Israelis and Syrians are holding talks regarding a potential peace treaty. Is this a realistic objective for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad or does he profit more by keeping the conflict alive?
Syria is a police state ruled by a strongman who controls all aspects of society. Assad restricts freedom at home and supports terrorism abroad in the name of defending Syria against Zionism and imperialism, which he claims have been imposed on his country by the West in order to destroy Islam and humiliate the Arabs.
Assad’s regime survives by indoctrinating its citizens to hate a common enemy, Israel. Anti-Semitic and anti-Western propaganda permeates Syrian society in order to divert attention away from its failures — an impoverished populace, dwindling economy and isolation among the Sunni Arab Quartet (Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states).
The continuation of the Israeli-Syrian conflict absolves Assad as responsible for committing to any sincere reform. Real peace would require him to liberalize Syria’s economy, allow for greater civic representation, curb authoritarian rule and terminate support for Hamas and Hezbollah.
Assad assumed power following the death of his father, Hafez, in 2000. Some analysts predicted that the Western-educated ophthalmologist would follow a trend similar to pro-Western, young Arab leaders like Morocco’s King Mohammed VI and Jordan’s King Abdullah II. To their dismay, the younger Assad seems committed to placing the interests of his Alawite-led regime first and the Syrian people second.
To sustain his rule, Assad brilliantly devised a plan to protect his authority as an Alawite in a predominately Sunni Muslim state. He vies for a leadership position of the Arab nation and espouses a radical socialist ideology reminiscent of the Nasserism of the 1950s and 1960s.
Assad lends logistical support to Muslim terrorist groups including Hamas and Hezbollah. Islamist support provides his regime with religious credentials as a defender of Islam against Westernization, imperialism and Zionism. In exchange for Assad’s support of these terrorists groups, they in turn promise neither to attack nor verbally criticize the regime. To be sure, during the 2006 summer war between Israel and Hezbollah, Assad, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became three of the most popular faces on posters throughout the Arab/Muslim world. Assad’s name was praised by many as the vanguard of Arab honor and dignity, as well as Islamic pride and unity.
Furthermore, although Assad would like to regain the Golan Heights, captured by Israel during the 1967 war, he prefers reoccupying Lebanon. Control of a sovereign state is a far greater reward than control of a rocky plateau. Economically, incorporating Lebanon under Syrian rule means Damascus can expropriate Lebanese wealth, a practice the regime employed from 1976 until 2005.
Politically, Syria would once again totally dominate all aspects of Lebanese affairs. Geographically, the annexation of Lebanon would provide Assad with a benchmark toward his pan-Arab vision of “Greater Syria,” that is, the linkage of present day Lebanon, Israel and Jordan under full Syrian sovereignty.
When taking all of these factors into account, it appears Assad thrives from keeping the Israeli-Syrian conflict unresolved. Peace between Israelis and Syrians would mean the end of Syria’s sponsorship of Hamas and Hezbollah. If peace were truly a possibility, why would terrorist groups need a patron to continue their cause? If the Golan is returned in exchange for peace, Syria cannot say that Israel is occupying its land. Hence, there would no longer be a need for the mukawama (“resistance”).
Assad is viewed as a popular ruler by many Syrians and is admired by many in the region as champion of Arabism and Islamism. Thus, Assad can justify his authoritarianism for the greater good of Syrians, Arabs, and Muslims. If peace becomes a reality, it will become difficult for him to aggressively promote Arabism and Islamism, as well as justify support for Hamas and Hezbollah.
It will also become troublesome for Assad to contest his stance that social, political and economic reform can only occur after a peace settlement. Dramatic Syrian reform could be Assad’s undoing. For the Syrian president, peace and stability in the Middle East threaten his regime. Chaos and instability keep his rule secure, and he exploits this by deflecting his people’s anger away from him against Israel and the United States.
Michael Sharnoff is a research associate at the Jewish Policy Center