Asad's Art of the Double Game
by Daniel Pipes
Translations of this item:
This text was completed in May 1996 but not published until three years later in Modern Syria: From Ottoman Rule to Pivotal Role in the Middle East, ed. by Moshe Ma'oz, Joseph Ginat, and Onn Winckler. Brighton, Eng.: Sussex Academic, 1999, pp. 272-92
What's going on with Syria? Is Hafiz al-Asad making peace with Israel or not? Is he ending his totalitarian rule or not? What are his goals?
The controversy surrounding these questions points to what is perhaps the Asad regime's most characteristic feature: an unwillingness to take a stand. Instead, it prefers to juggle several policies at the same time—what I shall call the art of the double game. This involves taking two contrary steps or pursuing two contrary policies, usually at the same time, sometimes sequentially.
In the domestic arena, the double game explains the Syrian regime's restricting to a small number of mainly 'Alawi military officers but making elaborate efforts to convince the population otherwise; and its attempt to both maintain state capitalism and encourage entrepreneurship. Our concern here, however, is with foreign affairs, where the double game helps explains the elusiveness and successes of Syrian policy. We begin with a look at Syrian relations with several Middle Eastern actors, then focus on relations with Israel.
1. Friendship and Enmity
In many of his Middle Eastern diplomatic relationships, Asad simultaneously maintains good and bad relations with other governments. In the case of Iraq, he works both with the Iraqi opposition groups intent on deposing Saddam Husayn (Kurdish and Shi'ite ones in particular) and also with the Arab Liberation Front, a Baghdad-sponsored Palestinian group. In the case of Iran, Asad cooperates with the Mullahs where it suits him (supporting Hizbullah in Lebanon, the Palestinian rejectionist groups, Iraqi territorial integrity) and works against them where it does not (supporting Saudi and Egyptian leaders). In the case of Jordan, the two governments outwardly get along; but when King Husayn takes steps inimical to Asad, the latter often makes life unbearable (for example, he unleashed a campaign of terrorist incidents in 1985).
With Yasir 'Arafat, a politician who plays the double game almost as expertly as Asad himself, things get especially complex. 'Arafat and Asad are not profound enemies, for they are neither attached to contrary political philosophies nor bound to permanently opposed interests. Rather, they come from similar political origins and share many assumptions, personal qualities, enemies, and aspirations. As tacticians, they conflict one moment and cooperate another. To be sure, they dislike each other intensely and their rivalry has a murderous edge—but what else can one expect from men of their temperament and accomplishments? Asad has killed tens of thousands of his own people; why not PLO members too? They resemble two Mafia dons who murder each other's men but also drink together at festivals and cooperate against outsiders. When two masters of the double game play together, the results are quadrupled.
As for Lebanon, General Michel 'Awn characterizes the Syrians' role there like that of "a pyromaniac firefighter":[i] they instigate a problem—smuggling, drug trafficking, skirmishes between the sects, attacks on Israel—then rush in with a solution that serves their interests.
Perhaps the most evident example of this pattern concerns the actions of Hizbullah. To begin with, the Syrian leaders create the illusion that they do not control this ostensibly independent Lebanese fundamentalist Muslim group, whereas in reality it depends on them for its very existence. Hizbullah not only receives Syrian funding, equipment, logistics, and information, but Damascus must approve all Iranian aid. The illusion works, for governments around the world treat Hizbullah as though it were an autonomous organization.
Asad has used Hizbullah to play a series of double games with Israel:
2. Keeping and Breaking Promises
"We always mean what we say and we fulfill our promises."[vi] That's what Asad says, but you don't have to take his word; the Syrian strongman has such a good reputation for keeping his promises that even his Israeli adversaries acknowledge his probity. Ehud Barak finds that Asad has consistently lived up to his word.[vii] A head of Israeli military intelligence, Uri Saguy, asserted that "if and when he signs an agreement, [Asad] will keep his word."[viii] Yitzhak Rabin flatly declared that "the Syrians keep their commitments."[ix] Shimon Peres concurred: "with the Syrians it is very hard to reach an agreement but the agreement will stand."[x] Abba Eban reached the same conclusion and the press also agrees: Israeli columnist Yoel Marcus writes that "an accord with Asad is enshrined in concrete and steel," while The New York Times opines that his regime "has compiled a record of abiding by agreements it does sign."[xi]
But focusing only on the 1974 agreement ignores the many agreements Asad has broken with several governments, including those of Israel, Lebanon, and Turkey. And a close look at the 1974 agreement reveals some breaches there too. Let's look at the particulars of this and six other cases.
