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Chapter 1: Asad's Post-Soviet Predicament
from Syria Beyond the Peace Process

Peace in the Middle East can't be achieved [only] through a reconciliation between Israel and the Palestinians.
-- President Süleyman Demirel of Turkey

In the Prism of the Peace Process

In the course of an informative October 1993 interview on the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, Charlayne Hunter-Gault quizzed President Hafiz al-Asad about current issues. What did he think of the just-signed Declaration of Principles between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO)? Did he feel "the earth tremble" when Yitzhak Rabin and Yasir 'Arafat shook hands? Was he ready to compromise with Israel about the Golan Heights? How far apart was his position from Israel's? Every one of Hunter-Gault's thirty-one questions to Asad, in fact, pertained to Syrian negotiations with Israel, the peace process.

Hunter-Gault does not stand alone in her emphasis. Nearly all American discussion of Syria focuses on that country's relations with Israel. In a typical statement after meeting with Asad, Secretary of State Warren Christopher said he and the president had covered "a wide range of topics, but the great majority of the time was spent discussing progress in the [Syrian-Israeli] peace negotiations. Every question asked of Presidents Bill Clinton and Asad after their two meetings in 1994 pertained to the peace process. Every mention of Syria in a major May 1994 policy address by Anthony Lake, Clinton's national security advisor, concerned the peace process. Recent American books on Syrian politics bear such titles as Syria and the Middle East Peace Process and The Superpowers and the Syrian-Israeli Conflict.

Looking at Syria through the prism of its relations with Israel reflects two facets of American foreign policy: a widespread media and scholarly fascination with Israel and a governmental emphasis on ending the Arab-Israeli conflict.

But Syria is a country of some fourteen million persons; seeing it only as an adjunct of Israel ignores other aspects of that country, including much that directly concerns Americans. On the positive side, for example, Damascus stands as a Middle Eastern stalwart resisting the surge of fundamentalist Islam; and Syria's oil industry, producing over 600,000 barrels per day, has recently emerged as a significant exporter. On the negative side, Asad's record of repression in Syria deeply offends American sensibilities. Damascus's occupation and domination of Lebanon harms American interests and runs counter to U.S. principles. Its support for terrorist organizations has made it complicit in the death of more American citizens than any other state in the past two decades. Over a quarter of the heroin entering the United States comes from territories under Asad's control. Damascus plays an integral role in a shrinking but still potent network of anti-American regimes extending from North Korea to Iran to Libya. Its support for the Worker's Party of Kurdistan (Partiya Karkerana Kurdistan, or PKK) erodes the stability of Turkey, a NATO ally.

Focusing almost exclusively on the potential for a peace agreement between Israel and Syria slights the full range of important items on the U.S.-Syrian bilateral agenda, thereby skewing the policy debate and permitting a number of false expectations to develop. For example, although there is no necessary connection between the peace process and Syrian support for terrorism (e.g., Syrian support for the anti-Turkish PKK), Syria's officials are confident that if their government reaches an agreement with Israel, the U.S. government will remove it from the list of states sponsoring terrorism; it is not clear that American officials have done much to disabuse Asad of this notion. Similarly, emphasis on the Israel-Syria peace talks makes comment on other items-like Syrian domination of Lebanon-undiplomatic and out-of-bounds. Thus, the U.S. government has refrained from even verbally protesting Asad's conquest of Lebanon, fearing that to do so would obstruct Israeli-Syrian negotiations.

Peace process exclusivity also leads to all of Syrian public life being seen through the prism of foreign relations, rather than the other way around. Analysts assess symptoms, not causes. When the New Republic argues in an editorial that "Peace with Israel would require a deep change in the nature of [Asad's] regime," it's got things exactly backwards: changes in the regime must precede peace with Israel. The Golan issue surely has less importance for Asad than, for example, Syria's standing among the Arab states. Rather than concentrate on symptoms-Asad's willingness to allow an Israeli embassy in Damascus or the purposes of his military buildup-we should examine Asad's views of the world and Syria's place in it. Analysts need to focus less on questions like "On what terms will Asad make peace with Israel?" or even "Does Asad intend to make peace with Israel?" but rather on "How will Asad cope with the unpleasant realities of the post-Soviet period?"

