Spoiler Alert: What Syria's President Really Wants
The Obama administration fears, and rightly so, that Assad’s intentions with respect to the sputtering renewal of Israeli-Palestinian talks are far from benign. Indeed, administration officials believe that even baby steps toward a two-state solution—not to mention a more comprehensive Israeli-Arab peace agreement—require a focused effort to wean Assad away from his modus operandi as Middle East spoiler. This explains why President Obama hastily dispatched US Special Envoy George Mitchell to visit Assad in mid-September, and why Secretary of State Hillary Clinton considered it urgent to meet with Syrian foreign minister Walid Muallem on the margins of the UN General Assembly opening session in late September.
Assad’s skill and sophistication in playing the spoiler role—thwarting the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon, hosting terror groups in Damascus, waging a proxy war against Israel, and allowing jihadists to transit into Iraq—explain how he has managed to survive during his ten-year reign. But, as we shall see, playing the role of spoiler also carries its own risks, some of which may pose serious threats to Assad’s rule in the near future.
Bashar Assad’s rise to power was both circuitous and unexpected. He had studied medicine in Damascus and appeared to be headed for a career as an ophthalmologist when he was abruptly recalled from his medical residency in London in 1994 after Basil, his elder brother and his father’s designated successor, was killed in a car crash. His father, President Hafez al-Assad, put Bashar, not yet thirty, on a fast track to bolster his military credentials and develop his leadership bona fides. He quickly rose to the rank of colonel and was given command of a Republican Guard brigade. In 1998, his father gave him the crucial Lebanon portfolio, which provided, in addition to insights into regional diplomacy, instruction in spycraft and subversion.
Assad was only thirty-four when his father died in June 2000. Nepotism created a momentary complication for his succession since Syria’s Constitution required the president be at least forty. A compliant Parliament snapped into action and promptly reduced the minimum age requirement to ensure dynastic continuity.
Most Syria watchers questioned whether Bashar, whose background seemed to indicate a reluctance to dirty his hands, could survive for long in the cutthroat world of Middle East politics. Yet to the surprise of many, the accidental dictator used a combination of luck and tactical cunning to consolidate his hold on power and even solidify and enlarge Syria’s role as a regional player, much to the chagrin of Washington.
While his father had ruled with an iron fist and a heart cold enough to slaughter an estimated forty thousand citizens in Hama in 1982 to quell an uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood, Bashar has engaged in something of a charm offensive to create a bond with the people he rules. He has made an effort to appear approachable to his subjects and thus carve out a separate identity from his father, whose stern visage still adorns portrait posters in Damascus. Family bike rides always attract fawning Syrian press coverage, as do the president’s theater outings with Asma, his comely, British-born wife. (Their relative youth and sartorial flair have prompted somewhat farfetched comparisons to John and Jackie Kennedy). To soften his image abroad, Assad has also cultivated relationships with European journalists and American media luminaries like Diane Sawyer, Katie
Couric, and Charlie Rose.
Early in his tenure, Assad released some political prisoners and tolerated a limited dose of public criticism from his citizens, thus spurring hopeful talk of a Damascus Spring. Yet these hopes soon evaporated as he reversed course and clamped down on the opposition, probably out of concerns that his subjects might develop a dangerous appetite for political freedom. Citing security concerns, Assad censored the Internet, preventing his citizens’ access to sites like Facebook and YouTube. This particularly demoralized younger citizens, who had been encouraged by the fact that it was Bashar himself, the onetime head of the Syrian Computer Society, who initially convinced his father to permit use of the Internet in Syria in 1998.
For most of his decade-long reign, while still trying to charm, Assad has ruled with an authoritarian fist, much like his father, and has established a continuity with an abysmal Syrian human rights record that dates back to 1963, when the government declared a “state of emergency.” Nearly fifty years later, all the hallmarks of a police state—sweeping arrest powers, arbitrary detention, and torture of political prisoners—remain in force. Impotently chronicled by human rights watchdogs, these abuses are often downplayed, if not outright ignored, by Western capitals seeking to curry favor with Syria.