a. Agreements to leave Lebanon. On three occasions, the Syrian authorities concurred with decisions made by other bodies that Syrian troops should leave Lebanon; to this day, of course, tens of thousands of them yet remain. Damascus first agreed to leave in October 1976 as part of the Riyadh-Cairo accords.[xii] In September 1982, it signed the Fez Declaration that committed it to "start negotiations" with the Lebanese government about "an end to the mission of the Arab deterrent forces in Lebanon [i.e., the Syria troops]."[xiii]
In October 1989, to win Lebanese Christian support for a revision of the Lebanese government structure (the Ta'if Accord), Asad accepted a provision that Syrian troops would be redeployed from their positions in Beirut to the Baq'a Valley two years after four conditions had been met.[xiv] Those conditions were indeed fulfilled in September 1990; but September 1992 came and went without any change. (Indeed, arrive by plane in Beirut and you'll encounter Syrian troops right in the airport.) Theodor Hanf, a German authority on Lebanon, dubs this a "blatant violation" of the Ta'if Agreement.[xv]
The Syrians broke other promises to the Lebanese. For example, an 1989 report of the Arab League agreed, presented by the "troika" dealing with the Lebanon crisis stated: "In spite of their promise to use their influence to open traffic routes and communications, the Syrians have done nothing in this regard; on the contrary, the sea blockade was maintained and violent actions increased."[xvi] More generally, as Netanyahu rightly notes, "in Lebanon the Syrians broke just about every agreement they signed."[xvii]
b. PKK anti-Turkish activities. In 1987 and 1992, Damascus signed security protocols with Turkey promising to shut installations used by the PKK, the anti-Turkish group of Kurds. In addition, the Syrians time and again assured Turkish officials that the PKK would cause them no more problems. But year after year little changed on the ground. A base would ostentatiously close down, only to reopen quietly somewhere else. According to a second-hand report, the Turkish Prime Minister's staff counts eighteen agreements that Asad signed with Ankara and subsequently broke. A Turkish press report in late 1993 summer up the problem: "Syria does everything to meet the PKK's losses in terms of men, arms, and cash."[xviii]
c. The "red line" understanding. In April 1976, the Israelis acquiesced to Syrian forces entering Lebanon in return for several reassurances, dubbed "red lines," brokered by King Husayn and American officials. These unwritten agreements were to circumscribe the Syrian use of force in Lebanon. While not made public, Asad reportedly agreed (among other things) not to deploy in Lebanon aircraft, surface-to-air missiles, or more than a single brigade of soldiers; or to place any soldiers in southern Lebanon.
Damascus eventually breached all four of these provisions. In 1981, it ferried troops by helicopter and deployed surface-to-air missiles in the Zahle area of Lebanon. Israelis knew full well about these offenses. Itamar Rabinovich (Israel's subsequent ambassador to the United States) termed them, respectively, an "infringement" and an "unequivocal violation" of the 1976 agreement. Nor were these merely technical issues, he says; the Syrian missiles amounted to "a serious threat" against Israeli interests.[xix]
Asad ignored the prohibition on aircraft a second time in October 1990, this time with decisive results. His air force first buzzed the presidential palace at B'abda, waiting to see whether the Israelis would respond. When they did not, the Syrians understood that the red line in the air "seemed to have disappeared,"[xx] so they returned later that day and for the next two days to bomb the palace and actively help Syrian forces conquer Beirut. Fida Nasrallah of the Center for Lebanese Studies in Oxford deems this action a "clear breach" of the red line agreement.[xxi]
Asad violated the red line agreement more profoundly by sending far more than one brigade into Lebanon; over the years some ten brigades have regularly been stationed there. In short, Asad sought not just to tip the balance of power in Lebanon but to control the whole country. Yair Evron of Tel Aviv University writes that Damascus thereby "overstepped" and "transgress [ed.]" its 1976 understanding.[xxii]
Worst of all, Asad has on occasion denied the very existence of the red line agreement, and so his future obligation to maintain them. To a Lebanese group he once said, "Do not concern yourselves with the 'red line', which the Americans and the Israelis are talking about. It does not exist, [and] in any event I cannot see it."[xxiii]
d. Operation Accountability. After a rocket assault on Israel in July 1993, followed by a massive Israeli military response (Operation Accountability), Asad reached an agreement with Secretary of State Christopher whereby he would in the future prevent any forces in southern Lebanon from launching rocket attacks on Israel. This Syrian-U.S. agreement on the rules of behavior in southern Lebanon was then systematically violated: four times in 1994 the rockets fell and five times in just the first half of 1995. To make matters worse, Damascene sources in June 1994 denied the very existence of a deal with Israel ("Syria has not agreed with the Israelis to stop the firing of Katyushas on northern Israel"),[xxiv] though on other occasions (e.g., March 1995) Damascus apparently acknowledged violations.[xxv]