This wider perspective turns up several important conclusions:

  • While Asad shares with other authoritarian leaders the goal of personal and regime survival, he stands apart from most of them in his willingness to resort to extreme means to achieve his ends. To keep himself and his fellow 'Alawis in power, he could do anything from destroy a Syrian city (as he did to Hama in 1982) to reverse a lifetime of anti-Zionism and sign a peace treaty with Israel.
  • However, Asad has not so far made a choice for peace with Israel (except a peace solely on his terms) and is likely to avoid any compromise unless essential to ensure the stability of his rule. U.S. importuning has little impact on his actions; to affect Asad's actions means altering the calculus of his decisionmaking.
  • Asad has successfully developed a relationship with Washington based almost solely on the peace process while preserving a strategic relationship with the Islamic Republic of Iran which violently opposes the same process. This fits into his consistent effort to avoid committing to a policy; in contrast to the bold risk-taking of Anwar as-Sadat, Asad prefers to move two contrary ways at once, thereby retaining options, escape routes, and future possibilities.
  • While the West has historically focused on the threat of conflict along the Israel-Syria border, Damascus's most volatile and dangerous relationship today is with Turkey. Terrorism, irredentism and clashes over water resources make this a potentially hot frontier.
  • Despite serious conflicts between Washington and Damascus on a wide range of issues (e.g., terrorism, human rights, narcotics, weapons of mass destruction), the U.S. government should view the possibility of building bilateral relations through the lens of Asad's potential utility in combating fundamentalist Islam.
  • The opportunity exists, therefore, for Washington and Damascus to cooperate as partners in the confrontation with radical Islam. Creating such a partnership, however, requires a fundamental shift in behavior by the Syrian regime.
  • To achieve such improvements in Syrian behavior, Washington needs to focus less on the Syrian component of the Arab-Israeli peace process and more on a wide range of bilateral concerns. The nature of the Syrian regime suggests that a policy that relies more on sticks than on carrots is likely to achieve better results.

As these conclusions imply, Hafiz al-Asad is the key to Syrian politics, so in this chapter we step back from the headlines to review his record as ruler of Syria during the quarter-century since November 1970 and the problems he faces following the Soviet collapse. The subsequent two chapters look at Asad's place in the context of Syrian communal relations and his recent record in domestic affairs. The final four chapters review his foreign policy, with special attention to Turkey, Israel, and the United States.

The Strongest Weak State

Syria had experienced enormous instability during the quarter-century between independence in 1946 and Asad's coming to power. Not a single ruler in that period had managed to control Syria's fractious and unstable population. Its politics were so volatile, one global analysis of the stability of political leaders during the period 1945-61 finds Syria tied at the very bottom of all eighty-seven states studied. The most successful of those early rulers, Shukri al-Quwwatli, captured the era's political effervescence: "Fifty percent of the Syrians consider themselves national leaders, 25 percent think they are prophets, and 10 percent imagine they are gods." Syria suffered from a weak international position and was the perpetual victim of predatory efforts of control from Baghdad and Cairo. The leadership lurched unpredictably from decision to decision. In 1958, for example, it took the unprecedented step of voluntarily giving up sovereignty and having the country effectively annexed to Egypt.

Asad's immediate Ba'thist predecessors espoused a form of infantile leftism almost totally unrelated to the country's actual needs, making the situation yet more unstable. As made evident by their disastrous performance in 1967 against Israel, Syrian soldiers knew altogether too much about overthrowing leaders in Damascus and too little about fighting on a battlefield.

