What is Syrian President Bashar Assad up to?

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
Oct. 9 2007 7:43 AM

Bashar the Gambler

Why is Syria taking so many strategic and political risks?

Syrian President Bashar Assad. Click image to expand.
Syrian President Bashar Assad

The whispered reports of the Sept. 6 Israeli raid on a Syrian nuclear cache are as disturbing as they are incomplete. Although verifying the extent, if any, of Syria's nuclear ambitions is difficult, such a risky move by Syria does fit our emerging picture of Bashar Assad, the nation's leader. Unlike his father and predecessor, Hafez, Bashar is a gambler. And he is rolling the dice in Iraq, in Lebanon, with Israel, and most dangerously at home in Syria.

Hopes were high when Bashar came to power in 2000. For decades, his father had ruled Syria with an iron hand, crushing any opposition and avoiding close ties to the West. Islamists in particular suffered, and the regime killed 20,000 (or perhaps far more) of its own citizens when the Muslim Brotherhood rebelled in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Bashar, however, had trained in ophthalmology in London and talked of openness and economic revival. Yet the Damascus spring quickly turned to winter: Like his father, Bashar suppressed dissent and did not embrace the West.

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One area where the two differ, however, is in their willingness to take risks. Assad père was one of the most cautious leaders in the entire Middle East. Alone among the Syrian leadership, Hafez opposed Syria's invasion of Jordan in September 1970, believing it was too chancy. Similarly, he did not move against his brother Rifaat despite the urging of his advisers to do so, waiting until Rifaat tried to seize control of the government in 1984 to defang him by stripping him of his command of parts of the country's security forces and effectively exiling him. After the Soviet Union collapsed, Hafez Assad sided with the United States when it came to Kuwait's defense in 1990, and he later engaged in U.S.-sponsored peace talks with Israel. In both those cases, his embrace was cautious, and despite negotiations that came down literally to differences over meters of territory, he refused to take the final step.

Assad fils, however, is far more aggressive, even putting aside the reported nuclear gambit. In the early months of the U.S. occupation, the Syrian regime turned a blind eye when jihadists, Iraqi nationalists, and former officials in Saddam's regime used Syrian territory as one of their bases for stoking an insurgency in Iraq. In Lebanon, Syria has been even more belligerent, working with its allies there to paralyze the government that came to power after the Cedar Revolution and probably committing a series of assassinations of senior political leaders in order to sow fear and chaos.

Despite these provocations, Bashar is not an ideologue bent on defying the United States. Indeed, he has also reached out a hand even as he has tried to squeeze the United States out of his neighborhood—a tactic often likened to playing both arsonist and fireman. After 9/11, Damascus cooperated with the United States in going after jihadists, and Syria recently announced changes to its constitution that allow the recognition of Israel.

So, Assad's message in escalating these crisis areas is strategic and political, not ideological. Syria, he makes clear, cannot be isolated or ignored. In Lebanon, he seeks to regain Syria's once-dominant position, or at least to ensure that Syria's many interests there are secure. In Iraq, stirring the pot has bolstered his nationalist credentials and softened (or diverted) jihadist ire, while also dulling any further appetite in Washington for regime change.

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