Israeli leaders condemned Asad's actions with strong language. Prime Minister Rabin accused the Syrians in March 1995 of a "total violation" of the agreement.[xxvi] A few months later, even as he complained to the U.S. government about the violations, he publicly excused the Syrians' infractions: "They don't always keep to it, we don't always keep to it."[xxvii] Amiram Levin, the commander of Israel's Northern Command, put it more toughly: Katyusha rocket attacks on the western Galilee in June 1995 "grossly violated" the July 1993 understanding.[xxviii] The August 1993 agreement finally fell apart completely in April 1996, and Prime Minister Shimon Peres launched Operation Grapes of Wrath to punish the Lebanese and Syrians for the attacks. Remarkably, even after Asad had so completely breached his 1993 agreement, Peres still spoke of him as someone who keeps his word: "it is very difficult to reach an agreement with Asad. But once he agreed . . . he respects it."[xxix]
e. Syrian Jews. Asad had long refused to let more than a few of Syria's 4,000 Jews emigrate (usually arguing that they didn't want to leave but sometimes saying that "Jews are essential to the Syrian economy").[xxx] Then, in April 1992, he announced their release in the course of a telephone conversation with George Bush. Representative Stephen Solarz called the event "an extraordinary development"[xxxi] and all those concerned expected the entire community of Syrian Jews to be free to leave. Indeed, three-quarters of the Jewish population did receive passports and exit visas by mid-October 1992. Then the process stopped and almost nothing happened for over a year. Only after Secretary Christopher applied new pressure did Asad reopen the doors for 200 more Jews to leave the country in December 1993; President Clinton won another thousand a month later. It was not until October 1994 that the Syrian government allowed any Jew to leave the country. (By then, 3,670 had left and 230 chose to remain in Damascus, Qamishli, and Aleppo, usually because they held property in Syria.)
f. Peace process negotiations. In June 1995, Asad promised Warren Christopher that he would engage in a two-stage negotiation with Israel: a meeting of the chief of staffs in Washington, followed by a break, then a resumption of the military track at a somewhat lower rank. So pleased was the secretary of state with this agreement that he abandoned his habitual reticence and instead declared that "there is a tremendous opportunity to move now toward a goal of a comprehensive peace, perhaps a better opportunity than at any time during the two and a half years that I have been in office."[xxxii]
The chiefs of staff did meet in late June, but then Asad backtracked on his promise to send a lower-ranking military team, requiring instead that the Israelis first agree not to demand early warning stations on the Golan Heights. The Israelis objected vehemently to this new precondition. Prime Minister Rabin asserted he would not permit the Syrians to "renege on an understanding" and pointed to the larger significance of this incident: "If the Syrians do not keep to what they agreed to with the Americans, who will guarantee that they will stick to the assurances they make to Israel?"[xxxiii]
Golan Heights disengagement. Asad's reputation for trustworthiness rested most especially on his having maintained for over twenty years a promise he gave in the May 1974 Separation of Forces Agreement with Israel to "scrupulously observe the cease-fire on land, sea and air" and "refrain from all military action." All sides agree on his having fulfilled this promise. Richard Murphy, a former American assistant secretary of Near Eastern Affairs, states that agreement was "scrupulously observed."[xxxiv] Ze'ev Schiff, the doyen of Israeli military correspondents, writes that "Both sides have adhered to the Separation of Forces Agreement since it was first reached, and violations have been negligible."[xxxv] "With the exception of several permanent and negligible violations," the head of Israeli military intelligence noted two years ago, Asad "has been keeping the disengagement agreement in letter and in spirit."[xxxvi] Even Benjamin Netanyahu concurred, using almost the same words: "Syria has kept to both the letter and the spirit of its disengagement agreement."[xxxvii]
But Asad did not exactly fulfill his 1974 agreement with Israel. He did prevent all violence across the Syrian-Israeli border, thereby making the Golan Heights not just a quiet place but perhaps the safest in the Middle East. At the same time, Damascus did not fulfill all its obligations. First, Asad reassured Jerusalem of his non-belligerent intentions by promising that "Syrian civilians will return" to the territory evacuated by Israeli forces. In fact, civilians have not moved into the area, which remains a military zone. Second, Damascus did in the first years of the agreement allow some terrorist operations, including an attack on Ramat Magshimim in 1975.[xxxviii]
Third, the Syrians in 1992 moved commandos into Quneitra and heavy artillery elsewhere into the demilitarized zone agreed to in the 1974 agreement. They illegally placed 21 surface-to-air missiles and 8 missile launchers within 25 kilometers of the border, the "thin-out" strip. Oddly, Prime Minister Rabin chose not to make public these violations reported by the United Nations observer force.[xxxix]
Fourth, Rabin acknowledged in September 1994 that the Syrian government had for four years engaged in "limited violations" (not further specified; these could be the same missiles and missile launchers just noted) of the Separation of Forces Agreement. He also disclosed that Jerusalem had complained repeatedly about these to the United Nations, "without any response from the Syrians"; only in mid-1994 had they indicated a willingness to rectify these violations.[xl]
Asad's pattern of behavior establishes that he regularly breaks his promises. Typical of a despot, he keeps his word when it's convenient and breaks it when not; more subtly, he wins credit for keeping it when he does not. Asad can get not just ambassadors to keep quiet but also the prime minister of Israel. That he gets away with this points to an important benefit of the double game.
