Where Is Bashar al-Assad Heading?
by Eyal Zisser
Middle East Quarterly Winter 2008
This item is available on the Middle East Forum website, at
On May 27, 2007, Syrians elected Bashar al-Assad to a second 7-year term as
president in a referendum in which, according to results published two days
later by the Ministry of Interior, Assad received the support of 97.62
percent of the voters, a slight improvement upon the 97.24 percent support
he received in the first referendum. Such results, though, have little
significance. Syrian referendums are a government-orchestrated show and have
nothing in common with normal democratic procedure. Nevertheless, the
referendum is a reminder that Assad has survived seven years in power. His
regime appears more stable than ever, no mean feat given that Bashar's rule
has coincided with perhaps the most difficult years the Baath regime has
known in the past four decades.
Secure in Power
Uri Lubrani, coordinator of Israel government activities in Lebanon between
1982 and 2000, once said that he would not give Bashar more than half a year
in power, not an uncommon sentiment at the time. That Assad survives
moots the debate about his viability. In contrast to U.S. experts'
predictions, Bashar demonstrated that he was not a puppet in the hands of
old guard figures such as Vice President 'Abd al-Halim Khaddam and Defense
Minister Mustafa Tlas. Today, none of the old guard remains in power, and
only former Foreign Minister and current Vice President Faruq al-Shar'a
remains on stage. Most retired on pension, except for 'Abd al-Halim Khaddam,
who defected to Paris from where he attacks the Syrian regime to little
effect. The senior military officer corps are, almost to a man, Bashar's
appointees although, in most cases, the Syrian media does not report on such
appointments: Hasan al-Turkmani, minister of defense; 'Ali Habib, chief of
staff; 'Ali Mamluk, head of the General Security Directorate; and
Muhammad Manasra, head of the Political Security Directorate; for
example. Within the military, Bashar has replicated the patron-client
relationship wielded so effectively by his father. Despite repeated rumors
about tension within the Assad family, there is no evidence that any
rival-most notably Asaf Shawkat, Bashar's brother-in-law and the head of the
Shu'bat al-Mukhabarat al-'Askariyya (military security department), or
Bashar's younger brother Mahir, an officer in a Republican Guards
division-has sufficient power to challenge his rule. The family is
maintaining its governmental solidarity. Here, Bashar's low-key personality
may help. There is no question he wields power, but he restrains any
forceful or violent traits that might arouse active opposition within family
or ruling circles.
Also aiding Bashar's staying power is the bureaucracy. In contrast to the
1950s and 1960s when military coups plagued Damascus, the Syrian political
system is now tangled and complex. Given the proliferation of bureaucratic
institutions and separate military forces, any attempt to enlist broad
opposition is almost a mission impossible requiring coordination between the
commanders of dozens of military and security units.
Syria-watchers from across the philosophical and political spectrum today
acknowledge that Bashar is an effective ruler who monopolizes
decision-making in Damascus. His success dashed White House hopes that
it could leverage U.S pressure-mainly blunt and harsh rhetoric together with
sanctions-to destabilize Bashar's regime or force him to change
Not all credit should go to Bashar, though. As with his father, staying in
power may have less to do with his abilities than with the character of his
rivals. Bashar benefits from the absence of any international, regional, or
internal power prepared to oppose him. Also, Syrians believe that Bashar's
fall might mean the rise of radical Islamist forces or lead to the chaos and
insecurity that has plagued post-Saddam Iraq.
A Pyrrhic Republic?
Just as in the time of his father, the price of Bashar's political success
continues to be paid by the Syrian state and its citizens. While Syria is a
model of political stability, it remains weakened and backward, frozen in
economic and social development. Syria's inertness is extracting a heavier
toll on its citizens than ever before. They are falling far behind the
modern world in both technology and living standards. According to the
United Nations Development Program Human Development Index, Syria is 107th
out of 177 countries surveyed; The Wall Street Journal and the Heritage
Foundation's 2007 Index of Economic Freedom rate Syria 145 out of 157
countries surveyed in the same neighborhood as authoritarian states such as
Turkmenistan (152), Libya (155), and North Korea (157). The World
Economic Forum's annual report on global competitiveness for 2006-07 ranks
Syria 12 out of 13 Arab countries-higher only than Mauritania.
Domestically, Bashar's efforts to liberalize Syrian political life have
failed. The so-called "Damascus Spring," during which the new president
allowed political and cultural forums to function, including those critical
of the regime, lasted only until February 2001 when the regime stepped in to
crush any dissidence and arrest many participants. On May 15, 2006, state
security arrested thirteen dissidents who signed the Damascus declaration
calling for greater democratic reform.
