In Bashar Assad’s Syria, a Growing Passion for War

August 23, 2006

The rise of President Bashar Assad to power in Syria in 2000, which coincided with the collapse of the peace process and the rise of Ariel Sharon as Israeli prime minister, signaled a gradual return to Syrian policies of confrontation with the international community and Israel.

The reasons for this are numerous and are not all related to the internal makeup of the Syrian regime. Nevertheless, that issue does figure highly and should not be dismissed, lest this impede judgment regarding the current Syrian role in the region. Indeed, the minority character of the Syrian regime and its consolidation around the private interests of two particular families, the Assad-Makhlouf clan, have served from the very beginning to undercut the potential for serious reform in the country.

The insistence on keeping things in the family and transferring power from father to son, all consideration of republican norms notwithstanding, has served to establish severe limits on the ability of Bashar Assad. But then, ever since his election, or selection, Assad has not missed an opportunity to show that he is a true believer in the system and in the mandate and mission assigned to him.

This is why he turned against all dissidents and reformers in early 2001, wholeheartedly embraced the Al-Aqsa intifada, allowed people like Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal to roam freely in Syria and transformed the relationship with Hizbullah from that of master-client to a strategic alliance. Moreover, Assad never turned his back on the possibility of getting himself embroiled in regional mayhem and controversy. As was the case with his father, the legitimacy that could not be received from domestic successes and reforms now needed to be derived from external sources, namely from a continuing focus of energies and attention on the Arab-Israel conflict.

This explains why the president went overboard in his criticism of the United States-led invasion of Iraq and lent so much support to the Iraqi “resistance,” inviting other Arab states to follow his lead. This also explains his continuing willingness to support radical Palestinian groups and Hizbullah. Indeed, the more pressures the new president and the ruling family have felt, the more radical their stands and policies have become. The point of no return came with the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a development that put the entire ruling family in the line of suspects.

After that, there was no end to how radical the Assad regime was willing to become. It was now facing an existential threat par excellence. The rise of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his subsequent visit to Syria on January 19 this year gave both regimes the opportunity to consolidate their alliance and to extend it to formally include Hizbullah and the radical wing of Hamas. A decision seems to have been made to escalate matters further in Gaza and the Shebaa Farms in the hope of diverting international attention from the Syrian and Iranian regimes and bringing about an acceptance of the status quo they represented, even as they consolidated their grip on power.

While current developments seem more than what Syria, Iran, Hizbullah and Hamas bargained for, they are also heaven-sent, hence the parties’ increased vociferousness, belligerence and confidence.

Indeed, as the recent declaration made by Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem during his brief visit to Lebanon indicated, the prospect of a wider regional war is something these regimes actually welcome. For the strong showing that Hizbullah has made, the destruction of Lebanese infrastructure notwithstanding, is encouragement enough for these regimes, with their minds and hearts still stuck in the 1980s, to revive the old dream of defeating Israel militarily through involvement in a war of attrition and thus achieving military glory that will boost their credentials both at home and abroad. With the US caught in the Iraqi quagmire and its power seemingly neutralized as a result, this prospect might appear more and more tempting with each passing day.

In fact, the Assads seem to be preparing for this eventuality. They have already called up large reserve cohorts that are busy digging trenches all around the country, and they are currently preparing public opinion for this possibility and cultivating their support thereof. Thus, calls to reopen the Golan front are routinely reiterated during the Friday sermons, and communist and nationalist groups have recently joined the chorus.

So, even if the US and Israel seem uninterested in bringing about such a conflagration, their desires and interests are not the only factors that matter here. There is indeed another side involved, a full-fledged alliance in fact, whose leaders seem to think that war, regardless of its potentially high cost in human and material terms, will serve their interests. The more troubles Israel has in Lebanon and the US in Iraq, the more convinced these leaders will be of the “wisdom” and necessity of war.