The Syrian regime of Hafez Assad has in the past year seemed to change direction, first with tentative moves toward liberalization, then by siding with the American-led coalition that fought against Saddam Hussein and, perhaps most dramatically, by acceding to America's wish that it attend a peace conference with Israel.
There is no doubt that U.S.-Syrian relations have greatly improved in the process. The meaning of that shift, however, is far from certain. How should America respond to Assad's new course? Should he be accepted as a partner in the U.S. regional efforts? Should the U.S. take advantage of this moment to pressure Assad into altering his regime? Is this a new face that Syria is presenting to the West, and if so, does it call for caution or hope or perhaps both?
Brutal totalitarian though Assad may be, he is a subtle and highly sophisticated politician. Unlike Saddam Hussein, his perennial rival for the mantle of Ba'athist leadership, Assad is shrewd, nimble, patient and measured (though by no means squeamish) in his use of violence. Since assuming power in 1969 he has skillfully pursued his chief goals; consolidating his minority-based Alawi regime, extending the reach of Syria's regional influence and assuming the lead in the Arab military confrontation with Israel.
The last goal, which has taken the form of an attempt to attain strategic parity with the Zionist for, has remained elusive, not for strictly military reasons, but because the police state that Assad has imposed on Syria has not been able to match Israel's social and economic development. The Syrian economy has been nearly run into the ground by two decades of Assad's rule.
Throughout, Assad has depended on his superpower patrol, the Soviet Union. The disengagement from regional entanglements initiated by Mikhail Gorbachev was an unexpected and potentially threatening development for Assad, auguring the loss of his patron and of a wide network of military and political relationships throughout the Soviet bloc, at a time when his economy could ill afford such a break. By mid-1990, the writing was on the wall. It is this development more than any other that accounts for Assad's courtship of the U.S.
Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait provided Assad with an unexpected solution to his problems and he played this opportunity masterfully. By allying himself with the U.S., Assad was able to finally best his Ba'athist rival, Saddam, secure his grip on Lebanon, win economic assistance and enter the good graces of the U.S.
But while the Kuwait crisis strengthened Assad's hand vis-à-vis the PLO, Iraq, and Lebanon, it grew weaker in relation to Jordan, Turkey, and Israel.
A Chance for Peace?
Having moved closer to the U.S., can Assad now end Syria's longstanding hostility towards Israel? Assad's need to prove his bona fides to his non-Alawi countrymen has long made the chances of his concluding peace with Israel remote. Since Egypt concluded a separate peace with Israel in 1978, Syria has been the linchpin of the state-to-state confrontation that, notwithstanding the drama of the Palestinian uprising, is the heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Syria's people have long been unalterably opposed to peace with Israel. Generally, Assad has overridden the popular will when it comes to the crucial domestic issues at the heart of his regime, but has done his best to heed it on the comparatively less crucial questions of foreign policy.
At the same time, there has long been a wide consensus across the Israeli political spectrum against ceding the Golan Heights, which Syria lost in its offensive against Israel in 1967. Yet Assad could reach some sort of peace if the right incentives – avoiding a major war or improving relations with the West – were in place.
The defeat of Iraq has tipped the military balance against Syria on Israel's eastern front; at the same time, Assad has given no sign of curtailing any of his current military capabilities. His current entry into the peace process seems more a change of tactics than a change of heart, more along the lines of Arafat's declaration of late 1988 than Anwar Sadat's 1977 journey to Jerusalem.
Assad does respond to incentives and his behavior could be changed by the U.S. if it undertakes its policies toward Syria with sufficient care and circumspection. Major changes in Syria are unlikely until Sunnis – the Syrian majority – attain power., something which cannot be expected, if at all, for some time to come.
Meanwhile, at the price of its friendship, continued cooperation and support, American can demand that Assad take a number of steps, some far-reaching and some symbolic, bearing in mind Assad's extraordinary agility and the moral unacceptability of the regime he represents. Specific moves that America could undertake would include urging Assad to improve his human rights record, make good on his financial obligation to Western countries, and stop supporting terrorism and drug trafficking.
Most likely, Assad will try to induce Washington to pay him for allowing himself to be helped. Rather than allow this to happen, the U.S. can take advantage of Assad's relative weakness at this time to effect positive change through policies that synthesize caution for today with hope for the future.