The Syrian economy is entering a crisis stage made worse by the depletion of
the country's oil reserves. Bashar's efforts to abandon Syria's
socialist legacy and promote a free economy have had little success. The
Syrian economy remains heavily regulated; most of Bashar's economic
initiatives have failed. For example, few private banks have opened and
those that have see financial activity limited. Proposals to open a stock
market remain unrealized. Indeed, without a breakthrough in relations with
the West, no progress in this area can be expected. And now, the regime
has to deal with Islamic radicalism, long dormant in Syrian political life.
A repeat of Islamist terror such as that directed toward the regime in the
early 1980s may not be far off.
Syria's international relations remain shaky. After assuming power, Bashar
faced crises on multiple fronts. The Palestinian uprising in October 2000,
the more assertive U.S. policy after 9-11, and the occupation of Iraq each
damaged Syrian relations with the West.
Bashar also pays a price internationally for his own mistakes. His regime's
apparent role in the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik
al-Hariri led to the loss of Lebanon and may ultimately lead to the
establishment of an international tribunal. Assad's subsequent
inflexibility soured his ties not only with Washington but also with Paris,
Riyadh, and Cairo. Perhaps Bashar was too willing to take chances, or
perhaps he acted impulsively. Either way, he destroyed the balance of axes
that his father had established: the Syrian-European axis to counterbalance
the Syria-U.S. axis, both of which Hafez al-Assad counterbalanced with his
alliances with Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
Such pariah status may, ironically, strengthen Bashar at home. On the Syrian
street, his policies enjoy popularity. If the Hariri assassination and
withdrawal from Lebanon were Bashar's nadir, then Israel's decision in
August 14, 2006, to end the war in Lebanon without achieving its goals
represented a moment of recovery and advancement, at least from Damascus'
perspective. With Israel failed in Lebanon, the U.S. military embroiled
in Iraq, and Washington's rhetoric exposed as empty, Bashar looks like a
gambler who bet on the right horse.
If Bashar's short-term gamble paid off, he may face a far higher price in
the future for his decisions. His outreach to Iran risks transforming
Damascus from Tehran's ally into its protectorate. While Bashar derives
short-term benefit from the Syrian-Iranian alliance, such profits are liable
to turn into losses should he continue to make his regime and Syrian
national security dependent upon the Iranian leadership.
Bashar's turn to Iran is evident in his regime's graphic art. When he first
came to power, Bashar derived legitimacy from his father's legacy. Posters
appeared all over Syria depicting a large image of Hafez al-Assad beside
smaller images of Bashar and his deceased brother Basil. By 2001, the
posters changed. Bashar was the central figure with his deceased family
members relegated to the background. Following the summer 2006 war, however,
new posters appeared in Lebanon depicting Bashar's image in the shadow of
those of Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hezbollah general
secretary Hasan Nasrallah.
The 2006 war in Lebanon demonstrated the close cooperation between Damascus,
Tehran, and Hezbollah. Such cooperation, amounting to a Syrian-Iranian
alliance, dates to the early 1980s when Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini
consolidated power in Iran. Collaboration between Tehran and Damascus has
grown stronger and more intimate with extensive intelligence and military
cooperation. While most Syrians are Sunni Muslims, that the Assad family is
'Alawi, an offshoot of Shi'ism, helps bridge the religious divide, at least
among the leadership of both countries.
But Syrians warn about the dangers of too much dependence upon the Islamic
Republic. Often, these voices manifest themselves with calls for dialog with
the West. Some regime spokesmen, led by Foreign Minister Walid Moallem,
Imad Mustafa, Syria's ambassador in Washington, and Sami al-Khiyyami,
its ambassador in London, declare repeatedly that Syria wants to improve its
relations with the United States and, perhaps, even achieve peace with
Israel. Their ultimate aim, Syrian representatives explained in
private, was to improve Syria's economic situation and break free of the
Iranian embrace. In exchange, they said, Damascus wanted Washington to
reduce pressure on the regime, treat it as an equal partner, restore the
Golan Heights to Syrian control, and perhaps, acquiesce to Syrian domination
It is difficult to know to what extent these declarations reflect Assad's
own views. The Syrian leader also sent contradictory messages, including
threatening to exercise a policy of resistance (muqawama) just as Hezbollah
did in Lebanon and Hamas did in Gaza and the West Bank. He has also
suggested that if his demands remain unmet, Syria might play a negative role
in the West Bank and Gaza, Iraq, and Lebanon. In Lebanon, at least, the
Syrian regime has shown their threats to be no bluff. The list of murdered
Lebanese politicians, already long, is growing. Bashar also appears to
be enacting his April 24, 2007 threat to U.N. secretary general Ban Ki-moon
that Syria would ignite the whole region if the U.N. established an
international tribunal to try senior Syrian officials. Moscow's cynical
policy in the region and its provision of advanced weaponry also enable
Bashar to strengthen his defiance, as does his significant chemical and
biological weapons arsenal.
Where is Bashar Headed?