3. Obstructing and Accepting the Peace Process
"We were surprised by the Palestinian-Israeli agreement and then by the Jordanian-Israeli agreement," Asad publicly acknowledged.[xli] And while the Syrian leader made clear his disapproval of these steps, he both tried to stop them and did not.
Israel-PLO agreements. Asad reacted two ways at once to Oslo Accords, rejecting them and having groups under his influence snipe at them, yet not making a concerted effort to sabotage them. Symbolic of this double policy, he had a Syrian representative at the first Israel-PLO signing ceremony (the Declaration of Principles of September 1993, at the White House) but not the second (for the Cairo agreement, in May 1994).
Asad disdained the Declaration of Principles of September 1993 ("there is nothing good in it"),[xlii] on the grounds that it gave the Israelis too much and won too little in return. Asad's minister of information put it more pungently: the DoP means, "the Palestinian people will be in a large jail."[xliii] Syrian media argued that promised PLO changes to its charter (eliminating references to the destruction of Israel) "means cancellation of the entire charter."[xliv]
To make the ten rejectionist Palestinian groups based on Syrian-controlled territory more effective at obstructing the peace process, Asad induced them to put together a formal alliance which met after the White House signing specifically to plot ways to subvert the Declaration of Principles. Its member organizations staged rallies, ceremonies, sit-ins, and strikes in Syria during which, monitored by hundreds of Syrian police officers, they fervently denounced the DoP and called for the arrest of Yasir 'Arafat. They did more than demonstrate: Asad had groups under his influence attempt to sabotage the DoP by repeatedly murdering Israelis and pro-'Arafat Palestinians. For example, according to Israeli sources,[xlv] Muhammad Diff, a Hamas leader living in Damascus authorized terrorist attacks on Israelis, killing ten.
The Syrian press then celebrated these efforts. When Hamas operatives seized an Israeli soldier as a hostage, Syrian radio lauded them as "the heroic Palestinian resistance men," "brave soldiers," and "righteous martyrs."[xlvi] That event and the massacre of Israelis on a Tel Aviv bus prompted a clandestine station based in Damascus to exult at the killing of Israeli citizens and crow about "a week of success."[xlvii] The radio justified terrorism against Israelis as "valiant," a "just punishment" and a "heroic operation."[xlviii]
The rejectionist Palestinian groups did Asad's dirty work and took the blame, thereby permitting Asad to maintain an air of schoolboy innocence. The foreign minister denied knowing anything about them: "Syria has not observed preparations by the Palestinian Rejectionist Front operating from its soil for violent opposition to the Israeli-PLO accord."[xlix] The Israelis are not fooled. Rabin noted that Damascus "provides all facilities to all types of attack on Israel, whether from Lebanon or other places."[l]
And if the Syrians did not engage in an all-out effort to block the PLO's deal with Israel, they did so for the wrong reason. Asad claimed to see the DoP as an inconsequential step, not worthy of his notice. "I did not consider it a significant event. Nor do I think it will have great effect."[li] Why not? Because it will probably fail. "We have not obstructed them [the PLO]. Thus far, we feel their political moves have not posed a real threat. We do not think they will lead to the happy ending expected by some people. In any case, we are watching, and we will wait and see."[lii] If, by chance, the Declaration of Principles does not fail, Asad unambiguously says he can scuttle it. "Had we wanted to obstruct it, we would have foiled it. If it becomes clear to us that its harm is great, we will do so."[liii]
Israel-Jordan agreements. King Husayn found himself getting locked out by the Israel-PLO agreement; worse, he received a severe warning from Prime Minister Rabin (at a clandestine meeting on 19 May 1994) that unless he took action soon, the Palestinians could take over in Jordan. Accordingly, the king did something quite out of character and wholly unexpected: declaring that "It is high time Jordan looked to its own interests,"[liv] he took four dramatic steps toward Israel during a fifty-day period from 7 June 1994. On that day, Jordanian and Israeli negotiators reached a set of understandings on border, water, and security issues; and the Jordanians committed to work out relations with Israel without reference to other Arab parties (namely Syria). Then, in three quick rounds during July, the negotiating teams met in a tent at their mutual border; Peres publicly visited Jordan; and King Husayn met Rabin in Washington where they called off the state of war between them and pledged to work toward a peace treaty.
