What is Syrian President Bashar Assad up to?

Daniel L. Byman
Daniel L. Byman
Daniel L. Byman Director and Professor, Security Studies Program - Georgetown University, Senior Fellow - Foreign Policy, Center for Middle East Policy

October 9, 2007

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.

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.

Ironically, Assad is rolling the dice because he is weak. Bashar lacks the years of credibility and fear that his father built up. Syria’s economy limps along, and the country is further than ever from recovering the Golan Heights. After international pressure abruptly pushed Syria out of Lebanon in 2005, his standing among nationalists fell. And while Assad is not an ideologue, he needs ideology to legitimize his rule. Going against Arab nationalism or moving away from the exceptionally popular Lebanese Hezbollah would damage his credentials.

Yet while he is weaker than his father, his regime is not tottering, making it difficult to threaten further sanctions or employ the other small sticks Washington still has at its disposal. Bashar has managed the aftermath of being kicked out of Lebanon well and has tightened his circle of advisers to weed out potential disloyalty. The political impasse in Lebanon today lets his supporters know that Syria remains a power to be reckoned with. Similarly, the lack of progress of the U.N. investigation into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri (widely believed to be at Syrian hands) removes another threat to the regime. Perhaps most important, opposition to Assad is still fractured.

Syria is strong enough to be a spoiler but too weak to be a healer. Its unwillingness to police its border with Iraq has made it easier for jihadists to travel to Iraq and allowed some leaders of secular insurgent groups to enjoy a de facto sanctuary within Syria, but the insurgency is strong enough that even full cooperation from Damascus would not fundamentally change the equation. In Lebanon, Hezbollah’s power and influence have only expanded since Syria’s departure, and it lends its credibility and ground strength to Assad’s ambitions there. The expectation of the peace talks of the 1990s—that satisfying Syrian aspirations regarding the Golan Heights would lead Syria to bridle Hezbollah—no longer holds, since Syria lacks the strength to rein in Hezbollah. None of this is to suggest that it is not worth trying to gain Syrian cooperation, but we must recognize that even in the unlikely event of successful diplomacy, Syria’s contribution will be limited.

While American eyes focus on Iraq, Israel, and Lebanon, Assad’s biggest gambles are at home. By defying the United States and other Western powers, needed foreign investment will remain scarce. Syria has also proved open to Iraqi refugees, with the United Nations reporting that Syria is hosting approximately 1.5 million of them, with more than a thousand more arriving every day. These refugees may arm and mobilize as the war in Iraq drags on. Indeed, in allowing relatively free transit from Iraq, parts of Syria near the Iraq border are not completely under the regime’s thumb, providing far more space for potential opponents, particularly jihadists, to organize. Bashar has tried to embrace and co-opt Islamists, moving away from his father’s emphasis on repression alone, but many Islamists, and all jihadists, see the secular and Alawite regime Assad leads as heretical and little better than the Zionist regime next door. They may tolerate Assad when they have other enemies to strike, but they will remain potential adversaries, and some will exploit the political space he has opened.

One lesson of Iraq is that massive instability is dangerous for U.S. interests, even when it occurs in the territory of an adversarial regime. Bashar’s government is brutal and hostile, but the spread of civil strife there would not only create more suffering, it could strengthen jihadists and spread to U.S. allies. The irony would be painful indeed if Assad’s confrontational anti-U.S. policies destabilized his own regime to the detriment of both.