Syria’s Wobbly Godfather Jr.

Flynt L. Leverett
Flynt L. Leverett Senior Fellow, The Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Brookings

October 30, 2005

The recently released United Nations report on the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri reads, at least in places, like a script for a new installment of “The Godfather.” In one passage, the second-generation head of Syria’s ruling family, President Bashar Assad, is depicted barking orders to Hariri; in another, key Assad family lieutenants, including the president’s brother-in-law and younger brother, allegedly order Hariri’s murder in a meeting with Lebanese security chiefs.

One can easily draw out the analogy between the Assads and the Corleones. Bashar’s father, Hafez Assad, takes the role of the Sicilian patriarch, Vito Corleone. Hafez’s first son, Basil, a charismatic figure who died in 1994 when he crashed his speeding BMW on the road to Damascus International Airport, stands in for Santino Corleone, the Don’s oldest son who also was killed through his own impetuousness. From this perspective, the great unknown in Syrian politics today is which Corleone son has taken over the Syria’s ruling family. Is Bashar, with his medical degree and soft-spoken talk about reform, like Michael Corleone, who aspired to take the family business “completely legitimate” but failed? Alternatively, is Bashar more like the hapless Fredo, simply not up to the job of national leader? Or, is he a synthesis of the worst qualities of the two, a kind of evil idiot who combines ruthlessness with incompetence?

In looking at Bashar’s tenure in office, it is important to remember that he is still relatively young, not only as a man (he turned 40 last month), but as a Middle Eastern leader. Bashar has been president of Syria for a little more than five years—a fraction of the 30-year tenure of his father. In the United States, an elected president who has been in office for five years is facing lame duck status; in the Middle East, a national leader in office for five years is just beginning to be taken seriously because he hasn’t been shot.

But just as Bashar might have expected to settle into life as a middle-aged autocrat, the U.N. International Independent Investigation Commission under Detlev Mehlis has come along and ripped open the lid on his regime and revealed just how seemly it is. And in doing so, the commission’s report has helped bring the long, strange relationship between the Assads and the United States to a crisis point.

It would be easy to write off Bashar anyway because he’s a pale imitation of his father, but his father achieved the personal authority he enjoyed in the last half of his rule only by first surmounting a series of defining challenges. In consolidating his political position during the 1970s, he turned Syria from a coup-ridden, volatile polity into a case study of authoritarian stability. He intervened in the Lebanese civil war in the late 1970s, establishing Syrian hegemony there, then defended that status in the early 1980s against military challenges from Israel and the United States. In 1982, the old man put down a Sunni fundamentalist insurgency—in the process killing between 10,000 and 20,000 people—and a year later fended off a bid by his own brother to take his job. The name “Assad” means lion in Arabic, and after all that, Hafez Assad was truly the lion of Damascus, but not before then.

For all of the upheavals of the last five years in the Middle East, Bashar has yet to negotiate anything like these challenges. Lacking his father’s authority, he has had to share power with others to a greater extent than his father ever did. The most powerful men in Syria today, besides Bashar, are Asef Shawkat, the president’s brother-in-law and head of military intelligence, and Maher Assad, the president’s younger brother and effective commander of the Republican Guard—the best equipped part of the Syrian military, with primary responsibility for regime protection.

These two have been implicated in Hariri’s assassination, and thanks to an alleged computer glitch, their names were briefly published online even though they were deleted from the Mehlis report in the final round of editing. It remains an open question whether Bashar ordered Shawkat and Maher to carry out Hariri’s assassination, or whether they overreacted to the president and his dislike of the Lebanese prime minister like modern-day versions of Henry II’s henchmen who followed through on the king’s plea, “Who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?”

If the U.N. and the Western powers insist that Syria turn over these two to an international judicial process to answer charges over Hariri’s murder, Bashar will face a difficult, but intriguing moment of truth because Shawkat and Maher are both crutches and rivals to him. On the one hand, as long as they’re both working with Bashar, it would be difficult for anyone else in the country’s power structure to mount a successful coup, which makes them useful to the president for now.