Of course, Asad disapproved of all these steps and he communicated his displeasure in a number of small ways—muttering threats, canceling a visit by his prime minister to Amman, and deploying media vituperation for the first time since the Kuwait war. His press condemned the Husayn-Rabin accord as "a violation" of the Madrid rules, which would lead to "an incomplete and distorted peace with Israel."[lv] Its signing at the White House marked "a black day in the history of Jordan,"[lvi] a day which eight Jordanian opposition movements based in Damascus announced they would henceforth memorialize with national mourning. The same groups also condemned the "handshakes and huggings" and called on the "masses" to oppose such gestures.[lvii] A newspaper threatened that carrying through these understandings with Israel would "isolate Jordan from the Arab world and tamper with its national unity," while Defense Minister Mustafa Talas unsubtly observed that the king's separate deal with Israel means "his fragile entity could fall apart."[lviii] Hafiz al-Asad ostentatiously met with a delegation of Jordanian opposition leaders. For months, the two governments had no ambassadors in the other country.
Yet these were secondary mechanisms for expressing Syrian displeasure. King Husayn publicly stated a month after the Washington meeting that Asad "has not shown any opposition so far" to his initiatives.[lix] He had not heard protests directly from Asad nor had Damascus taken serious steps to obstruct. Indeed, on learning from Bill Clinton about the forthcoming Husayn-Rabin meeting, Asad reportedly told the American president that "he was not happy about it, but that he accepted it."[lx] Less than a week after the meeting, Asad delivered a speech to commemorate Army Day and went explicitly out of his way to avoid the whole subject ("I do not want to speak today about the position of the Arab sides in the peace process"), contenting himself with an abstract threat (Arab leaders who break ranks will "be held accountable by their people and all the Arab masses").[lxi] A Syrian minister of state declared that "No separate agreement between Jordan and Israel would affect the Syrian position."[lxii] Indeed, trade between Syria and Jordan continued without interruption, people moved to and from the two countries, and joint companies operated smoothly.
Shimon Peres accurately summed up Damascus's response to Jordanian moves as "moderate and restrained" and "less than what might have been expected."[lxiii] Jordan's Prime Minister referred to a "cloud currently hanging over" the two countries' relations,[lxiv] but it was apparently a cloud of much moisture but little rain.
The same pattern recurred in October 1994, when the Jordanian and Israeli governments signed a peace treaty. Asad again responded negatively but not actively. He vehemently denounced the provision by which Israel would for twenty-five years lease back land turned over to Jordan, correctly fearing that the Israelis would seek to apply this approach to the Golan Heights. "Our land is ours," Asad declared. "We consider it apostasy (kufr) for any country to lease its land to another country." But, while noting that "we can cause obstructions," he promised not to block the treaty. Asad quoted himself saying to the Jordanians:
What does all this contradictory activity amount to? A fog of paradox around the negotiating process that preserves Asad's room to maneuver and permits him to move toward or away peace with Israel.
4. Making Peace and Not with Israel
Between his agreement to negotiate with Israel in July 1991 and the fall of the Labor government in May 1996, Asad took a flurry of contradictory steps, moving both toward and away from Israel. As Rabin put it, "One [Syrian] hand is as if extended in peace. The other hand opens fire on you."[lxvi] Here are some items in this audacious double game:
Positive signs. Asad reportedly told a closed meeting of Ba'th Party leaders in 1993 of a decision in principle to make peace with Israel, and that only the details needed to be worked out. As noted above, the Syrians indicated willingness in July 1994 to correct their violations of their Separation of Forces Agreement with Israel. Civilian infrastructure in the Syrian region by the border with Israel has been newly improved and expanded with houses renovated, mosques put up, water reservoirs built, and windmills installed (for electricity).
