Analysis: Solving the riddle of Bashar Assad

Syria's leader continues to baffle the US administration.

By NATHAN GUTTMAN
October 14, 2005 00:05
assad looking stern close up of face 88

assad 88. (photo credit: )

 
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This week's widely published leaks from the US administration, concerning the possibility of launching limited military attacks against targets in Syria, are the latest manifestation of America's sense of frustration with Bashar Assad's regime in Damascus. The idea of using the US military, stationed in Iraq, to send a message to President Assad, is seen as just another attempt to get through to the Syrian leader, who refuses to play by the rules of the West. Sure, the US would be happy to see someone else ruling Syria, but the idea of regime change is a desperate one. After all, in order to change a regime, you need an alternative, and as far as the American eye can see, no such alternative is apparent. The riddle of Bashar Assad has been baffling the US administration since the young Assad took power after his father's death. First he was believed to be a reformist; when that hope did not materialize he was said to be a pragmatic leader struggling with the remnants of the old guard; and then he was just tagged as a hard-liner. But even this description does not succeed in describing Bashar Assad. By pulling out his troops from Lebanon and declaring his wish to pick up the peace talks with Israel from where his father stopped, he is far from being a consistent hard-liner. It is also not accurate to portray the Syrian leader as one who does not succumb to pressure. The withdrawal from Lebanon, following the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, shows that Assad understands the limits of his power and knows when to give in. It is Assad's inconsistency that is probably the major source of the frustration felt by the administration when dealing with Syria. Diplomatic officials who are in close contact with the administration describe President George W. Bush's feeling towards the Syrian leader as “personal outrage.” Bush, say the sources, feels that Assad has slapped the US in the face, refusing to adhere to the request to close his border with Iraq both when it was presented in a diplomatic manner by former secretary of state Colin Powell and when it was pressed for adamantly by Ambassador Zalmai Khalilzad and by the president himself. The US is not able to get through to Assad, neither by diplomacy nor by threats. He just seems to ignore all signals. The US's laundry list of demands from Assad begins with the Syrian-Iraqi border, but extends to a variety of other issues: the suspected Syrian involvement in the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, the continuing presence of Syrian intelligence officers in Lebanon even after the withdrawal, and the assistance Syria is giving to terror groups such as Hizbullah and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Each one of these issues is enough to fuel the dispute between the US and Syria, but the issue of the Iraqi border, and the danger it poses to American troops in Iraq, makes this dispute even more urgent and more significant for the US. So why has Assad remained defiant? The intelligence community points out several factors that make Assad's moves more understandable. The permission he is giving insurgents and terrorists to enter Iraq via Syria is not merely intended to anger Washington. Assad, say intelligence experts, is trying to vent some of the pressure mounting inside Syria from the Islamic brotherhood. By allowing an open passage to Iraq, Assad manages to keep the extreme Islamists under control and releases some of the internal political pressure in Syria. Another advantage the Syrian president garners from his open border with Iraq is the fact that the constant flow of insurgents into the country keeps Iraq at a boiling point and subsequently ties down the US, making it focus on Iraq, not on Syria. The difficulty dealing with Assad has led the Bush administration in the past weeks to seek a harsher approach towards the Syrian leader. In a meeting last week of the heads of US foreign policy, the idea of directly attacking targets within Syria was raised for the first time and gained widespread support. The rationale behind such a move, which was first reported by Newsweek magazine, is both to take out, at least temporarily, camps and bases that are being used by the insurgents, and at the same time to send a powerful message to Assad that he is not immune to American attacks. The objection of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice managed to block the its implementation. But the idea of attacking Syria, even in a limited fashion, has its drawbacks, as Rice demonstrated in the meeting. An American attack at this time, only weeks before the special UN investigator is due to release his conclusions regarding Syria's possible role in the murder of Hariri, could dissuade the international community from joining forces against Assad after the UN report is released. And the diplomatic momentum that is being built against Syria could be lost. The other course of action is regime change. The mission of scouting for possible alternatives to Assad was given to National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley and according to media reports and to diplomatic sources he has not gotten yet to the stage of pinpointing individuals who could be possible successors to Assad. It is a tough mission. The Syrian opposition is not considered to be effective enough to take over power in the country, not to mention the American reluctance to deal with opposition groups after the problematic experience with Iraqi opponents before the war. The fact of the matter is that if the Assad regime were to crumble, it would be replaced by either a representative of the Muslim Brotherhood or by a more extreme Alawite. Both options are worse for the US than Assad himself. The major threat to the stability of Bashar Assad is not being overthrown by the Americans, but rather by his own Alawite supporters, who fear that his adventurous behavior might cause the Alawite minority to lose power in the country. The recent signals coming from Rifaat Assad, the brother of former president Hafez Assad, that he is interested in returning to Syria from his exile in Paris, are interpreted in the West as directed at the president himself. In a sense, Bashar Assad's uncle is warning him not to choose a risky policy that might cause not only his fall, but also bring an end to the Alawite control of Syria. The lack of alternative to Bashar Assad leads the US to a policy of preferring “behavior change,” as a senior administration official put it, instead of “regime change.” The US is looking to coerce him into cooperating, rather than trying to overthrow him. The Israeli view, as it is presented by diplomats to the US administration, is rather surprising. While publicly Israel criticizes the Assad regime in Syria, in private Israeli representatives have made it clear to the US that regime change of any kind in Damascus is not in Israel's interest. Israel, say sources close to the issue, is pleased with the status quo and with a situation in which Assad is under constant measured pressure. Just enough pressure to make him cautious about his moves, but not too much so as not to push him into a corner which might lead him to take desperate actions against Israel, either in the Golan Heights or along the Lebanese border. Israel does have a keen interest in getting Syria to close the offices of Palestinian Islamic Jihad operating in Damascus and to stop the weapons flow from Iran to Hizbullah through Syria, but regime change will not help in advancing these issues. On the contrary, Assad under pressure is much better for Israel on these issues than any possible new leader might be. The deadline for action against Syria is close. It will occur right after Detlev Mehlis, head of the committee investigating the Hariri murder, presents his report. The US will probably choose the course of imposing more sanctions against Syria stopping US investments in Syria and downgrading diplomatic relations and getting the international community to isolate Assad. The hope in Washington is that the Syrian leader will once again bow to international pressure, and maybe this time he will also change his course of action.

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