Above the fray: A wild, far-fetched idea

Will Bashar Assad have the courage and the vision to rise to the historic occasion and change the geopolitical dynamic in the Middle East?

Syria Assad 521 (photo credit: Reuters)
Syria Assad 521
(photo credit: Reuters)
The time and circumstances have presented Syrian President Bashar Assad with a clear choice: Continue to convey an image of an impotent dictator sounding eerily similar to the embattled, aging and ousted despots who have failed to meet their people’s needs, blaming foreign conspiracies for their shortcomings, or display bold leadership and use the opportunity to institute basic reforms and turn toward the West. The notion that Assad would do the latter is perhaps far-fetched, but the benefits Syria would reap and the effect on other countries involved as a result would be of a magnitude that could change the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East in an unprecedented way.
Assad’s March 30 address to his nation was disappointing. Prior to the speech, there had been great anticipation that he would cancel the emergency law that has been in place since 1963, as well as institute other reforms to gradually open Syrian society in ways that would strengthen the country’s domestic and foreign policies.
Instead, Assad accused the proverbial scapegoat for Syria’s problems: a conspiracy led chiefly by Israel and the US to undermine Syrian “stability.” Of course, there is no foreign conspiracy, and Assad knows it, and if he continues to ignore the wave of protests that have arrived at his doorstep, he will do so at his own peril. Certainly Syria’s people do not buy Assad’s tall tale. Syria is known among the Arab states for the quality – and quantity – of its intellectuals and academics. Syria’s youth are increasingly demanding greater freedoms and access to the world. For these intellectuals and young men and women, Assad’s j’accuse speech must have rightfully appeared as outdated and hackneyed rhetoric. The Syrian people also know that, in the current context, Assad’s ability to employ ruthlessness to maintain his regime is limited.
The days of Hama, when Hafez Assad killed thousands in leveling part of the city to clamp down on the Muslim Brotherhood in 1982, are over.
The choice for Assad, however, is not between continuing his iron-fist reign and undertaking political reforms.
Some argue that lifting the emergency law and other reforms will undermine the regime. I don’t buy it. There are plenty of steps Assad can take to promote the kind of gradual reform that would address the basic demands of his people while maintaining the stability and fabric of his regime. However, to do so successfully, he must begin to reassess his relations with Iran, and its surrogates Hamas and Hezbollah.
Assad’s alliance with these entities has proved successful in recent years. He has captured the attention of the region – and the US – while overcoming the suspicion and scrutiny of the investigation into the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, and has used Syria’s ties with Iran and extremist groups to gain leverage over potential future talks with the US and Israel.
But now the tide has turned in the region, and to rely on this alliance would be to bet on the wrong horse.
Iran is embattled with its own domestic unrest, and when push comes to shove, neither Israel nor the US will allow Iran to become a regional hegemon equipped with a nuclear weapon.
Meanwhile, Hezbollah’s allegiance to Iran and increasing influence in Lebanon will soon grow beyond Syria’s control. Even Hamas seeks a prolonged cease-fire with Israel and is in unity talks with Fatah as the Palestinians look to the United Nations General Assembly for recognition of their own state come September.
ASSAD SHOULD take heed of the events in Tunisia and Egypt and the uprising that is sweeping the entire Arab world.
Perhaps more than any other Arab leader, he might be able to weather the storm of discontent, provided he resolves to adopt a strikingly new strategy.
Why can he survive where others could not? He is young, Western-oriented and educated, has access to vast intellectual resources in his country, and – most importantly – he is in a pivotal position in the Middle East. This last point is particularly compelling for the US. Rather than fight against the wind of revolutionary change, Assad should go with it. In doing so, he should follow the footsteps of Egyptian president Anwar Sadat. Sadat’s abandonment of the Soviet Union in favor of the US was a bold and far-sighted move. If Assad were to take a similar step, he could reap the benefits of the return of the Golan Heights from Israel, a strengthened economy, and a more influential position of stability and leadership at the nexus of the Arab world. He doesn’t have to completely sever ties with Iran and unsavory extremist groups in a flash. The moment Assad turns to the US, the USSyria relationship will translate to diminishing ties with Iran as well as logistical and financial support for Hamas and Hezbollah. Furthermore, he does not need to forsake Hamas and Hezbollah. Syria’s continued relationship with them could place it in an even more significant role with which to influence these groups.
DESPITE THE Syrian crackdown, the US hasn’t even recalled its newly installed ambassador for consultation. While the White House is still trying to undermine Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, it recognizes the potential Assad has to fundamentally change the geopolitical dynamic, if he makes the right moves. The US should now begin to tacitly convey that he should make the gradual reforms needed.
In addition, if Assad begins to look West, the US must have the will, and program in place, to support him. Throughout the region, the US has shown that if its national security interests and the interests of its allies (Bahrain and Saudi Arabia as a case in point) demand that a leader play a critical role – like Syria could – in promoting those interests, it will work with him – a byproduct of which would be to bolster the stability and position of Syria in the region. America’s goals in its engagement with Syria are well-known: to weaken Iran and its proxies Hamas and Hezbollah. For Assad to advance these goals, he will need something substantial in return. Contrary to the beliefs of many, the US has a great deal to offer: a new economic relationship and US aid (along the lines of that provided Cairo following the Egypt-Israel peace treaty), as well as a return of the Golan Heights upon successful, US-facilitated and incentivized negotiations between Syria and Israel.
What kind of legacy does Assad want to leave behind? The 45-year-old Syrian leader has a historic opportunity to oversee, and even lead, the Arab world through a period of transformation.
However, to do so he must stop acting like the old dictators in the region, and act more like the kind of strong, forward- looking leader the protesters on the streets are calling for. Furthermore, he must stop the violent confrontations on the streets, which will greatly advance the prospect of his ouster and the subsequent uncertainty that would replace him. Assad may be able to create a model of change without relinquishing power as long as he does it sooner rather than later. Otherwise, he will increasingly be on the defensive and lose tremendous ground as time goes by.
Assad already knows what cards the US is willing to play. The question now is: Can Assad rise to the occasion? Either way, he must decide quickly, or he may soon find that he has no cards left at all.

The writer is professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.