Media coverage of Israel no longer showed unremitting hostility. The regime took modest but real steps to prepare Syrians for accord with Israel: "peace" and its synonyms replaced "steadfastness" and "confrontation" as the leitmotifs of public discourse about Israel. The Syrian press raised such scenarios as land-for-peace and noted the benefits of peace with Israel.[lxvii] Most dramatically, Syrian television covered the first public meeting of King Husayn and Yitzhak Rabin, at the White House, live and in full, including Rabin's prayer in Hebrew then rebroadcast it a second time. Syrian newspapers featured front-page pictures of the two together. A few days later, it broadcast King Husayn's unprecedented fly-over across Israel. More generally, the Syria media covered the Jordanian-Israeli story straight, without falsehoods or distorting commentary. Damascus ended four years of jamming Jordanian television in August 1994 and about the same time permitted The Jerusalem Report to be sold at the Meridien Hotel in Damascus.
Contacts in third countries between Syrians and Israelis proliferated. Syrian diplomats in Berlin publicly greeted their Israel counterparts. The minister of the economy and foreign trade gave an on-the-record interview to an Israeli newspaper and an administrative attaché at the Syrian embassy in London told another Tel Aviv newspaper that Israelis who travel on non-Israeli passports are welcome in his country.[lxviii] Syrian academics met their Israel counterparts at a private meeting in Oslo in October 1993, presumably with Asad's permission. Also at that time, representatives of Syrian tourism companies made contact with Israel diplomats and tourist organizations about cooperation. In July 1994, the Syrian chargé d'affaires attended the Husayn-Rabin meeting in Washington and shook hands with Rabin. During a visit to Washington, Foreign Minister Shar' twice submitted to questions by Israel journalists and met with leaders from such American Jewish organizations as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the American Jewish Congress, and B'nai B'rith.
Travel between Syria and Israel picked up. An Israeli journalist was let into Syria on a laisser passer. Several dozen Syrian Druze reached Israel via Lebanon to attend the funeral of the Druze' spiritual leader in October 1993. A group of Arab Syrians visited their relatives in northern Israel in December 1994. Traveling in the other direction, a delegation of fifty-seven Israeli Arab notables led by a member of the Israeli parliament visited Damascus (but via Cairo and not traveling on their Israeli passports) to extend their condolences to Hafiz al-Asad on the death of his son Basil. At the trip's end, Shar' portrayed the visit as "an opening for additional visits to Syria by Israelis"—conditional, of course, on full withdrawal from the Golan Heights.[lxix]
Even trade increased. A Tel Aviv newspaper reported that, from early 1994, an Israeli state-owned firm bought raw materials directly from Syria; although it used the cover of third-country companies for cover, it did so with "the full knowledge and approval of the most senior levels in the Syrian government."[lxx]
Negative signs. A long list of troublesome steps pointed to an intent by Asad to keep the conflict with Israel going. Asad's bargaining position called for Israel to give up all its assets and promises almost nothing in return. Further, his cramped diplomatic style—using passive constructions, and indirectness of speech—pointed to a deep reluctance to come to terms with Israel; it may also have indicate an intent not to let go of the rejectionist option. Writing before he became Israel's chief negotiator with Syria, Itamar Rabinovich noted that
A handbook for Syrian teachers issued in 1994 instructed them to present to their students the "liberation of the land occupied in 1967 as an intermediate goal"[lxxii] (implying that the full goal is the destruction of Israel). Syrian diplomats negotiating across the table with Israelis long treated them with artificial coolness. Damascus chose to boycott half the peace process, namely the multilateral talks, and instructed its Lebanese satrapy to do likewise. Evidence suggests that Ron Arad, a captured Israeli aviator, remains in the hands of the Syrians or their allies.
In an extraordinary twist of the double game, Asad has condemned his own diplomacy with Israel. He sent diplomats to Washington for official, direct meetings with Israelis; but when the United Nations General Assembly in December of 1993-95 passed resolutions that identically expressed "full support for the achievements of the peace process thus far" and stressed "the need for achieving rapid progress on the other tracks of the Arab-Israeli negotiations"—a reference to the talks with Syria and Lebanon—Asad all three times voted in the negative!
