Home inFocus Can Syria Change? (Spring 2009) Bashar’s Syria and Prospects for Change

Bashar’s Syria and Prospects for Change

Eyal Zisser Spring 2009

The year 2009 begins with great expectations of change in the United States. President Barack Obama declared during his election campaign that a policy of dialogue with America’s adversaries, including Iran and Syria, was preferable to the policies of breaking off relations or resorting to force. Not surprisingly, Obama’s election was welcomed in Damascus. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad even hastened to send a congratulatory telegram after Obama’s landslide victory.

Assad, however, appears determined to maintain his current positions and basic assumptions about domestic and foreign policy. This means: in Iraq—the complete withdrawal of American forces; in Lebanon—the handing over of that country once again to Syrian domination; and with regard to Israel —the complete return of the Golan Heights to Syria, in return for minimal concessions, and certainly not as part of an arrangement in which Syria would become a close ally of Washington.

The Obama administration has nonetheless signaled an interest in renewed diplomacy with Bashar’s Syria. If this is the path taken, the new U.S. president must now determine: What will motivate Assad to change his dangerous policies, which undermine America’s efforts, to ensure regional stability and advance peace throughout the Middle East?

Bashar’s Inheritance

Bashar al-Assad came to power in June 2000 upon the death of his father, Hafez al-Assad, who ruled Syria for nearly 30 years. During those three decades, Hafez took Syria from a weak and unstable state and forged it into a small-scale regional power.

Bashar inherited from his father a complex yet smoothly functioning web of relations with the U.S., Western Europe, Russia, Arab states, and Iran. Indeed, Hafez’s policies promoted the formation of parallel axes that balanced each other. For example, Hafez’s friendly relations with Europe helped to facilitate dialogue with Washington. His relations with moderate Arab states—especially Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan— opened doors for him in the West and even helped him diffuse European and American pressure. At the same time, his relations with Iran helped to increase Syria’s military power and maneuverability to counter Israeli military strength.

The web of relations Hafez bequeathed to his son undoubtedly buoyed Bashar when he first took power. For example, Hafez’s strong ties with France paved the way for French President Jacques Chirac to extend an offer to the young president to serve as his counselor and guide.


During Bashar’s first years in power, these strong ties quickly collapsed. Several regional challenges appeared too difficult for Bashar to handle. They included: the outbreak of the Palestinian al-Aqsa Intifada; the renewal of the confrontation between Hezbollah and Israel along the Lebanese-Israeli border in October 2000; the war on terror decreed by U.S. President George Bush following the September 11, 2001 attacks; and the U.S. invasion of Iraq in the spring of 2003. These developments wrought havoc on Syrian-American relations.

Ties were further strained with European states over the crisis that erupted surrounding Syria’s meddling in Lebanon in early 2005. That crisis reached its zenith with the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri in February 2005. Many people in Lebanon and abroad blamed Syria for Hariri’s murder.

Syria paid a heavy price for the killing. In April 2005, under intense international pressure, Damascus was compelled to withdraw its troops from Lebanon. Later, as a result of the 2005 Lebanese elections, an anti-Syria government in Lebanon openly challenged Syria. Indeed, this government, backed by the so-called “March 14 Camp,” did not hide its hostility to Damascus and its desire to oust Syria from Lebanon.

The 2005 Lebanese crisis also created friction with other nations. The United Nations established a commission of inquiry to investigate the circumstances of the murder, particularly Syria’s involvement. Chirac, who had been a close friend of Hariri, also joined the long list of Syria’s opponents.

A break also developed in Syria’s relations with Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The war in the summer of 2006 between Hezbollah and Israel—in which Syria openly backed Hezbollah—brought Syria’s relations with these Arab states to a new low. When the leaders of Saudi Arabia and Egypt called for a cessation of violence, Bashar called them “half-men.”

Bashar was dangerously isolated, rendering the survival of his regime less certain. All the while, he remained concerned about a possible Israeli pre-emptive attack, as well as Washington’s continued calls for a dramatic change in Syria’s policies, if not a change in the regime itself.


Bashar, however, chose not to alter his country’s policies. On the contrary, Syria persisted in its unwillingness to cooperate with the U.S. to help stabilize Iraq, continued to destabilize Lebanon with the aim of restoring the leverage it lost in 2005, and strengthened its alliance with Iran and Hezbollah.

Bashar’s political and military ties with Tehran evolved rapidly into an intimate alliance. During the 2006 war, Bashar openly provided Hezbollah with advanced weapons and equipment to be used against Israel —something Hafez would have never counseled.

Similarly, international pressure and isolation did not deter Bashar from attempting to obtain nuclear capability from North Korea, beginning in 2001. This effort was exposed in September 2007, after Israeli warplanes attacked a nuclear facility the Syrians had sought to establish in the country’s north.

