Assad Phase II
The new emerging character of Syria’s President
A new power balance in the Middle East
To understand the new power balance in the Middle East, consider how the leaders of Egypt responded to the 9/11 terror attacks on America. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, while watching footage of the burning World Trade Center Towers, is said to have turned to an aide and muttered, “My job just got easier.” The remark implies a feral instinct for how Washington, singed by the temper of radical Islam, would give him a free pass to crack down on his own Islamist rivals as part of a ham-fisted American backlash.
There is no such account, apocryphal or otherwise, of how Syrian leader Bashar Al Assad reacted on that fateful day, but the idea that his job just got harder may not have been far from his mind. He was just fifteen months into his presidency, and given Damascus’s association with radical Islamic groups, he had every reason to assume his name was on a short list of people the White House would seek to eliminate.
As is turned out, America’s war on terror was good to both men – albeit in different ways and for different reasons – and each now occupies divergent coordinates on the geopolitical map. The 80-year-old Mubarak is all but irrelevant, apparently marking time for his son to succeed him and serving as a perfunctory mediator in an equally perfunctory U.S.-led “peace process” between Israel and the Palestinians. The 44-year-old Al Assad, meanwhile, is widely regarded as one of the most important Arab leaders today – more influential in some ways than his father, Hafez Al Assad, who passed the presidential mantel to his son before his death in June 2000.
Once an international outcast for its alleged role in the 2005 assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, Syria is now a key power-broker and potential spoiler for its alliance with Iran – an existential threat for Arab regimes as well as Israel – and its relationship with hardline Islamist movements Hamas and Hezbollah. Its influence over Lebanon, its historic fiefdom, remains potent despite the humiliating withdrawal of its military forces there under international pressure following Hariri’s death. Syria is also enjoying an economic renaissance that has not only earned Al Assad a measure of legitimacy in a region where such political coin is rare, but has also liberated Damascus from any urgent need to cut a peace deal with Israel for the sake of the American patronage that would follow.
Al Assad has also succeeded, it appears, in easing out his father’s generation of advisers in favor of his own hand-picked men. Even the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, which the elder Al Assad drove from the country during a bloody civil war in the early 1980s, has recently signaled an interest in rapprochement with the regime after breaking with Abdul Halim Khaddam, the ex-vice president of Syria who in 2006 formed a political party in exile after turning against the Al Assad clan.
“It is fairly remarkable when you consider that Bashar Al Assad came to power as a young man and quickly came under enormous pressure from the West over Iraq, pressure even his father did not have to bare,” says Murhaf Jouejati, professor of Middle East Studies at the Washington-based Near East South Asia Center for Strategic Studies. “Now he is unchallenged, and Syria is being courted by the Americans, the Europeans and the Arabs.”
A different Bashar or the power of unintended consequences?
The redemption of Bashar Al Assad – and the restoration of Syria as an indispensable Middle East player – owes much to the power of unintended consequences. Al Assad opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, an act of defiance that, in the intoxicating aftermath of Baghdad’s collapse, inspired prominent neoconservatives to push for the sacking of Damascus. For a while, it seemed the deck was indeed stacked against him; after working closely and constructively with U.S. Treasury agents to account for terrorist financing, according to Syrian officials, those same agents would testify menacingly in Congress about Damascene obstructionism.
By late summer, however, when the Iraqi insurgency turned the nation into a snake pit that consumed U.S. troops as well as Iraqis, it was Syria that held the whip hand. Jihadis eager to join the fight would smuggle themselves across the long and largely unsecured Syrian-Iraqi border, which Damascus did not openly support but did little to discourage. The election in 2005 of the radical Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as president of Iran, a close Syrian ally for the last quarter century, cast Al Assad as the relatively restrained, secular partner to a radical regime that by many accounts is close to going nuclear. In February 2006, Hamas won national elections in Palestine, elevating its importance as a factor in the Arab-Israeli conflict and Syria’s influence along with it. That August, Hezbollah emerged victorious, symbolically at least, from a brutal month-long war with Israel.
Within a year after Hariri’s killing, Al Assad had established himself as the master of events beyond the control of Israel, its Western allies, and Western-leaning Arab regimes. Alarmed at Hamas’ growing power and clout, and despite public disapproval from then-U.S. president George W. Bush, Israel in 2007 engaged in Turkey-mediated talks with Syria. As the sectarian strife in Iraq intensified and as Ahmadinejad stepped up the decibel level of his anti-Israel rants, Western pressure on Syria to cooperate with a United Nations investigation into the Hariri murder subsided. European leaders began beating a path to the door of Al Assad’s presidential palace, hoping to woo Damascus away from Tehran even as Al Assad proclaimed the Syrian-Iran alliance to be inviolate.
Since last year’s election of U.S. president Barack Obama, who has emphasized diplomatic, rather than military solutions to challenges abroad, Syria’s rehabilitation has been nearly complete. Having recalled its ambassador from Damascus in protest of the Hariri murder, Washington recently informed Syria it would appoint a replacement. George Mitchell, Obama’s special envoy to the Middle East, has made Damascus a regular stop on his diplomatic circuit and there has been talk of exchanges between the U.S. and Syrian militaries. In March, King Abdullah, who was outraged over Hariri’s assassination, hosted Al Assad along with the leaders of Egypt and Kuwait in a high-profile appeal for reconciliation.
