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Bashar Assad: The Syrian sphinx


When Syria’s young president, Bashar Assad, contemplates the forces ranged against him, he may recall that his father faced greater odds and won.

Bashar was only 16 in 1982, when an uprising by Islamic fundamentalists and an Israeli invasion of Lebanon threatened the survival of the regime. The Muslim Brotherhood seized control of the northern city of Hama that spring. A few months later, Israel decimated Assad’s army in Lebanon and destroyed his air force. Moreover, Israel appointed its client, Bashir Gemayel, as Lebanon’s president to undertake further actions against Syria. Assad’s health nearly gave out.

A year later, while he languished in hospital with a weak heart, his younger and pugnacious brother Rifaat put his own troops onto the streets of Damascus to stake a claim to the crown. Hafez Assad, whose enigmatic style led his biographer Patrick Seale to dub him the “sphinx of Damascus”, did the only thing a survivor could do: he waited.

His son faces another impressive array of enemies. The Lebanese are growing restless. Most of them blame him for the murder of their popular former prime minister, Rafik Hariri, on Monday. The United States, while not blaming Syria directly for the assassination, has recalled its ambassador, Margaret Scobey.

The US Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, made it clear Ambassador Scobey will not be returning soon. “The proximate cause was Lebanon,” Ms Rice told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, “but unfortunately we have an increasing list of problems with Syria.”

The United Nations weighed in against Syria with Security Council Resolution 1559 that requires the full withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon. Israel, which bombed Syria in 2003, has hinted it will destroy the weapons of mass destruction it accuses Syria of possessing. Both America and Israel say that Bashar Assad sponsors terrorism. There are reports that the US has already sent clandestine teams into Syria to undertake “battlefield preparation”.

In the north of Syria, the Kurdish minority has rioted and demanded more rights – a move Syria believes was inspired by pro-American Kurds from Iraq. Car bombs have gone off in Damascus. Prominent members of the Bush administration warn of regime change in Damascus as they once did in Baghdad.

Assad’s father, who had taken power in a bloodless coup in 1970, it turned out, had cards to play. He armed all the Lebanese militias who resisted the Israeli occupation and the American-led Multinational Peacekeeping Force. With Iran, he helped to create the Shia Muslim Hizbollah. Hizbollah, combining guerrilla war with suicide bombing and the kidnapping of foreigners, drove first the US and then Israel out of the country. Within two years, the Lebanese president whom the US and Israel swore to defend was on his knees begging forgiveness. Syria has named every Lebanese president since.

When America needed credible Arab cover for its war to take Kuwait back from Iraq in 1991, it went to Syria. Just as Henry Kissinger had asked Syria to intervene in Lebanon the first time in 1976, his successor, James Baker, negotiated with Hafez Assad to grant Syria a free hand to occupy the Christian eastern half of Beirut and put an end to the civil war in 1991. By then, Assad was back on top.

As a student living at home with his older sister and three brothers, Bashar Assad watched his father slowly recover his health and his position. The family’s life was notoriously simple. Patrick Seale told the story in his excellent biography of Assad that the builders who arrived each morning in 1973 to put an air-raid shelter in the basement ended up having coffee with the president and watching his wife bring the family laundry to the washing machine. Seale wrote: “He was more interested in power than its trappings.”

This did not mean Assad senior lacked ruthlessness. While Saddam was as brutal as he could possibly be, Assad was as brutal as he had to be to stay in power. Political prisoners suffered torture and long incarcerations, but their families and tribes were not punished. He assassinated leaders in Lebanon, as did Israel. He did not move entire peoples from one part of the country to the other, and he never used poison gases on adversaries.

Hafez Assad’s death in June 2000 left a young man with little experience to govern a country of 17 million in the world’s most volatile region. Nothing had prepared the young man for power. Had it not been for the unexpected death of his older brother, Basil, in a car crash in 1994, he would be practising medicine in Damascus today. He had taken his degree with a specialisation in ophthalmology at Damascus University and did further studies in London. When his brother died, he returned to Syria to work as an army doctor. He “rose” to become a colonel. His father’s old guard ensured Bashar’s accession to avoid a contest for power which all of them might lose.

Most Syrians believed the young man, a technocrat who headed Damascus’s computer society, would make a clean sweep of the old guard and institute reforms. He made gestures, legalising the country’s first private newspaper in 50 years, and arresting a former chief of intelligence, Mahmoud Zohby, for corruption. Mobile phones and the internet were legalised. Assad’s marriage to a young Syrian Sunni woman, Aniseh al-Akhras, from London, spoke of widening the family’s base within the country and opening it to Europe. Civil society groups calling for reform sprang up, and members were not arrested. Then, as suddenly as the reforms began, they stopped.

Washington’s neoconservatives were sharpening their knives for Syria long before they assumed office courtesy of George Bush. Many of them had already been advisers to Binyamin Netanyahu during his brief tenure as prime minister of Israel. “Israel can shape its strategic environment… by weakening, containing and even rolling back Syria,” the American advisers, including Douglas Feith and Richard Perle, counselled Israel in 1996. “This effort can focus on removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq – an important Israeli strategic objective in its own right – as a means of foiling Syria’s regional ambitions.”

When Bush was elected in 2000, a group guided by, among others, Paul Wolfowitz, prime architect of the Iraq invasion, prepared a similar paper for America entitled: “Navigating through Turbulence: American and the Middle East in a New Century.” It noted: “Maintaining a strong alliance with Israel [has not] prevented every state on Israel’s border, except Syria, from accepting America as their principal source of military aid and material.” Syria was clearly, as Iraq had been, a Bush administration target no matter what its government did. The reason in both cases had as much, if not more, to do with Israeli policy than American interests.

The United States has said it is not contemplating military action against Syria “at this time”. “When the leaders curse war,” Bertolt Brecht wrote, “the mobilisation order is already written out.” If the time comes, will the regime survive? Syrian democrats have called on Bashar Assad to grant the people democratic freedoms so that they can band together and oppose American designs in Syria. Without their rights, they fear, no one will do anything to support the regime. If Syria is destabilised, Lebanon could revert to its familiar role as battleground for competing regional interests. If Syria becomes a mirror image of “liberated” Iraq, each community will fight for its survival and most of them will resist the occupiers.

What options remain open to Bashar Assad? Emulating his father’s sphinx-like demeanour, he gives little away in public. Behind the scenes, he appears to be drawing closer to those he trusts, that is, people within his Alawite community and family. His reported appointment of his wife’s brother, Brigadier General Asef Shawkat, as head of military intelligence is one sign that the regime is unlikely to open up while it is under severe pressure.

He has also entered a mutual security pact with America’s other prime target, Iran, though it may not mean much in the way of military support. He may, as his father did in Lebanon, offer clandestine support to groups in Iraq who oppose the American occupation. He may give in and recall his army from Lebanon. Syrian troop strength there has already been reduced from 40,000 10 years ago to an estimated 14,000 today. In Lebanon, he can still count on the support of the two main Shia parties, Amal and Hizbollah, who represent the country’s largest community.

Lebanon’s Christians once paid a high price for relying on the US. They cannot easily forget that while America may sail away again as it did in 1984, Syria will always be next door.

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