Syrian Survival Tactics

16 December 2002

Syrian Survival Tactics

By Gwynne Dyer

Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad is only a second-generation dictator, not the original, blood-stained model, which may explain why he escaped inclusion in the ‘axis of evil’. But he is, like Iraq’s President Saddam Hussein, a member of the Baath Party. He gives office-space in Damascus to various Palestinian and Lebanese organisations — Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hizbollah — that the United States defines as terrorist. So senior US government officials cannot be seen talking to President Assad.

Somebody in the so-called coalition that the United States is putting together for an attack on Iraq has to talk to Assad, however, since Syria (a) has a common border with Iraq and (b) is the only Arab neighbour of Israel with major military forces that has not yet signed a peace treaty with Jerusalem. The coalition actually only has two avowed members, the United States and Britain, which meant it was up to Tony Blair.

Assad also needed to talk, because he could quite easily get killed this year if the United States is a little careless. He has been in power since his father died two years ago because it avoids a bitter succession struggle that might loosen the hold of the Baath Party on power, but he has no personal power-base. Most of the twenty million Syrians have little love either for the repressive Baathist regime or for the minority Alawite sect (only ten percent of Syria’s population) that Assad and most senior Baath cadres are drawn from.

If too many Arabs are killed in the attack on Iraq, it could trigger a revolt among the Syrian people — or the tough Baathist bosses could decide to forestall a revolt by getting rid of Assad in favour of a man less closely associated with an opening to the West. So, having visited Germany, France, Italy and Spain along the way, Assad arrived in Britain on Monday for a four-day visit.

Assad gave Tony Blair a very rough time when the British prime minister visited Damascus last year. For all that Assad is a British-trained eye doctor with a British wife (he was not expected to succeed to the presidency until his elder brother, Basil, died in a car crash in 1994), he berated Blair in public for Britain’s unquestioning support of Israel, defended Palestinian suicide bombings as legitimate resistance against Israeli occupation, and indulged in some openly anti-Semitic rhetoric.

As the insecure and under-qualified heir of his father’s thirty-year dictatorship, Assad’s priority was to establish his credibility with his Syrian audience, not to please the West. Blair is not under similar pressure, so he will not embarrass Assad publicly on his current visit to London. But London has its priorities too — and Washington is a great deal more important than Damascus.

Blair told Assad on Monday that Syria must stop supporting Palestinian groups that use terrorist tactics against Israeli military occupation. Nonsense, replied Assad: the Palestinian representatives in Syria are merely “press officers”. Blair also urged Assad to stop helping Iraq smuggle oil and other goods through sanctions and to end the country’s long-standing chemical and biological weapons programmes (though there were none of the threats that accompany similar advice to Iraq). But it was a hopeless dialogue, for Assad’s actions are ruled by the sheer need to survive, and Britain cannot deviate very far from American positions.

The United States is almost completely oblivious to the fears of Middle Eastern governments that an unjustified ‘pre-emptive’ attack on Iraq will unleash a cataclysm in the region. This is partly because Washington discounts local fears of a savage domestic backlash against pro-Western governments, and partly because it is confident that the war to destroy Saddam Hussein will be as brief and relatively low in casualties as were the wars in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan.

Arab governments, on the other hand, are acutely aware of the double standards that are being applied, and that these contradictions are visible to every Arab in the street. (Syria, which gives Palestinian extremist groups shelter, is not targeted; Iraq, which does not host groups seen by the US as terrorists, is Target Number One. Pakistan, which has nuclear weapons and is seething with Islamist extremist groups, is a US ally; Iraq, which rigorously represses all Islamist groups and does not have nukes, gets the full treatment.)

That is why Arab leaders keep making these futile visits to the West. In Assad’s case, the visit can’t be to Washington, so he has gone to the capital of America’s chief (and almost only) supporter in this enterprise. Like every other Arab leader, he is convinced that an American attack on Iraq will threaten every established regime in the region. “The consequences are not going to be contained within Iraq,” he warned last week. “The entire region will enter into the unknown.”

Maybe Blair sees that too, but there is no sign that he is able to get the message through to the White House. As for Assad, he should just go home and stop trying to build new ties with the West until this blows over. The US will doubtless punish Syria economically if it doesn’t play ball, but the Syrian economy is still so isolated and self-sufficient that Assad could probably ride out the damage. If he plays the West’s game, on the other hand, the Arab street could kill him.


To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3 and 4.