“Asad . . . rule[d] with an iron hand for thirty years. This clearly was a noteworthy achievement for a member of a disdained community that numbers only ten percent of the population in a country that had experienced some twelve violent changes of leadership since the French were forced out in 1945.”
A retired senior Foreign Service officer with many years of experience in the Middle East, the author concludes that President Asad had more success, at least in military affairs, than some of the other Arab leaders in the region. He notes nonetheless that Syria’s future under a new leader — like that of her neighbors — remains unpredictable. ~ Ed.
EOGRAPHICALLY, THE MIDDLE EAST is an indissoluble unit lashed together by rivers, oil fields, pipelines, trade routes, and patterns of labor migration. Culturally, it is a composite of four distinct blocs: Turkey, Iran, the Caucasus, and the eastern Arab world. Politically, Turkey, Iran, and the three communal states in the Caucasus have achieved a high degree of national identity. The Arabs are behind the curve, however; linked by a common language, complex sectarian affiliations, and a shared history, they remain strewn among thirteen nominal nationalities.
Arab disunity is costly, dangerous, and abnormal. Its cause — undoubtedly related to centuries of foreign rule — is an issue for the historians. Its remedy has been the despair of Arab politicians ever since the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Nevertheless, it is an ever-present imperative, imposing itself on the policy derisions of every Arab leader.
Recent European history affords the Arabs an instructive precedent. After centuries of civil war, the European continent is well along on a three-stage course toward unification. Stage One, establishing viable, liberal nation-states, was finally accomplished in the wake of World War II; Stage Two, erecting regional institutions, is now underway; Stage Three, transferring sovereignty from the states to regional authorities — a feat accomplished by the former American colonies in eleven years (1776-87) — will hopefully be achieved in Europe within the new century.
The Arabs are still in the throes of Stage One. Realistic leaders like Syria’s late President Hafiz al Asad recognize that the long-term welfare of everyone in the region depends upon following the American and European examples, but the dismal failure of past unity schemes demonstrated that their immediate preoccupation must be the consolidation of power in their own narrow purviews. Their task is uniquely difficult; Europe and America had no onerous foreign intrusions to contend with. The Arabs still have to compete with Turkey and Iran for hegemony in the region they share. More crucially, they have to operate within the strict confines of perceived U.S. interests in the region.
The United States has materially abridged Arab self-determination by shoring up favored regimes such as Saudi Arabia, punishing errant ones like Iraq, and shoring up the non-Arab state of Israel. Beneficiary of a tacit security guarantee from Washington, Israel has relative immunity from the operation of the regional balance of power; for all practical purposes, it is an American enclave. Variously citing Israel, oil, and the international welfare as its motives, Washington has taken on itself the task of regulating the affairs of the Middle East.
Therefore, whether or not a ruler of Syria is committed to the cause of Arab unity, as Asad was, he is confined by the circumstances of the time to the narrow focus of Syria/Lebanon and to the narrow objectives of promoting his subjects’ welfare, maintaining order, preserving Syrian independence, and staying in power.
What was President Asad’s record — his legacy — in this context?
The national welfare
Syria is impoverished and unproductive, held back by the regime’s restrictions on private enterprise, information exchange, and access to the internet. Even Lebanon, rebuilding after Israeli invasion and fifteen years of civil war, has a more vigorous economy; it provides employment for up to a million Syrian migrants. Asad’s bureaucracy is corrupt and sclerotic. However, Baathism is populist and the regime has made a doctrinaire effort to narrow the gap between rich and poor. New President Bashar al Asad reputedly wants to bring Syria into the information age. If he succeeds, Syrians will owe the father a debt of gratitude.
Asad presided over the 1982 massacre of Syrian citizens in Hamah, years of bloody participation in the Lebanese civil war, and several political assassinations, notably those of Lebanese rivals Kamal Junblatt and Bashir Jumayyil. Moral judgments aside, he prevailed over antagonists whose methods were equally brutal, and he did what the Lebanese seemingly couldn’t do — end their vicious civil war.
American officials issue ritual recommendations for Arab adoption of democratic forms of government. At the present stage, however, any bold experiment with democracy would probably go the way of the Quwwatli government, overthrown by Syria’s first of many military coups in 1949. Even Washington’s enthusiasm for Arab democracy fails to withstand close examination, witness the devout alliance with the royal house of Sa’ud.
Since the accidental death of his older son in 1994, Asad had been grooming second son Bashar for the succession. Catapulting this improbable figure into the presidency is a perversion of Baathist democracy, but if the mild-mannered ophthalmologist steps into a phone booth and emerges as a caped benevolent dictator, the electorate may come to consider itself well served.
Syria/Lebanon is flanked by three hostile regimes — all militarily superior. Issues of rivers, minorities, and irredentism divide Syria from Turkey, but Asad was careful to avoid armed conflict. In 1998, under the threat of Turkish military action on the border, he threw Kurdish militant Abdalla Ocalan to the wolves, even though Ocalan was a political ally and may be an Alawite. Ankara ran Ocalan to ground in Africa, with CIA help, and he now sits in a Turkish prison under sentence of death.
