By John Munro
When Syrian President Bashar al-Assad succeeded his father in 2002, it was hoped that his accession to power would signal a break with the past. Bashar, it was said, was a modern man, a western-trained ophthalmologist, a gentle soul, more likely to make peace than war. Having inherited a basket-case of an economy, it was argued, Bashar’s primary concern would be to drag Syria into the modern world.
A government of technocrats was put together under a political outsider from Aleppo, Mustafa Miro, and attempts were made to liberalize Syria’s sclerotic banking system. Bashar also made a determined effort to stamp out corruption. First, former Prime Minister Mahmoud Al Zu’bi was indicted for having his fingers too deeply in the pie. (It was later reported that he committed suicide under house arrest). Then there was the mysterious stabbing of Brigadier Khalil Khodr, followed by leaked reports that Hikmat Shihabi, that a former army chief-of-staff and onetime confidante of Hafez al-Assad had fled to Los Angeles to escape another indictment. After that, former Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Economic Affairs was arrested on charges of taking exorbitant commissions on the purchase of several Airbuses for the national airline.
Of course, this house-cleaning was not undertaken entirely in the spirit of economic reform. Bashar was also trying to put his own stamp on his government. Significantly, though, he made no effort to replace his father’s closest advisors, Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sha’ar and Vice President Abdul Halim Khaddam, which suggested that as far as foreign policy was concerned, there would be little change.
When Syria’s main backer, the Soviet Union, collapsed Hafez al-Assad wisely decided that there was little point in pursuing his onetime goal of restoring Arab pride by seeking military parity with Israel. Far better would be to bob and weave in the ring of Middle East politics in the hope that in one way or another, the Golan Heights, which Israel had seized in 1967, could be regained. This became the cornerstone of Hafez al-Assad’s foreign policy and at his inauguration in July 2000, his son Bashar also stated that the return of the Golan was “the top of Syria’s priorities.”
Regaining the Golan was also the subtext of Syria’s continuing presence in Lebanon. Legitimized by the Taif agreement of 1989, Syria reckoned that military control over its tiny neighbor would give it greater leverage in the Middle East peace process and hence facilitate the return of occupied Syrian territory. Besides imposing political control over Lebanon - territory that Syria had been obliged to cede under the terms of the Sykes-Picot agreement of 1916 - it also enabled Syria to influence the country’s politics and take advantage of the economic opportunities afforded by Lebanon’s vibrant business community. Until last year, Syria maintained some 30,000 soldiers on the territory of its tiny neighbor and for most of that time the international community was willing to turn a blind eye towards this illegal occupation: whatever Syria’s reputation, it deserved support for its willingness to police a country that had virtually become a failed state.
But with Syria being placed high on the US State Department’s list of states sponsoring international terrorism, Syria became increasingly under pressure. First there were American inspired threats of economic sanctions and then Damascus was warned ever more forcefully that it could be a candidate for a pre-emptive attack under the justification provided by Washington’s neo-conservative “Project for a New American Century” (PNAC). Eventually, in a rare show of unanimity, last year France and the US sponsored UN Resolution 1559, calling upon Syria to withdraw its troops and a special UN committee was set up to monitor the withdrawal. Its first report is due in April this year. Then, in early January 2005, the US State Department’s Richard Armitage flew to Damascus to emphasize the Bush administration’s displeasure with Syria’s conduct. Meanwhile, Syria had pressured the Lebanese government to flout its own constitution and extend the presidency of Emile Lahoud. This provoked a number of Lebanese politicians (including the political gadfly Walid Junblatt), who received support from former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, to press for Syria to end its military presence.
Under Hafez al Assad, Syria made only intermittent attempts to negotiate the return of the Golan; it was not the old man’s style to be rushed. There was one initiative in 1991 and another in 1995, when Israel stated it was willing to withdraw from the Golan in return for guarantees of peace. Then there was another in 2000, during the dying days of the Clinton administration. Nothing became of that either, even though Hafez al-Assad’s health was visibly failing. Under pressure from the Israeli public, former Prime Minister Ehud Barak announced that he would agree to a withdrawal “on” the Golan Heights but not “from” them, and would never agree to Syrians “splashing their feet in the Sea of Gallilee.” That was too much for Hafez al Assad, who walked out of the talks and went home. Two years later, Israel’s army chief, Moshe Ya’alan admitted that the Golan Heights were not essential to the country’s strategic interests.
Bashar clearly understands that if he is ever to engineer Syria’s economic renaissance, he needs to settle the Golan issue. Consequently, since becoming president, he has sent out several feelers to Israel. The most recent and significant being one communicated through the outgoing UN envoy, Terje Roed Larsen, which earned the backing of both Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak and Jordan’s King Abdullah.
Although the EU has welcomed this move, neither Israel nor the US appears to be particularly impressed. Intoning their usual mantra of “first show us you are no threat to anyone and then we’ll talk peace,” they have allowed Syria little room for maneuver. Just as a massive crackdown on Palestinian resistance groups would be the kiss of death for the newly elected government of Mahmound Abbas — assuming that would be militarily possible - perceived weakness on the part of Bashar would also spell trouble at home.
Although he has made several moves to loosen his regime’s clenched fist, Bashar knows he cannot move too quickly otherwise events could spin out of control. It is one thing to abolish state uniforms for school children and allow some free internet access, but to throw away the few important cards Bashar holds as a regional player would be to invite domestic upheaval. Already, all but three of the so called debating clubs that were allowed to spring up after Bashar’s inauguration have been closed down as they threatened to become centers of political dissent.
If he is to rescue the economy, he must make peace with Israel and get back the Golan first. This would enable him to both reduce the military budget and gain the popular support he needs to be able to introduce painful economic reforms. Thanks to high oil prices, Bashar has been able to buy some time but with Syria’s oil, presently accounting for 70% of all exports and rapidly running out, he must be feeling a greater sense of urgency.
Should Bashar not follow in those steps, he will be condemned to continue his father’s policy of acting as regional nuisance. In such a case, his hope would be to eventually prod the US and Europe into applying pressure on Israel to withdraw from the Golan, believing this would be one grudge less for radical Islamists to rally around.
However unlikely it is that Bashar’s “thorn in the side” strategy will succeed as long as President George W. Bush and Ariel Sharon remain in power - there is little else that Bashar can do. Therefore, he will likely continue to foster close ties with Iran and such militant organizations as Hezballah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, albeit in such a way as to cause minimal offense. More significantly, he will continue to provide a cover for the insurgents in Iraq. Even before the downfall of Saddam Hussein, Syria had begun to revitalize its formerly strained relations with Iraq - Bashar himself having met with Saddam’s son Qusay on the border between Syria and Iraq to discuss the possibility of forming a “Syrian-Iraqi alliance against the United States.”
Since then, while Syria no longer aggressively supports terrorist organizations, there is mounting evidence that the remnants of Saddam Hussein’s regime have taken refuge in Mezzeh, an upscale suburb of Damascus. There, family members of two of Saddam Hussein’s closest aides, Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri and Fatiq Suleiman al-Majid, have purportedly maintained homes for a number of years and today there are reports that these families and their supporters are providing moral, logistical and material support for the insurgency in Iraq. Clearly, it is very much in Bashar al-Assad’s interests that the US should become increasingly bogged down there, because it reduces the likelihood that America will make that oft-threatened pre-emptive strike against his regime.
In her testimony prior to being appointed Secretary of State to succeed the hapless Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice promised that President Bush’s second term would be characterized more by diplomacy than military muscle and that the Middle East peace process would be revitalized. If this turns out to be true, a good place to start might be Syria’s desire to regain the Golan Heights.
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