Extract from Damascus Courts the West: Syrian Politics, 1989-1991, pp. 3-6.
Washington, D.C.: Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 1991.
[Hafez al-Assad and Saddam Hussein] have much in common. They are about the same age (Saddam was born in 1937, Assad in 1930) and come from minority backgrounds. Both grew up in an impoverished countryside with a twentieth century tradition of exporting people to the cities. Both experienced Egyptian prisons and have effectively ruled their countries since about the same year (1972 for Saddam, 1969 for Assad). Both imposed an extreme centralization, to create a stable order where turmoil had previously prevailed. Both are far more interested in building their militaries than their countries. Each of them looked to Moscow for primary support, but on occasion wooed the U.S. government. Both rely extensively on the terrorist instrument. They have claimed to represent the Palestinians and sought to control weak neighbors.
In personality, they share vaulting ambitions, a passion for secrecy, and a Manichean outlook that divides the world into agents and enemies. Both tend toward brinkmanship and a readiness to sacrifice the interests of their countries for personal and ethnic interests. Their political systems rely to a strikingly parallel degree on Ba'ath Party control, the pervasive use of informants, and brutality. (Middle East Watch found torture in Iraq to be "used routinely"; Amnesty International has termed the Syrian jails "almost a research center for torture.") Though life in Syria is an iota better,^ the two dictatorships in the Fertile Crescent are about as similar as any pair of governments on the planet.
The two men also differ profoundly. Where Saddam revels in brutality for its own sake, Assad resorts to it as an instrument of power. The one kills with his own hands, the other keeps his distance from such unpleasantries. Saddam's ambitions know no limit: he seeks to become both the greatest leader in Iraqi history and a giant on the world stage; his dreams of glory distort practical decisionmaking. In contrast, Assad knows his limitations and acts within their parameters: the conquest of Lebanon and the perpetuation of 'Alawi rule are quite enough for him for now, thank you. Saddam's overt aggression makes him enemies everywhere; Assad's is cloaked in an ambiguity which allows hostile states the luxury of ignoring his trespasses. Both leaders follow policies which the outside world often finds difficult to understand, but while Saddam confuses observers through stupidity, Assad does so through subtlety.
While Saddam and Assad both engage in international brinkmanship, only Assad can reliably locate the brink. Saddam displays an increasingly uncontrollable streak of impatience3 and has a terrible sense of timing (the invasion of Kuwait could not have occurred at a worse moment from the Iraqi point of view); Assad is infinitely deliberate and has a most refined timing (the seizure of Beirut in October 1990, fifteen years after Syrian military involvement in Lebanon began, was a political masterpiece). More broadly, Saddam Hussein showed in 1990-91 that he may be one of the worst strategists and tacticians of history; in contrast, Assad rightly prides himself on his skills as a military planner.
Like his adopted namesake, the lion, Assad is a patient operator. He probes his opponents' weaknesses, waits for the right moment, chooses the most advantageous field of battle, and strikes. In this way, Assad has defeated one enemy after another—the Muslim Brethren, Lebanese militias, American troops in Beirut, Israelis in south Lebanon, and Iraqi armed forces. Observers are in agreement as to his impressive skills. Thus, Annie Laurent and Antoine Basbous see his main characteristics as "patience and a taste for secrecy." Dov Tamari concludes that "the Syrian regime has demonstrated patience and restraint on the one hand, persistence and stubbornness on the other."
Imagine—to take this comparison one step further—that Assad ruled in Baghdad, and that he wanted to bring Kuwait, with all its wealth and coastline, under his control. What would he have done differently from Saddam? Everything.
He would have prepared the way years ahead of time by hosting Kuwaiti dissident movements in Baghdad and laying repeated but elliptical claims to Kuwait. When the time was right, he would have solicited an invitation from bona fide Kuwaiti leaders to send Iraqi troops into Kuwait. Rather than seize the whole country, he would have taken only some slices of it (the Rumayla oil field, Bubiyan and Warba Islands) and worked to get his allies and agents into power. The outside world would surely have protested, but Assad's salami tactics would have allowed him to take Kuwait without sustained armed opposition. In the end, just as everyone acquiesced to his seizure of Lebanon, so they would have gone along with his control over Kuwait.