Syria officials and media continue to bristle with hostility on the subject of Israel, using such terms as "the enemy," "the Zionist enemy," "occupied Palestine," "occupied Jerusalem," and "the Zionist entity."[lxxiii] A Syrian radio station called a suicide bombing against Israelis a "martyrdom operation."[lxxiv] It also brings up old calumnies, raising in 1995 the August 1969 episode of Michael Dennis Rohan, a deranged Australian Christian who set fire to the Mosque of Al-Aqsa in Jerusalem. It gratuitously claimed that Rohan "is an Israeli Jew even though Israel tried to prove that he is not," that the Israeli authorities "did nothing" to put the fire out," and that Rohan lived under house arrest in a "luxurious Israeli tourist resort."[lxxv]
Even more bizarrely, on the eve of Secretary of State Christopher's arrival in Damascus (along with a large entourage of reporters) in May 1994, the English-language Syrian Times ran an article which claimed that American Jews are legally excused from paying U.S. taxes and that "30 percent of Protestant bishops in the U.S. are originally Jews who did not quit Judaism."[lxxvi] In response to the ensuing uproar, the Syrian authorities a few days later weakly "expressed regret about the content and tone" of the article.
Asad's extremely ambitious military buildup appeared to be primarily directed against Israel. His regime publicly supported anti-'Arafat Palestinian groups (for example, Vice President Khaddam confirmed its support for George Habash's group in November 1994)[lxxvii] and privately backed their violence against Israelis. The same went for Syrian-backed forces in Lebanon; their attacks on the South Lebanese Army in the first half of 1995 numbered 55 percent higher than in 1994. At an Europe-Middle East diplomatic meeting on July 24, 1995, the day of a terrorist attack on a bus in Ramat Gan, Israel, killing six, Syria's head of delegation urged all states to support "national liberation movements" against Israel.
Damascus went out of its way to obstruct Israel's budding relations with other Arab states. The Lebanese government charged Lebanon's beauty queen, Ghada al-Turk, with collaborating with the enemy when she posed in a joint picture with Miss Israel. The Syrian press lambasted Oman for hosting an Israeli delegation to the multilateral peace talks and criticized the United Arab Emirates for dropping its antisemitic textbooks. In May 1994, Damascus launched an effort to keep the economic boycott of Israel in place until Israeli forces withdrew from all the territories occupied in 1967, then complained bitterly when Tunisia and the GCC states repealed the boycott. Israeli officials blamed Asad for Tunisia's cancellation of a naval exercise that included Israeli vessels, as they did Oman's decision to delay the establishment of interest offices.
Mixed signals. As the peace process began in 1991, a large statue of Salah al-Din on horseback, dragging behind him two Crusader soldiers, went up in a central Damascus square with the inscription "Jerusalem: Lost in 1099, Recaptured in 1187." Then, during the summer of 1994, peace billboards appeared on the main road to the Damascus international airport. None of them, however, mentioned Israel by name but rather (Soviet-style) proclaimed abstract peace to be the goal: "We love peace," "We believe and work for peace," "Peace can allow Syria to invest its full efforts in the people's welfare." These contradictory signals brought the double game to the streets of the capital.
Rumors about personnel changes also sent a double signal. When Asad dropped such mainstays of his regime as 'Ali Haydar, Shafiq Fayyad, and Majid Sa'id in August and November 1994, observers speculated[lxxviii] that Asad rid himself of unsavory and compromised old warriors as a step toward preparing for peace with Israel. But then, why, according to other rumors, did he in late 1994 appoint as chief of the Syrian air force none other than Muhammad al-Khuli, the man implicated in the 1986 attempted bombing of an El Al plane in London?
An obscure incident symbolized the unstable, unclear state of affairs. In a case of unlikely nerviness, two or three Syrian travel agencies ignored their government's policy of boycotting the multilateral talks with Israel and participated, along with Israeli firms, in a tourism conference in Cairo in September 1994. For this transgression, the Ministry of Tourism first expelled the offending firms from Syria's national tourism association, then closed them down.[lxxix] Did this sequence of events signal that some Syrians perceived a new openness in their country? Or was it a provocation planned by the authorities to show their disdain for the peace process? An outsider can only guess.
Generalizing, it appears that the Syrian authorities have adopted an increasingly accommodating position on the official level but have kept things relatively unchanged at the popular level. As Rabin explained, "The Syrians usually are more soft spoken outside their country than they are in speeches for domestic consumption."[lxxx]
The double game in the peace process consisted of Damascus simultaneously pursuing political and military options vis-á-vis Israel, offering both friendly and antagonistic faces. Asad took part in American-sponsored negotiations but also talked like an Arab nationalist. He tried, in the words of Israel's chief negotiator with Syria, to "prove to the Arab public that while it might advance in the peace process, it has not abandoned its principles,"[lxxxi] not an easy task. Yes, Asad reached out to the West by joining the peace process, but he did not give up his long-established stance as an enemy of Israel. He kept options open: even while pleasing the United States by talking to Israel, he signaled hard-core anti-Zionists that his heart remained with them. He hinted at readiness to make peace with Israel, if need be, while also indicating that, if possible, he would rather make war on it.