Israeli Engagement

Despite Bashar’s policies, Syria slowly emerged from isolation. Notably, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert concluded that Israel’s long-term interests made necessary an arrangement with Syria over the Golan Heights that would bring Damascus into Washington’s diplomatic orbit and perhaps ultimately loosen Syria’s ties with Iran and Hezbollah.

It is possible that the 2006 Lebanon war brought Olmert to this conclusion. Indeed, that war demonstrated to Israel the limitations of the use of force and the danger to Israel’s northern border inherent in the Hezbollah-Syria-Iran alliance. It also underscored the danger to the south of Israel from the Iran-backed Hamas organization, which took control of the Gaza Strip in 2007. Thus, Olmert began, with Turkish mediation, exchanging secret messages with Damascus. In April 2008, this dialogue was revealed to the public. In May, the two countries announced that official, though indirect, talks were taking place.

European Engagement

The Europeans followed Olmert’s lead. When Nicolas Sarkozy replaced Chirac as president of France, he was eager to play a role in Middle East diplomacy. He reached the same conclusion as Olmert—that the Syrians are a factor that cannot be ignored. The prevailing logic was that without Syria, the Arab-Israeli conflict could not be resolved.

The Europeans also began to reevaluate Syria’s role in Lebanon, especially in light of the crisis that erupted there at the end of 2007. This crisis was provoked when Lebanon’s Shiite community, led by Hezbollah, began to agitate for a more powerful position of influence in the country. The crisis reached a peak in May 2008, when Hezbollah activists took control of West Beirut, a Sunni stronghold, and threatened to engulf Lebanon in a new civil war. Given Syria’s traditional influence in Lebanon, many in Israel and Europe viewed Syria as a force that could rein in the ascendant Hezbollah.

When Syria demonstrated an eagerness to play a role in calming the Lebanese crisis, despite the fact that it would only regain its dangerous position of influence in that country, the Europeans ended their Syrian boycott. The Syrians, in turn, gave their blessing to the Doha Agreement in May 2008 and made possible the election of Michel Suleiman as president of Lebanon. Later, Damascus announced its readiness to establish an embassy in Beirut, something it had refused to do since Lebanon’s independence in 1943. Indeed, Syria actively sought to obtain international recognition for their presence in Lebanon with the knowledge that its return as kingmaker in Beirut was a matter of time.

In recent months, Syria has become the darling of the European Union. Foreign ministers who refused to visit Damascus now stand in line to be received in Bashar’s presidential palace. Syria’s foreign minister, Walid Muallem, has become a welcome guest in European capitals. Syria’s isolation has given way to friendly dialogue.

Obama & Prospects for Peace

Good will toward Damascus could offer a golden opportunity to advance American interests. However, it is also reasonable to assume that Damascus will squander this opportunity just as it failed to capitalize on similar initiatives in the past. After all, Syria’s foreign policy has always been geared toward preserving the status quo to assure its survival.

To achieve peace with the West, Syria’s demands may be too many. Syria seeks nothing short of the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, the return of the Golan Heights to Syrian hands, and the restoration of Syria’s influence in Lebanon. It is still unclear what it would give in return for these significant concessions.

Meanwhile, other actors may be inadvertently helping Syria reach its objectives. The U.S. military is closer than ever to leaving Iraq. Israel, under outgoing Prime Minister Olmert, appears eager to ink a Syrian peace agreement in exchange for a return of all of the Golan Heights. And in Lebanon, the international community continues to warm to the notion that Syria has the ability to promote stability.

This underscores the need to address Syria’s role in Iraq, Lebanon, and Israel all at once. Only the U.S. has the ability to ensure that this happens. Indeed, Olmert’s efforts to advance Israeli-Syrian negotiations were stymied due to the lack of American participation.

Is Bashar the Next Sadat?

A historic peace process would be necessary to achieve satisfactory results on the Iraqi, Lebanese, and Israeli fronts. To accomplish this, a leader in the image of Egyptian President Anwar Sadat is needed. Unfortunately, Bashar is neither willing nor able to fill this role. At this time, he appears satisfied to be a member of the radical camp in the Arab world. This role requires less destabilizing change to his regime, and also brings him popularity in the Arab street.

Yet, even without strong Syrian leadership, tough American policies could still prod Damascus to change its ways. For example, Turkey in 1998 threatened military intervention in Syria unless Hafez al-Assad stopped aiding the PKK, an anti-Turkish terrorist movement. Faced with the threat of war, Syria relented. However, the Obama administration has made it clear that American diplomacy will trump the threat of force.

Unfortunately, Western responses in recent years have taught Bashar that it was precisely his stubborn refusal to change his positions that saved him from isolation and made it possible for him to maintain power. Therefore, there is no reason for him to abandon his policies, especially now that there are no perceivable threats.

Surely dialogue is preferable to tension and violence. Indeed, dialogue may open doors, or at least pave the way for a breakthrough. However, it is important to maintain a realistic vision of what can and cannot be achieved with Bashar’s Syria.

Eyal Zisser is director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University.