The Assad dynasty has long matched repression at home with support for terrorism abroad. The US has designated Syria a sponsor of state terrorism for thirty straight years, ever since Congress began requiring the State Department to list such offenders. A state does not make this list for three consecutive decades because its sponsorship of terrorism is somehow tangential to its policies. On the contrary, terrorism as an instrument of state policy lies at the very core of the Assad dynasty. In addition to supplying Hezbollah with sophisticated weapons in Lebanon, Syria has long permitted Hamas, Palestine Islamic Jihad, and other terrorist groups to operate in Damascus. Assad periodically meets with these groups in public forums, something his father never did.
In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Assad permitted his intelligence services to provide the US some limited intelligence on al-Qaeda. But this cooperation had evaporated even before the 2003 US intervention in Iraq worsened relations between Washington and Damascus.
Since then, Syria has contributed to the war against American interests in the Middle East by providing safe conduct to jihadists on the way to Iraq to unleash suicide attacks against American soldiers there. Nor has this encouragement of terror always been sub rosa. In 2003, Syrian border guards boldly opened checkpoints and waved buses jammed with jihadists into Iraq in broad daylight. Assad even allowed jihadi volunteers to gather in front of the Iraqi Embassy in Damascus. His repeated denials that such a feeder network of terrorists exists have never passed muster. As recently as March 2010, with the war in Iraq about to wind down, the US State Department noted in a letter to congressional leaders that the “flow [of terrorists transiting Syria into Iraq] has lessened, though not ended.”
At times, Assad has made showy efforts to strengthen Syria’s control over its borders. But the disingenuousness of such gestures, carefully designed to relieve US pressure and encourage false hopes among those who advocate a more concessionary approach to Syria, has always been obvious, even if carried off with a subtlety unmatched by most other dictators in the region.
For all his success, however, Assad has suffered periodic setbacks, most often involving overplaying his hand in Lebanon. After the 2005 car bomb assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, which many believed had Syrian fingerprints all over it, international pressure convinced Syria to end its thirty-year military occupation of Lebanon in April 2005, a primary goal of Lebanese citizens supporting the Cedar Revolution.
The withdrawal represented a clear setback for Damascus, at least in the short term. Relations with Arab neighbors reached a low point in August 2006, when Assad lambasted Arab leaders as “half-men” for criticizing Hezbollah during its thirty-four-day war with Israel.
Assad’s relations with Saudi Arabia and Egypt have since improved, and Assad is back in business in Lebanon. While its uniformed military personnel have departed Lebanon, Syria retains a powerful position there, mainly via political sympathizers and its shadowy network of intelligence operatives. Assad also maintains gatekeeper leverage over Hezbollah, since Iranian-supplied arms bound for this terrorist group must transit Syrian territory (in violation of UN Security Council Resolution 1701).
Assad also caught a major break in 2010: the UN tribunal charged with investigating Hariri’s assassination shifted its focus from senior Syrian officials to Hezbollah. It is possible the inquiry may yet return to its initial suspicions regarding direct Syrian involvement, but for the time being senior officials in Damascus can breathe easier.
Meanwhile, Syria has improved its ties with Lebanon. Among other steps, the two countries have reestablished formal diplomatic relations and exchanged ambassadors. In December 2009, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, son of Rafik Hariri, visited Damascus, an implicit acknowledgement of Assad’s newfound leverage in the Levant. Hariri sidestepped the issue of the investigation into his father’s assassination, saying tribunal issues were not part of the dialogue.