Who would deny that Asad has developed the double game, a common pattern of Middle Eastern politics, into a fine art? He maintains both good and bad relations with foreign leaders. He has Western hostages captured, then has them released. He keeps promises and breaks them. He formally engages in negotiations with Israel and publicly condemns them. Today's policy can be reversed tomorrow; it can be contradicted today; or it may not even exist.
The double game is truly Hafiz al-Asad's crowning achievement as a subtle and highly sophisticated political operative. He ranks as one of his era's virtuoso political technicians. Other tyrants could learn something from Asad; one day, perhaps, a Machiavelli will record and analyze his stratagems as a model for others to imitate.
Whence comes the double game? In part, it may result from Asad's 'Alawi origins. As the epitaph to this paper suggests, 'Alawis have a long tradition of religious dissimulation (taqiya), honed over the centuries by the need to pretend to be Muslim. 'Alawis lived double lives, maintaining an Islamic exterior but in the privacy of their villages cursing Muslims. In part too, the double game reflects Asad's cautious personality. He avoids risk whenever possible ("If out of a 100 percent chance for success there is a 5 percent chance of failure, he will not take the risk")[lxxxii] and it allows him to take the fewest chances.
The double game also derives from the nature of despotism; here Asad fits into a long and dishonorable tradition. Stalin, for example, was also a master of this art. During the Moscow show-trial of August 1937, when a group of leading Bolsheviks were accused of trying to sabotage the Soviet state on behalf of Leon Trotsky and the Nazi government, Stalin was simultaneously building links to Berlin. This put him in a dilemma: He evidently wanted to brand the accused as fascist-like and hence to portray the trial and the mass terror it heralded as an antifascist undertaking, but to do this without unduly ruffling the high-placed men in Berlin with whom he was continuing to deal and hoped to reach an accord.
This was no easy task, but he managed it. To make up for the very public assault on fascism taking place in his courtroom and his underlings' blatant lies about the accused men's links to Germany, Stalin adopted several strategies. He timed a diplomatic approach to the Germans so that it took place even as the brief trial was in session. He had aides point out that 13 of the 18 on trial (2 of them in absentia) were Jews, including the very three whom Nazi publications had singled out as the "Jewish element in the leadership of Bolshevism."[lxxxiii] He even had his diplomats suggest that "Trotsky could have been lying" when Trotsky supposedly told a defendant in the show-trial about working for Berlin.[lxxxiv]
The double game brings a number of benefits. An air of mystery enhances Asad's reputation and causes enemies to fear him. Words only vaguely point to what he thinks; and actions only suggest what he actually intends. Asad is truly inscrutable—"the sphinx of Damascus" as his biographer Moshe Ma'oz calls him. Or, in Milton Viorst's felicitous phrase, he is a ruler for whom "an air of enigma is an instrument of state."[lxxxv]
Second, Asad prefers to move slowly in making major shifts in policy, and the double game wins him time.
Third, he much prefers things the way they used to be when the Soviet Union was around and the double game permits him to make the fewest adjustments necessary. It offers a half-way house to someone nostalgic for an international Soviet network and anti-American ideologies but having to deal with new realities.
Fourth, while Asad's game fools neither Syrians nor foreigners, it offers great flexibility of action. It lets him avoid choosing between stark alternatives, instead he can take two or more roads at once. Open Syria or keep it isolated? The double game would have Asad open it up slightly, at the margins, while making no basic changes. Peace with Israel or war? By simultaneously negotiating with Israel and building up his military machine against it, Asad assures himself the possibility to "move in any direction."[lxxxvi] Join the Western camp or oppose it? The double game permits him not to foreclose options; he finds a third way, remaining a rogue state, retaining his non-Western ties, yet inching far enough in the West's direction to win its forbearance and even goodwill. Creative ambiguity leaves enemies and friends alike unsure, winning maximum room to maneuver without making fundamental changes in policy. Asad can make concessions where necessary and exploit opportunities where possible.
[i] Michel Aoun, "If Lebanon Fails, So Does the Middle East," Middle East Quarterly, Vol. II, No. 4 (December 1995), p. 59.
Apr. 10, 2011 update: Itamar Rabinovich notes Hafiz's mastery of the double game and Bashshar's failure at it. Hafiz, he writes,
Apr. 14, 2011 update: Andrew J. Tabler is a bit more impressed by Bashar's efforts at playing this game:
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