Then Hafiz al-Asad, who was defense minister at the time, took over in 1970. He overthrew a fellow Ba'thist and quickly consolidated power, imposed order, and brought Syria's turmoil to an end. Even enemies acknowledge that he found "welcome and support" among a population tired of anarchy. Although, as Asad also acknowledges, "all Syrians are known to be politicians," he eliminated politics from daily life by instituting in Syria what Arab critics have dubbed the mukhabarat (intelligence services) state. No fewer than fifteen separate security agencies report to Asad personally, each with separate but overlapping jurisdictions.

Asad dominates Syria's public life to such an extent that the political debate in that country consists of little more than the contending ideas in Asad's head. His prejudices determine policy. The national interest is his interest. While other individuals, groups, and institutions have a say, Asad alone in the end makes the decisions of state. As Moshe Arens, Israel's former minister of defense, has observed, "When talking about Syria, we should remember we are not talking about a country but about a ruler."

Asad also enhanced Syria's place in the world. As a Syrian explains about his country, "It was a homeland influenced by others but became a homeland influencing others." The Egyptian and Iraqi struggle to control Syria came to an end, replaced by an active and powerful Syria which, more than any other state, charted the Levant's course of history. Syria under Asad became the powerbroker in Lebanon and, by virtue of his sponsoring terrorist opposition groups all over the region, a major factor in the political life of Jordan and Turkey. Asad effectively abandoned Pan-Arab nationalism in the early 1970s, looking instead to dominate a much smaller area in the Levant; with this, he changed the region's ideological climate. By bringing stability to Syria and pursuing an ambitious foreign policy, he built Syria into what Alasdair Drysdale calls the Middle East's "strongest weak state." Indeed, Vice President 'Abd al-Halim Khaddam has declared, with some justification, that "Syria is the most stable country in the Third World."

Nowhere, however, was his power so evident as in the Arab-Israeli conflict. As ruler of Egypt, Anwar as-Sadat could ignore Syria when he made peace with Israel, but virtually every initiative to resolve the Arab-Israeli relationship in the 1980s foundered when it came up against Asad's objections. Secretary of State George Shultz's fine accord between Lebanon and Israel in May 1983 came to nothing due to Asad's resolve to undo the deal. In 1985-86 King al-Husayn of Jordan appeared willing to end the conflict with Israel, but Syrian sabotage convinced the king otherwise. The PLO on several occasions in the 1980s flirted with the idea of reaching an agreement with Israel; these too never panned out, in large part because of Syrian influence over the Palestinian movement. Only when Asad came to the bargaining table in 1991 could the Palestinians and Jordanians begin serious negotiations with Israel.

"We Regret the Soviet Collapse More than the Russians Do"

Close relations with the Soviet Union were a key element through most of Asad's rule. Syrian alignment with the Soviet Union began about the time of the very first purchase of Soviet-bloc arms in 1954; the two states became ideologically close when the Ba'th Party took power in March 1963. Asad experienced some tensions with Moscow his first years but relations blossomed after 1977. While the two states never enjoyed a perfect harmony of interests, their bonds far surpassed the "marriage of convenience" portrayed by some analysts. The Soviet connection had enormous importance, touching many aspects of domestic life and making Damascus part of an international alliance.

In domestic politics, Damascus emulated the Soviet system and adopted many Soviet-type ideological and political characteristics. It controlled speech, persecuted religion, engaged in torture, and made a general mockery of its own laws. The economy came under bureaucratic jurisdiction, with private farms giving way to state-controlled cooperatives and the state taking over what it generously deemed to be "strategic industries."

In public life, too, Syria came to resemble the Soviet Union. Regime slogans about socialism, Pan-Arab unity, and anti-Zionism were endlessly repeated by teachers, school books, radio and television shows, movies, youth leagues, museum exhibitions, military manuals, and virtually every other public source of information. As in the Soviet Union, the whole of society was militarized: sixth-graders wore army fatigues in class and learned how to dismantle automatic weapons. Asad developed a cult of personality that in some ways recalled the Stalinist period. Asad and others in the Syrian leadership-especially 'Abd al-Halim Khaddam and Foreign Minister Faruq al-Sharaa -- even adopted a Soviet style of speech, beginning with high principles and working back to practical applications.

