement in Hariri’s assassination. For weeks, Mr Nasrallah has tried to soften the blow of indictments if they are handed down.

But the biggest beneficiary of this latest crisis in Lebanon is the Syrian regime, which ironically, many Lebanese blamed for Hariri’s murder. The Syrian President Bashar Assad and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia traveled together to Beirut last month to meet with Lebanese leaders and calm fears that the country is once again headed toward civil strife. The visit was meant to show the Arab world that Saudi-Syrian reconciliation is on track. It was also a message from Mr Assad to Washington: Lebanon cannot remain stable without Syria’s tutelage.

At the same time that he is reaching out to Saudi Arabia and pushing his way back into the Arab “fold,” Mr Assad is maintaining his relationship with Iran and its allies: Hezbollah, Hamas and Iraqi Shiite factions. These moves are a classic example of the statecraft practiced by Bashar’s father, Hafez Assad, who ruled Syria for three decades.

For a country that is not rich in oil and has little economic clout, the Syrian regime derives its power from its strategic position and carefully nurtured alliances. Syria has played the role of a regional spoiler and Arab nationalist standard-bearer since 1970, when Hafez Assad rose to power in a military coup. He perfected the art of shifting alliances, stirring up trouble in neighbouring countries and keeping his enemies mired in costly battles.

When Assad died in 2000 and was succeeded by his son Bashar, many believed the soft-spoken ophthalmologist could never balance the regional cards as masterfully as his father. But, 10 years later, it is clear that the younger Assad has grown comfortably into the role of a strongman who must adapt to shifting regional forces.

Mr Assad did not have much time to master regional dynamics before he confronted the the invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the Bush administration’s desire for “regime change” in Damascus. Thus, Syria meddled in Iraq, nurtured Palestinian militants opposed to peace with Israel, and dominated its smaller neighbour, Lebanon.

As Washington sought to isolate Damascus, some Arab powers – especially Saudi Arabia – became hostile to Mr Assad and his growing reliance on Iran. The Bush administration imposed economic sanctions in 2004, accusing Syria of sheltering Iraqi Baathist leaders and allowing Islamic militants to cross into Iraq and fight US forces. The US policy of sanctions and isolation accelerated after Hariri’s assassination, which Washington blamed on Syria.

Hariri was close to the Saudi royal family, and his death further strained relations between Syria and the kingdom. Things reached a new low during the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, when Assad called his fellow Arab leaders “half-men” for their criticism of it. In 2008, King Abdullah boycotted an Arab League summit in Damascus and withdrew his ambassador from the Syrian capital.

In response to the cold shoulder from the U.S. and its Arab allies, Mr Assad became more dependent on Iran, which helped shore up the Syrian economy with construction investments and cheap oil. Damascus also enhanced its links with Hamas, Hezbollah and the renegade Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada al Sadr. Mr Assad calculated that these alliances would help him shape events in the Palestinian territories, Lebanon and Iraq – and would be useful bargaining chips in any future negotiations with the U.S.

It is a mistake to assume that the latest diplomatic manoeuvering means that Syria will abandon Iran or fall in line behind Washington. The Syrian-Iranian alliance has endured for nearly 30 years; it cannot be undone lightly. Yet Mr Assad is also keen to reverse a period of intense isolation that began after the US invasion of Iraq. Syria had not been shunned this deeply since the early 1980s, when Damascus broke with most of the Arab world to support Iran in its war with Iraq.

Thanks to the Iraq war, Mr Assad’s regime became stronger. For Syrians worried about the carnage in Iraq, the Baathist government offers security, even as it arrests pro-democracy activists and stifles any hint of political opposition.

Mr Assad’s main goal today is to preserve the rule of his Alawite regime in a Sunni-dominated country. That may explain Syria’s history of tortured alliances and constant hedging. But the ultimate goal for Mr Assad is to regain control of the Golan Heights, a strategic territory that Israel occupied during the 1967 Middle East war.

The Alawite regime is obsessed with proving its legitimacy, and there is more to be gained if Bashar succeeds where his father failed and recovers the Golan Heights. Syria has consistently offered to sign a separate peace agreement with Israel in exchange for the Heights, but the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has shown little willingness to negotiate with Damascus.

For now, the path to negotiations is bleak. The Syrian regime will continue to play on regional dynamics to advance its interests. In other words, Mr Assad is keeping all of his options open – as his father taught him to do.

-- Mohamad Bazzi is an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City and a journalism professor at New York University.




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