A welcomed partner
Through judicious calculation and dumb luck, Syria has established itself as the all-purpose key to a complex of issues bedeviling the U.S. and its Middle East allies, particularly what to do about Iran and how to bring about a comprehensive Middle East peace. The old adage about Egypt and Syria – there can be no war without the former and no peace without the latter – is once again in vogue.
“The positive case for engaging Syria is that it is not just pursuing peace for the sake of peace between it and Israel,” says Aaron David Miller, public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a veteran adviser on Arab-Israeli negotiations in both Republican and Democratic administrations. “Iran figures centrally in the Syria track because Iran sits at the nexus of everything that the U.S. cares about – Iraq, Afghanistan, nuclear proliferation, Lebanon, even Palestine. So the logic here is you get more from an Israel-Syria peace treaty than you ever could.”
Like most Middle East experts, Miller sees little chance of an Arab-Israeli peace deal any time soon, as he explained in his recent interview with The Majalla. The Israeli-Syrian channel was shut down after the Jewish state’s siege of the Gaza Strip a year ago and neither side appears ready to revive it. Unlike Egypt and Jordan, which made peace with Israel because a perpetual war footing had become prohibitively expensive, Syria is as strong economically as it’s been in decades. From 2004 to 2008, according to the International Monetary Fund, the non-oil sectors of the Syrian economy grew by 42 per cent, while oil-related sales have declined steadily. Economists credit the government with an ambitious diversification drive that has combined currency liberalization with tariff reduction and tax reform. Once an exclusively cash economy, Syria today is brimming with foreign-owned and invested banks that are effectively re-introducing private lending to an economy that had been all but extinguished by decades of Ba’ath Party socialism.
While no one person can take credit for Syria’s geopolitical revival – except perhaps George W. Bush – the country’s economic awakening was very much Al Assad’s inspiration. (Here too, however, the Bush administration played an important role. In 2007, it imposed restrictions on Syrian accounts held abroad, impelling account-holders to remit their funds back home. The result was a liquidity-driven boom in asset prices.) Soon after this instalment as president, Al Assad made a point of touring Damascus’s once-sleepy trade expositions, where he made stirring references to Syria’s golden age as the grain and technology belt of the ancient Arab empires. At first, local merchants as well as foreign investors dismissed such talk as idle chatter. Within a few years, however, the government had phased out price supports on imported goods, lifted capital controls, and passed sweeping banking laws. Export revenues are up, as is foreign investment. In March, the Damascus Securities Exchange opened for business and the country is poised to sign a landmark trade agreement with the European Union.
“The economic reform drive is irreversible,” says Jouejati. “Bashar has acknowledged his father nearly ruined the country and he wanted this modernization to happen. But there is still resistance, first from the bureaucracy and now from the industrialists, who know they cannot compete with the Europeans. This is why he has been forced to maintain his father’s political culture. He is a modernizer, not a reformer.”
It is in the political realm where the young Al Assad so closely resembles his autocratic father, to say nothing of Hafez’s surviving contemporaries like Mubarak. A brief episode of official tolerance following Al Assad’s confirmation as president raised hopes that the new leader would release political prisoners, end martial law and encourage a free press. Hardline Ba’athists pushed back, however, and the so-called Damascene Spring was summarily dispatched.
Political liberalization is as much forbidden fruit in Syria as it is throughout the Middle East. From Marrakesh to Dubai, Arab leaders have with some success adopted the way of self-preservation – free enterprise at the expense of free expression – pioneered by Asian autocracies decades ago. Syria is enjoying something of an artistic renaissance; its arts community is flourishing and warrens of Old Damascus and Aleppo are being converted into boutique hotels, cafes and shops. But the country’s political culture is more redolent of The Sopranos than Maqama. Even before Hafez’s death, the knives were out for the heir to his dynasty.
In October 1999, troops commanded by Bashar raided the villa of his paternal uncle Rifat in the Syrian port town of Latakia. Though Rifat was in London, where he had been exiled after launching a failed coup against his brother, rumours persisted he would exploit any power vacuum that might follow the president’s death. The raid in Latakia, according to diplomats at the time, left 30 people dead and signalled to potential rivals that the president-designate had sufficient instinct for the jugular.
After nearly a decade in power, Al Assad has surrounded himself with a coterie of young and ambitious advisers. Among Al Assad’s more high-profile aides are fellow trench-fighters for economic reform – and not-so-friendly rivals – Abdullah Dardari, the deputy prime minister for economic affairs, and finance minister Mohammed Hussein. Dardari, who unlike Hussein is not a Ba’ath Party member and thus lacks his own power base, has stoked considerable resentment from hidebound bureaucrats and oligarchs; his staying power is a marker of the president’s commitment to free-market reforms despite powerful opposition. In a move interpreted by Syria watchers as proof that Syria’s leadership transition was completed, Al Assad in July promoted Assef Shawqat, his brother-in-law, military strong-man, and a close ally of Hafez, to a defense ministry position of only symbolic importance.
After nearly a decade of geopolitical manoeuvring and parochial political intrigue, Bashar Al Assad clearly feels secure in his authority and confident in his administration. In the Middle East, however, security is a relative thing. Given the increasingly dynastic nature of Arab politics – in secular Syria and Egypt as well as its monarchies and emirates – Bashar Al Assad no doubt expects to reign indefinitely. That means continued opportunities to bend the future to his will as well as more challenges to his rule. It is a reality suited to a region where, for now at least, the long game is the only one in town.