The dispute between the Baathist regimes in Damascus and Baghdad has the special bitterness of partisan rivalry. In 1991 Asad carried pragmatism to the brink when he sided with the West and the oil shaykhs against Saddam’s clumsy effort to advance the causes of Arab unity, and Iraqi leadership, by annexing Kuwayt. The dividends of heresy were handsome: subsidies from the oil states, ingratiation in Washington, and carte blanche to accomplish in Lebanon what Saddam failed to accomplish in Kuwayt.
Meeting the Israeli danger
THE PRIMARY THREAT COMES FROM Israel, the preeminent military power in the Middle East and the enemy of Arab unity and those who profess it. The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) defeated the Syrian forces in 1948, 1967, and the 1973 Yom Kippur War. In 1967 Israel took over 4OO square miles of strategic Syrian territory, the Golan Heights, annexing it in 1981. During its invasion of Lebanon in 1982, Israel attacked Syrian forces deployed in defensive positions in the south-central region of the country and drove them north almost to the Beirut-Damascus highway before the Syrians managed to check the Israeli advance. Israeli jets routinely sweep the skies clear of Syrian aircraft at minimal cost to themselves.
The Israeli venture in Lebanon ended in disaster, but a new cause for Syrian alarm now is the military accord between Israel and Turkey, whose navies held a small joint exercise with units of the U.S. Sixth Fleet in 1998. Syria has no ally against this formidable combine other than Iran — unless their common plight drives Syria and Iraq toward reconciliation.
Meanwhile, Israel rests in the Golan. The breakdown of U.S.-sponsored peace talks between Syria and Israel has been explained in two contradictory ways. Dominant in American commentary is the view that Prime Minister Rabin and successors have offered to return most of the Golan if Syria will normalize relations, but that Asad was too inflexible or too paranoid to accept. Syrian expert Patrick Seale has concluded (Journal of Palestine Studies, Winter Issue, 2000) that the “Rabin deposit” was a hypocritical ploy in the ongoing Israeli strategy of simultaneously blunting Syrian and Palestinian demands by playing those two parties off against each other. For this writer, Asad’s inherent pragmatism, the Golan’s crucial value to Israel, and the risks of alienating Washington that Israel ran during the occupation of the territory in 1967 all add up to persuasive corroboration of the Seale thesis.
Three Arab rulers of recent memory suffered crushing defeat at the hands of the Israeli-American combine. Saddam brought his 1991 defeat on himself. Nasir’s convoluted strategy — still inexplicable to many — led to his defeat in 1967.
Asad’s war record stands up to examination somewhat better. In 1967, as a young and inexperienced minister of defense, be was unable to stem the tide of Israeli expansion. In 1970, he was quick to recognize that sending Syrian ground troops into Jordan in an effort to prevent King Husayn from expelling the forces of the PLO was a mistake. He had the sense to withhold the vulnerable Syrian air force and to withdraw the ground troops as soon as Sixth Fleet units headed for the eastern Mediterranean and Israel began to mobilize.
Thirteen years later, Asad turned the tables. In orchestrating an agreement on May 17, 1983, designed to salvage Israeli supremacy in Lebanon, Secretary of State George Shultz made the error of trying to shut the Syrians out. Within months Lebanon repudiated the agreement and Syria went on to establish the dominant position in Lebanon it maintains today.
Staying in power
The fall of the Shukri Quwwatli presidency in 1949 was followed by a rapid succession of military coups in which the ranking military officers, all members of the preponderant Sunni sect of Islam, knocked each other out of power, with an unexpected result — the takeover of the lowly Alawites, a quasi-Muslim sect. The precipitating event was the Baathist takeover of February 1963 in Baghdad. One month later, inspirited by the success of their Iraqi confederates, an Alawite triumvirate participated in an Arab-Nationalist takeover in Damascus. By February 1966, the Nasirist faction and one member of the triumvirate had been eliminated and Asad had emerged as a cabinet minister under the rule of the other surviving triumvir, Salah Jadid.
In time Asad, the pragmatist, clashed with Jadid, the ideologue, and on November 12, 1970, Jadid disappeared into a Syrian prison. Asad went on to rule with an iron hand for thirty years. This clearly was a noteworthy achievement for a member of a disdained community that numbers only ten percent of the population in a country that had experienced some twelve violent changes of leadership since the French were forced out in 1945.
This stormy postwar history of Syria goes far to explain the hurried effort to effect the transition from Hafiz to his son Bashar before rival contenders could frustrate the enterprise. Hafez’s brother Rif’at, a potential claimant to power, seems to have been neutralized by years of exile. Sunni fundamentalists were weakened by the 1982 Hamah massacre. The Alawite leadership has always preserved the appearance, and perhaps the fact, of sectarian concert by reserving high government positions for Sunnis, but some of Hafiz’s longtime Sunni confederates were lately ousted on charges of corruption.
So Asad’s succession has been arranged. But the political future of Syria without its leader of three decades is no more predictable than the political futures of its neighbors Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Jordan, Palestine — and Israel.