As the case of Lebanon shows, Assad’s role as spoiler ensures that Syria cannot be ignored when it comes to regional security issues. Indeed, despite Syria’s lengthy record on terrorism, European diplomats have been practically tripping over themselves to meet with Assad. The rush accelerated after French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s July 2008 invitation to Assad to attend France’s annual Bastille Day ceremony as a guest of honor. (Some French army veterans took umbrage at the visit, recalling suspicions of Syria’s role in the 1983 Beirut barracks bombing that killed fifty-eight French peacekeepers in Lebanon, along with two hundred and forty-one American servicemen.)
By adroitly playing good cop/bad cop, Syria has made progress on other diplomatic fronts as well. Turkish-Syrian relations have improved dramatically over the past several years, and in May of this year, President Dmitri Medvedev became the first Russian leader to visit Damascus since the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. Seeking to exploit his diplomatic mojo, Assad embarked on a whirlwind tour of Latin America in June, with stops in Brazil, Argentina, Venezuela, and Cuba.
Since taking office, the Obama administration has sent its own emissaries to Damascus, including the State Department’s third-ranking official, Under Secretary of State William Burns. In February 2010, the president also nominated career diplomat Robert Ford as ambassador to Syria. His Senate confirmation, however, remains stalled in light of disturbing reports earlier this year about Syria supplying increasingly advanced weaponry, including perhaps even Scud missiles, to Hezbollah. In the interim, Obama has turned to his Middle East special envoy, former Senator George Mitchell, as his primary interlocutor to Assad. Senator John Kerry, who has long favored greater engagement with Syria, appears to play a supporting role with his frequent travels to Damascus.
Engagement efforts are spurred by the hope that such outreach will drive a wedge between Syria and Iran. On paper, this policy approach appears tempting, especially since the theocratic regime in Tehran and the secular Baathist regime in Damascus seem to be strange bedfellows. But Tehran and Damascus currently share a core regional aim—waging a proxy war against Israel via Hezbollah—that has lengthened the honeymoon period of their ideological marriage of convenience.
Bashar Assad is well aware of Washington’s efforts to triangulate in Syria and has made his response clear: no dice. In a January 19, 2009, interview with the magazine Der Spiegel, he asserted, “Good relations with Washington cannot mean bad relations with Tehran.” With Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad beside him at a news conference last February, Assad took this point a step further and openly mocked US efforts to split the two allies. It is unlikely he will distance himself from Tehran as long as Iran is able to thumb its nose at the West over its nuclear ambitions with relative impunity. Assad has, in fact, become an apologist for Iranian aspirations, regularly defending Tehran’s “peaceful nuclear reactor” in press interviews.
Helped by the memory of the period before his father took control, when Syria lacked any semblance of domestic political stability and suffered from a parade of failed political leaders, Bashar Assad has stayed in power much longer than many analysts anticipated, no small feat in a region where mere survival is often equated with political success. In fact, his political power base seems stronger than ever, even though his regime is dominated by Alawites, a minority Muslim sect that makes up only fourteen percent of the population. Political opposition within Syria and abroad remains weak and divided. Over the past decade, Assad has deftly replaced much of the old-guard military leadership left over from his father’s presidency with men accountable only to him. In May 2007, he was reelected to another seven-year term, exercising the dictatorial privilege of running unopposed and garnering ninety-seven percent of the vote.
He is young and at this point successful enough to have significant regional ambitions, probably chief among them reclaiming the Golan Heights. This goal has held talismanic sway over Syrian officials ever since Israel seized the territory in the 1967 war, a loss that Assad’s father presided over as Syria’s minister of defense. More broadly, Assad sees a “new geostrategic map which aligns Syria, Turkey, Iran, and Russia, which are brought together by shared policies, interests and infrastructure,” as he described it in a May 2010 interview with the Italian newspaper La Repubblica. It was significant that Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which have long held their own claims to regional leadership, were pointedly omitted from this constellation.
Elaborating on his vision, Assad claims a “strategic region is taking place which connects the five surrounding seas: the Mediterranean, the Caspian Sea, the Black Sea, the Arab Gulf and the Red Sea.” He sees Syria playing a dominant role at the hub of this region, which at a May 2009 press conference he declared the “compulsory intersection for the whole world.” Though lacking on specifics, this formulation is best understood as his effort to revive the dream of a Greater Syria, albeit in more modern and congenial garb.