On the international level, Syria had its assigned part to play in the "socialist division of labor" that arrayed the Soviet bloc in a worldwide effort against the United States and its allies. The Soviets counted on Asad to adhere to their line, and he invariably did on the major issues, (although the two differed on what Moscow considered lesser matters, such as Lebanon). Asad was one of the very few leaders, for example, who voluntarily endorsed the Soviet aggression in Afghanistan in 1979-89. Indeed, precisely because he joined the Soviet camp of his own volition and not as a satellite, Asad had special importance to Moscow. The Syrian military became partially integrated into the Soviet system, especially with regard to its navy, air force, and short-range ballistic missiles. So dense and close were Soviet-Syrian military ties, the U.S. Department of Defense in 1985 termed Syria "the centerpiece of Soviet Middle East policy."

In return, the Syrian leadership gained much from the Soviet Union, including weapons, military training, intelligence, financial aid, political support, and diplomatic cover. The Soviets offered themselves as a trading partner willing to take second-rate goods and as a source of safe cultural products. In addition-something often neglected-the leadership in Damascus gained psychological security by participating in a global network. Soviet bloc rulers forwarded Asad's position at international fora, regularly traveled to Damascus, and hosted him in their capitals. The rulers praised each other, exchanged gifts, attended each other's funerals, touted one another's achievements, and trumpeted in the media what the other wanted said about himself. The men of Damascus associated themselves with a large and flourishing alliance, adding much to their self-confidence.

A new era began for Asad in April 1987, when Mikhail Gorbachev publicly signaled his intention to reduce Soviet support. He told Asad that the absence of relations between the USSR and Israel "cannot be considered normal"; worse, he publicly admonished Asad that "the reliance on military force in settling the Arab-Israeli conflict has completely lost its credibility." To make matters more dire yet, the Soviet bloc began to fall in 1989 and was gone by the end of 1991.

This development profoundly affected all aspects of Syrian politics. It established the failure of the Soviet model and turned the psychological benefit of belonging to a powerful international alliance into the liability of association with a losing team. It cut off Syria's advantageous trade relations with the Soviet bloc. It dealt a nearly mortal blow to Asad's goal of attaining "strategic parity" (at-tawazun al-istratiji) with Israel;-that mix of military, economic, and cultural achievement that would permit Syria to face Israel as an equal either on the battlefield or at the bargaining table.

Asad publicly acknowledged the extent of his problems, remarking sourly in early 1992 and hinting of a conspiracy: "The Arabs lost a great deal, and Israel won a great deal, politically, economically, and militarily, so much so that it would appear that what happened had been planned and implemented for the sake of Israel." A few weeks later, referring to changes around the globe, he noted that "the Arabs are not among the winners so far. The winners are the enemies of the Arabs." Asad could have gone further and stated that perhaps more than any other state in the Middle East, his own suffered from the Soviet collapse. Or, as one of his officials admitted, "We regret the Soviet collapse more than the Russians do."

Emotionally, Asad appears still to cling to the old order. In July 1994, he declared a week's mourning on the death of Kim Il Sung and personally went to the North Korean embassy in Damascus to sign the condolence book. When Vietnam's President Le Duc Anh came visiting in May 1995, the two leaders' public statements suggested how much they cherished each other's company. Le spoke of "valiant and beautiful Syria," referred to "an atmosphere of happiness and delight," and recalled a half-century of partnership "to liberate ourselves from the yoke of old colonialism."

As an able politician, however, Asad neither wallowed in nostalgia nor did he passively succumb to dreadful circumstances. Rather, he made changes in domestic and foreign policies. Toward what end? To understand Asad's goals, we look at the key dynamic of Syrian society, tensions between Sunnis and 'Alawis.

Syria Beyond the Peace Process is available from The Washington Institute for Near East Policy

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