But Shawkat and Maher may have ambitions of their own. Shawkat’s wife, Bashar’s older sister Bushra, is by all accounts the most politically astute and ambitious of the Assad children, but because of her sex, she must pursue politics through her husband. Shawkat himself is no shrinking violet; he eloped with Bushra over her family’s objections when Hafez Assad was at the height of his powers. Bashar’s younger brother Maher has been described by an astute Western diplomat who knows him as a brutal and primitive man, possessing “all of Basil’s appetites but none of his qualities.” Maybe, just maybe, Bashar will treat the U.N. investigation as a chance to get rid of one or both of his most potent long-term rivals, and be the only man left standing at the end of the day.

This moment of truth comes amid a dramatic deterioration in U.S.-Syrian relations. For at least 25 years, Syria has displayed all the characteristics of so-called “rogue states” in the Middle East, such as Iraq under Saddam Hussein or the Islamic Republic of Iran, including state sponsorship of terrorism and pursuit of weapons of mass destruction capabilities.

But, until recently, American administrations have stopped short of treating Syria as a full-fledged rogue. Washington has consistently maintained diplomatic relations with Damascus, and never imposed comprehensive economic sanctions. The first Bush administration recruited Syria to the 1991 Gulf War coalition. Later, because of the Clinton administration’s focus on Arab-Israeli peacemaking, including an active Syria track, Secretary of State Warren Christopher made more then 20 visits to Damascus, giving the Syrian regime a measure of political cover for its less-than-savory policies.

All of this has changed over the last five years. The Syria-Israel peace track collapsed in the spring of 2000. With the outbreak of the second Palestinian intifada later that year and the election of Ariel Sharon as Israel’s prime minister in early 2001, those negotiations were put on indefinite hold. The election of George W. Bush also altered U.S. policy toward the Middle East. Particularly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, it became clear that this was not his father’s Bush administration. In the context of a U.S.-led global war on terror, Syria’s status as a state sponsor of terrorism pursuing WMD capabilities became riskier.

In the aftermath of 9/11, Syria provided the United States with actionable intelligence on al Qaeda affiliates, as administration officials publicly acknowledge. While I was serving on the National Security Council, this information let U.S. and allied authorities thwart planned operations that, had they been carried out, would have resulted in the deaths of Americans.

Nonetheless, neoconservative theology prevented the Bush administration from using carrots and sticks to transform tactical cooperation with Syria against al Qaeda into a broader rapprochement. Some influential neoconservative administration members scorned past relations with Mideast autocrats. They argued that strategic accommodation, exchanging better relations for policy shifts in Damascus, would effectively reward Syria’s support for terrorism. Following the Iraq war, with U.S. troops at Syria’s doorstep, relations plummeted further over Syria’s unwillingness, absent a broader strategic understanding with Washington, to stem the flow of people and supplies into Iraq in support of insurgent activity there.

Throughout this period, Bashar Assad has been climbing a slow learning curve as diplomat and strategist. He has been forced by changing circumstances to adapt the foreign policy script he inherited from his father—with some dismal results. His overly aggressive handling of the Lebanon “file,” documented in the U.N. report, alienated French President Jacques Chirac and set the stage for the passage of Security Council Resolution 1559 in 2004, which mandated the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon. The draft resolution that the Security Council is debating, threatening sanctions if Syria does not cooperate with the U.N. investigation, is endorsed by the Bush administration—but it is sponsored by France.

Yet it remains unclear what outcome France, Britain and the United States are ultimately seeking. If the international community imposes sanctions on Syria, the regime may be able to hunker down like Saddam did in the 1990s, an unsatisfactory outcome for the West as well as for the Syrian people. If, on the other hand, the regime implodes, that could pose even greater dangers. Ethnic and sectarian violence could feed into and off of instability in Iraq while an anti-American, heavily Islamist leadership could fill the political vacuum in Damascus. Even if Bashar did order Hariri’s killing, do we want to treat him like a Milosevic-type criminal figure? Or do we want to offer him a way out as an inducement for Syria’s strategic realignment, much as we made a deal with Libya’s Moammar Gaddafi, whose regime killed not 22 people, but 270 people (mostly Americans) in the bombing of Pan Am 103?

It may be tempting to see Bashar as a Macbeth-like figure, driven to paralysis by his victim’s ghost and doomed. But policymakers are not just passive members of the audience in this drama. On the real world’s stage, they share responsibility for what happens next, regardless of Bashar’s fate.