By traveling to Damascus today, President Clinton takes a huge diplomatic gamble. Should he leave Syria without having gained something substantial, his visit will have gratuitously enhanced the power of a totalitarian state. But if he makes use of the opportunity to get some real business done, it could lead to a breakthrough in the Arab-Israeli peace process. More: it could even alter the balance of forces in the Middle East.
The president enjoys a this rare opportunity because Asad appears to be undecided about the key issue in front of him: whether or not to go the American route.
The American route requires Asad-for decades a star player on the Soviet team-to give up old habits and allies as well as successful policies, and to do so without any guarantees that the new ones will serve him better. Twenty-four years in power and now he has to ease up repression at home and reduce the bellicosity abroad? That's surely not an attractive prospect.
At the same time, the West has much that Asad wants, including economic aid, money for investments, and trade. It has enormous influence over the neighbors with which Asad has the most problems, Turkey and Israel. Washington can offer international legitimacy to his regime.
As of now, Asad's words and actions suggest a deep ambivalence about the choice ahead. On the one hand, he has joined the peace process with Israel and appears to be bargaining in good faith. While he despises Israel's agreements with the PLO and Jordan, he has desisted from really trying to sabotage them. Within Syria, he has slightly opened up the economic and political arenas.
On the other hand, Damascus continues many of its most reprehensible habits of years past: it sponsors dozens of terrorist organizations (most important of which is the PKK, a Kurdish group wrecking havoc in Turkey), it provides sanctuary to Western criminals, it traffics in drugs, and it forges dollar bills. Syrian troops occupy Lebanon. Asad goes to some pains to maintain close ties with anti-Western states in Libya, Iran, and North Korea.
Most worrisome of all, Asad is engaged in a massive military buildup that makes Syria a major power in the Middle East. The arsenal gives him a military option-especially vis-à-vis his weaker neighbors (Lebanon, Jordan) but also against his more powerful ones (Iraq, Turkey) and even against Israel.
Which way the Syrian government opts-toward us or away-depends ultimately on just one factor: what Hafiz al-Asad decides. His prejudices determine policy. The national interest is his interest.
And what is his interest? To control Syria during his own lifetime, then pass power on to his family and his Alawi co-religionists after his death. He must worry terribly about this, for the Alawis, a small, post-Islamic religious community found almost exclusively in Syria, have a long history of poor relations with the Sunni Muslim majority.
Indeed, once the resentful majority of Sunni Muslims reach power, they will probably exact a terrible revenge. At any rate, that is the worry Alawis express in private. Recent wars in Azerbaijan, Yugoslavia, and Rwanda can only reinforce this foreboding: not only has ethnic carnage become widespread, but the outside world does little to stop it. If massacres begin in Syria, Alawis will be on their own.
To assure the survival of his community, Asad rules pragmatically. He commands from the head, not the heart, and so can be counted on to do whatever it takes to stay in power. In years past, totalitarian means and alliance with the Soviets presented, in Asad's estimation, the best mechanism to survive. If keeping himself, his family, and the Alawis in power requires becoming an American ally, so be it. Should anti-Zionism no longer serves his interests, he would even visit Jerusalem.
Such dramatic changes would be in keeping with Asad's record. In June 1976, for example, he abandoned his Palestinian-Muslim-Leftist allies in Lebanon and jumped over to the side of their Maronite-Rightist opponents. So joining the American team is a distinct possibility.
Logically, the U.S. government (and its allies) should treat Syria as a rogue state, for Asad is second only to Saddam Husayn in the Middle East when it comes to repressing his own people and aggressing against neighbors. But he is a remarkable politician whose his virtuoso skills permit him to get away with the same malign policies that land lesser leaders in trouble.
While Saddam and Mu'ammar al-Qadhdhafi get embargoed and boycotted, Asad's Syria actually receives U.S. gifts (Boeing aircraft, armored vehicles, even money). Worse: U.S. officials hope that downplaying Asad's trespasses will create a friendly atmosphere and induce him to improve his behavior.
Enough is enough. Washington has little to show for its patience and gifts other than some vague promises and reversible improvements. The time has come to end this approach and replace it with a more forceful policy. President Clinton should use his time in Damascus to press the Syrians to opt for a single, Western-oriented course. Asad must completely end his support for terrorist groups; bring drug trafficking and counterfeiting to a complete halt; end the extravagant military buildup; set a date to withdraw all forces and the intelligence services from Lebanon and prevent Iranian access to that country; spell out what "full peace" with Israel means; and end the support for the PKK and other anti-Turkish groups. In a word, it's time for Asad to behave. Or he can pursue his old course, in which case we should treat like we do Saddam and Qadhdhafi.
Faced with this ultimatum, Asad is likely to bend to the American will. But to get there first requires our president to confront his host. As Bill Clinton himself as observed, Asad is "very smart and very tough," so the task won't be easy.