It is hard to envision Syria—a small, underdeveloped state—actually achieving such heady aspirations. For all his success in reducing Syria’s diplomatic isolation over the past couple of years, Bashar Assad faces some significant domestic challenges. Syria’s economy is weak, and limited reforms have had a mixed impact. Endemic corruption has accompanied limited privatization of banks and insurance companies.
Another problem involves resource depletion, especially oil and water shortages that are becoming increasingly severe as a result of drought and chronic water mismanagement. Agriculture has suffered as a result. According to a recent State Department report, Syria has become a net importer of wheat for the first time in twenty years.
Notwithstanding Assad’s grandiose visions, the likelihood of Syria becoming a regional economic and trading hub is practically nil. The longer he has held onto power, the clearer it has become that it is easier for him to play the role of spoiler than to create something of lasting value for his citizens and his neighbors. It is also becoming apparent that the role of spoiler, while allowing him to balance on the teeter-totter of regional influence, entails its own set of risks—even for a crafty tactician.
Syria is widely believed to have an extensive and sophisticated arsenal of chemical weapons, a perception that Assad does nothing to discourage in press interviews. Syria’s clandestine nuclear program, however, suffered a severe setback on the night of September 6, 2007, when Israel destroyed the al-Kibar nuclear reactor site during Operation Orchard.
Assad shrewdly resisted the urge to retaliate immediately against Israel, which would have invited an even greater disaster, given Syria’s military inferiority. Instead, he downplayed the daring raid, thus reducing its psychological impact both domestically and regionally. He also moved to cover up evidence of Syria’s nuclear ambitions—quite literally, with bulldozers and concrete—all the while holding out the potential for revenge at a more opportune moment.
After initially allowing the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) access to the site after the Israeli strike, Syria has since stonewalled the monitoring organization, preventing follow-up access and refusing to answer questions. Assad claims the uranium traces found by the IAEA at the site may have been depleted uranium dropped by the Israelis—a claim that plays well in conspiratorial circles, even though it is clearly at odds with IAEA lab tests. Looking forward, there is growing pressure for the IAEA to initiate a “special investigation” of Syria’s nuclear program. If this happens, Syria likely will find itself under far more international scrutiny than it would prefer.
As the case of Syria’s pursuit of weapons of mass destruction suggests, some of the most serious dangers Assad faces come from his own strategic choices. Beyond his support for jihadist groups and his pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, Assad’s strategic alliance with Iran represents the greatest threat to his survival, given that the long-simmering Iranian nuclear crisis will likely come to a boil within the next year and a half. If Israel or the United States decides to attack Iran’s nuclear program, Syria’s dictator will find himself in a strategic vice largely of his own making. If he joins expected Iranian and Hezbollah efforts to retaliate against Israel, he will risk a humiliating defeat for Damascus. (Unlike Hezbollah, Syria’s armed forces present a largely conventional—and hence very inviting—target for the Israel Defense Forces.) Yet if Assad sits on the sidelines or limits himself to symbolic military action, then he will lose credibility—irrevocably and dramatically—both at home and abroad for failing to assist an ally during war. Either outcome could ultimately hasten the downfall of Syria’s spoiler-in-chief.
Looking back, it is clear that most Syria watchers underestimated Assad at first, thinking the former ophthalmologist’s tenure would be brief. Now many of them are making the opposite mistake, in effect projecting that his rule will last for a very long time, just like his father’s reign did before him. In doing so, they overlook the fact that the younger Assad, in marked contrast with his father, lacks a clear-eyed sense of Syria’s limitations as a regional power. This type of hubris almost always catches up to leaders who try to punch above their weight class for any extended period of time. It is the reason why Bashar Assad is unlikely to come close to matching his father’s longevity as president.