Op-Ed

Assad’s Death Leaves Arab Leadership Vacuum

Shibley Telhami

At the end of May 1990, I sat in Damascus watching live television coverage of Saddam Hussein’s biggest moment of glory in the Arab world: A well-orchestrated Arab summit conference in Baghdad that gathered most Arab leaders, including the king of Saudi Arabia, the emir of Kuwait and the president of Egypt.

It was as much a celebration of Iraq’s “victory” over Iran as it was about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. It was, in effect, a crowning ceremony for Mr. Hussein. Notably absent was Syrian President Hafez el Assad, who, having supported Iran in its eight-year war with Iraq, also watched the summit on television from Damascus. By the time I arrived in Baghdad a few days later, Mr. Assad, who was already concerned about losing the support of his Soviet patron with the end of the Cold War, seemed to be the loser to Mr. Hussein in the competition to carry the mantle of Arab nationalism.

It took two months for Mr. Assad’s colleagues in the Arab world, except for King Hussein of Jordan and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, to realize that it was they who had placed losing bets when Iraqi troops suddenly overwhelmed Kuwait.

Within days, diplomats knocked on Mr. Assad’s door as it became abundantly clear that he was the standard bearer of Arab nationalism. Only he could bestow the kind of legitimacy to the U.S.-led coalition against Iraq and prevent Mr. Hussein from playing his biggest card in rallying Arab public opinion. Mr. Assad’s death last week leaves no obvious reference point for Arab nationalists.

Ever since the greatest pan-Arab leader of the 20th century, Gamal Abdal Nasser, died in 1970, the Arab nationalist movement has looked for a new leader. Anwar Sadat, who succeeded Nasser as president of Egypt, had his chance after his relatively successful war with Israel in 1973 but chose to focus on the immediate interests of his own country by signing his own peace with Israel in 1979.

Three leaders aspired to inherit Nasser’s legacy: Mr. Hussein, Mr. Assad and Muammar Kadafi of Libya.

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Although Colonel Kadafi’s ambition was unbounded—he used to say in seeking unification with Egypt that he was “a leader without a country and Egypt was a country without a leader”—he had too small a state and was too unpredictable to have a real chance.

The field was left open for Mr. Assad and Mr. Hussein, two members of competing branches of the pan-Arab Baath party. Their contrasting styles tell much about the tides of Arab nationalism in the past 30 years and even more about its leaderless state today.

Strengths and weaknesses

Mr. Hussein had the upper hand. He was a leader of a large industrious country that was benefiting from the 1970s oil boom, situated on the edge of one of the strategically most important regions in the world: the Persian Gulf. And just when the Arab nationalist movement was looking for a new champion after the Camp David accords, Iraq found itself with the upper hand in the Persian Gulf when the 1979 Iranian revolution weakened Iran and made it an enemy of the United States.

But Mr. Hussein’s weakness was Mr. Assad’s strength. Whereas Hussein rarely understood the limitation of power, Mr. Assad was a master of reading his limitations—and the limitations of his enemies. What many saw as his extraordinary patience was in large part a product of his grasp of the limitations of power.

Mr. Hussein knew he had the edge over Mr. Assad in 1980. He wielded a powerful army and large financial reserves. Rather than exercise this power in a patient and subtle manner, he sent his forces into a weakened Iran in an all-out invasion. Had he succeeded in defeating Iran quickly, as he had expected, he would have emerged as the undisputed king of the Persian-Arab Gulf—and of its oil. His leadership of the Arab world would have been unquestioned. The dream was too irresistible.

But the war ended with a hollow victory. After eight years of intense fighting in which there was a million casualties, and after wasting all of its financial reserves and those of its neighbors, Iraq stood near bankruptcy, having achieved neither territorial gains nor change within Iran. But the appearance of victory, and the amassing of weapons were enough for Mr. Hussein to attempt another disastrous adventure.

In contrast, Mr. Assad bid for time. Knowing his weakness vis-a-vis Israel, he sought closer ties with the Soviet Union in his drive to achieve “strategic parity.”

Despite his determination to regain the Golan Heights, which he lost to Israel in the 1967 war, he kept his border with Israel quiet. He opposed Iraq’s invasion of Iran, becoming the only Arab leader to support Iran. When Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 to push out the Palestine Liberation Organization, he refused to be drawn into a war with Israel, even though the episode embarrassed him.

This understanding of the limitations of power propelled him to the presidency. As chief of the armed forces in 1970, he watched his president order tanks into Jordan to help the Palestinians in their battle with King Hussein. Knowing that Israel or the U.S. could intervene against Syria, Mr. Assad refused to send his air force into action. Within months, he took over in a palace overthrow.

But he also understood the limitations of power of his enemies, which translated into extraordinary patience.

In 1973, he joined Egypt in a war against Israel without having much chance of winning. His aim was to make Israel feel enough pain to make the status quo uncomfortable. In Lebanon, he left Israel to hemorrhage for 22 years, after which it retreated in the face of the Lebanese militia. He watched Mr. Hussein overextend his power in Kuwait to the point of disaster.

By the time Mr. Assad entered into negotiations with Israel, even Arab members of Israel’s Knesset looked upon him as the leader of Arab nationalism, descending upon him in Damascus for consultation and betting that pictures with him would help their electoral prospects at home.

Public relations important

If Mr. Assad’s strength was his understanding of the use and the limitations of military power, his weakness was his underestimation of the power of diplomacy.

When diplomacy fell short of peace with Israel, it was this failing that may have been the culprit.

No one could fault him for insisting that any peace deal had to include the return of all of Syria’s occupied territories. But he rarely understood the importance of public relations in the American and Israeli democracies.

When his foreign minister, Farouk el-Sharaa, refused to shake hands with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak during the U.S.-hosted negotiations last year, Mr. Assad believed that he was refusing to allow Israel to score points in Arab public opinion by seeming to be warmly accepted by the last defender of Arab nationalism.

What he did not understand is that what he could have gained in Israeli public opinion would have helped him extract more concessions from Mr. Barak.

In the end, Mr. Assad made one final diplomatic blunder that diminished the value of what could have been a most glorious moment: The unconditional retreat of Israeli forces from Lebanon.

His patient and skillful handling of 22 years of Israeli entanglement in that country seemed to finally pay off—sending a clear message about the limitation of Israel’s own power. But on the eve of Israel’s withdrawal, Syria behaved as though it feared that Israel’s unilateral pullout would undermine its own leverage in negotiating with Israel, and found itself warning against it. When the withdrawal finally took place, Syria’s claims to victory had been substantially tarnished.

The vacuum that Mr. Assad left is not only in Syria, where, with an iron fist, he brought more stability than any other leader in centuries, but also economic stagnation.

His son, Bashar, may fill his father’s shoes and lead Syria to better times. But the Arab nationalist movement is now leaderless.

Although Arab nationalism was never the same after the death of Nasser, its adherents continued to oppose the existing order in the region and look for reference points for guidance.

In the past decade, this reference point was Mr. Assad. Today, there is none.

Shibley Telhami holds the Anwar Sadat Chair for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland.