In 2008, President Bashar Assad was a worried man.
The UN probe into the assassination of Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri pointed at direct involvement of senior members of the Assad regime. Hariri’s long-time friend, French president Jacques Chirac, was clamoring for Assad’s head. The International Atomic Energy Agency was pursuing a probe of a Syrian nuclear facility, which, according to foreign media, had been bombed by the Israel Air Force. Damascus was being linked with Pyongyang, Assad with Kim Jong Il.
Assad was also nervously watching for any last-minute surprises by a departing George W. Bush, who hated the Syrian regime with a passion and wanted to avenge the deaths of US soldiers killed by foreign fighters who had reached Iraq via Syria’s borders. In the final stretch of the Bush presidency, about 25 percent to 30% of the Syrian army was deployed along the Iraq border in a defensive posture for this reason.
In addition, Assad was warily watching the back of departing prime minister Ehud Olmert, who had already, according to foreign reports, attacked his nuclear facility in al-Kibar and who he believed had ordered the assassination of Hizbullah’s top general, Imad Mughniyeh, in Damascus – a major embarrassment for the Syrian president.
Finally, one of Assad’s top military advisers and liaison to Iran and North Korea was killed by a sniper’s bullet.
Syria’s leader also had some serious internal headaches, which have not receded since then. Unemployment is rampant, with over one million Syrians living abroad in Lebanon and the Gulf states due to a lack of work back home. Syria’s economy, while growing steadily, is doing so at a slower rate than the Middle East as a whole. The country has a drastic water shortage, and it doesn’t have enough money or expertise to build desalination plants. There are some neighborhoods in Damascus where you can’t get water at night. Syria’s oil is also running out, and Assad still hasn’t figured out how to supplant that cash cow.
But despite all of these factors, the young Bashar Assad has not been shaken off his seat. 2009 was a much better year for the Syrian president. With the West trying to pry him away from Teheran, and the Iranian regime wooing him to stay, Assad became the pivotal player in the rapidly realigning Middle East and gradually ended his country’s isolation.
He has made good friends with former enemy Turkey; a new, more approachable American president has reinstated his ambassador in Damascus; and Assad has been welcomed with open arms by a more forgiving French president. US Middle East envoy George Mitchell has also come calling, gauging Syria’s readiness for peace talks with Israel.
Assad now has leverage over both the pragmatic camp and the radical axis. Both sides want him to come over fully. Europe sees him as part of the solution. At present, Assad is skillfully playing both sides against each other, but is not really moving in any direction, and he still has to decide where along the East-West axis he wants to position his country.
With so much to gain, Bashar Assad entered 2010 with a smile on his face. And it is precisely this smile that Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman is now trying to wipe off, by threatening Assad’s crowning achievement: his hold on power.
In our contemporary parlance, Lieberman put Assad on a very low couch on Thursday. But the problem is that all the signs show Assad is currently sitting on a very high stool.
He has skillfully navigated his country’s interests over the past few years. According to Western assessments, Assad does not currently want war and is unlikely to attempt a symmetrical battle with Israel. He knows his army and country are vulnerable, and he doesn’t want his regime to collapse.
With so much recent progress, Assad has much to lose. When his country runs out of oil, his regime will be dependent on the country that supplies him with his energy needs, and Iran is very willing to fill that role. Assad, however, doesn’t want to be seen as an Iranian client state, and thus be weak and isolated.
Western intelligence assessments posit that to get the Golan Heights back, Assad would pay the price of keeping the strategic plateau demilitarized. He might even allow some Israeli villages and vineyards to stay where they are under some arrangement.
As long as he takes only small steps in both directions – toward the West and toward Iran – and signals his intention to resume talks with Israel, the international community will not support an aggressive Israeli action against Bashar Assad.
Avigdor Lieberman is not nearly as welcome as Bashar Assad in many of the world’s capitals. And Thursday’s comments by the foreign minister will most likely not shake the Syrian leader’s hold on power.To read Amir Mizroch's blog, click here.