It is difficult to know where Bashar is headed. He is far more likely to
model his behavior after Egyptian president Gamal Abdul Nasser than Anwar
Sadat. In the 1950s, Nasser refused to join either the East or West blocs.
Rather, he sought to maneuver between the two until the Eisenhower
administration pushed him into the arms of the Soviet Union with
Washington's demands of absolute commitment to the U.S. line.
Today, Bashar al-Assad is sending a similar message to the George W. Bush
administration, namely, that Syria is not prepared to join a U.S. axis and
that Washington should not demand it do so. Such a policy might have been
possible during the George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations, but
it became unacceptable to the White House after 9-11.
Washington should not perceive Bashar al-Assad as totally inflexible,
though. His father could change policies when he deemed it necessary,
reassessing relations with Washington following the Soviet Union's collapse
and also shifting from a commitment to unending war with Israel to
preparedness for peace negotiations. Bashar may be likewise capable of
changing policies. Bashar in 2007 is not necessarily the same ruler as
Bashar in 2000. His first seven years may have led Bashar to consider
adopting his father's policy to seek dialog with both Washington and
Jerusalem. However, it is possible that he has reached the opposite
Either way, Bashar is offering Washington a deal that would require the
United States to abandon Iraq, leave Lebanon open to Syrian domination, and
agree to a return of the Golan Heights to Syria in exchange for a return to
the friendly dialog the Syrian regime held during the George H.W. Bush and
Clinton administrations. In effect, he is proposing to Washington an
honorable capitulation. Such an agreement would enable Bashar to immunize
Syrian society from the change he fears.
A moment of truth for Bashar came on September 6, 2007, when Israeli
aircraft carried out an operational mission in northern Syria. American
media reports suggest the strike occurred to disrupt Syrian-North Korean
nuclear cooperation. Israeli officials refrained from comment in order
not to corner Syria or escalate the situation further. The Syrians did not
respond militarily to the attack suggesting that, at least at present,
Damascus is not interested in or ready for war.
Perhaps Bashar does not feel himself as strong as he did after the 2006 war
in Lebanon, or perhaps he realizes the potential cost of war. If this is the
case, then Jerusalem successfully called Bashar's bluff. Assad may believe,
though, that he has the advantage of time. Since late 2006, the Bush
administration has abandoned its efforts to pressure Syria into compliance
with U.S. demands to remove itself from the "axis of evil" with North Korea
and Iran; to stop supporting terrorists in Iraq, Lebanon, and Palestine; and
to play a positive role in Iraq and Lebanon. But the U.S. quagmire in
Iraq has eroded U.S. leverage. No Middle East ruler now believes further
U.S. military intervention possible. Bashar may even deepen his alliance
with Tehran and Pyongyang. Perhaps if Washington cannot beat Damascus, it
will join with it as some Bush administration critics have suggested.
This, incidentally, was what the United States did with regard to Nasser and
Hafez al-Assad, and it is very possible that Washington will act similarly
in the not-so-distant future towards Hafez's son, Bashar.
Eyal Zisser, director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and
African Studies at Tel Aviv University, is the author of Commanding Syria:
Bashar al-Asad and the First Years in Power (London: I.B. Taurus, 2006).
 Tishrin (Damascus), June 12, 2000, May 30, 2007.
 Yedi'ot Aharonot (Tel Aviv), June 23, 2000.
 Al-Hayat (London), June 12, 2000.
 See Flynt Leverett, Inheriting Syria, Bashar's Trial by Fire
(Washington: Brookings Institute Press, 2005), pp. 57-98; David W. Lesch,
The New Lion of Damascus, Basher al-Asad and Modern Syria (New Haven: Yale
University Press, 2005), pp. 8-19, 229-43.
 Al-Arabiyya television, Dec. 31, 2005, Jan. 1, 2006.
 Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA, Damascus), May 8, Aug. 1, 2004.
 An-Nahar (Beirut), June 14, 2006.
 Al-Hayat, Oct. 14, 2006.
 The New York Times, Oct. 30, Nov. 3, 2005; Akhbar al-Sharq website
(London), Jan. 20, 2006; Al-Watan al-Arabi (Paris), Oct. 24, 2006.
 Lesch, The New Lion of Damascus, pp. 234-43; Barry Rubin, The Truth
about Syria (New York: Palgrave and Macmillan, 2007), pp. 199-263.
 For more, see Robert G. Rabil, Syria, the United States, and the War on
Terror in the Middle East (Westport: Praeger Security International, 2006),
pp. 187-208; Financial Times, Oct. 9, 2005; The Daily Telegraph (London),
Jan. 11, 2006; Associated Press, May 25, 2006; statements by Donald
Rumsfeld, Agence France-Presse, June 24, 2006, and Condoleezza Rice, Agence
France-Presse, June 23, 2006.
 "2006 HDI Ranking," Human Development Report 2006: Beyond Scarcity:
Power, Poverty and the Global Water Crisis (New York: United Nations
Development Program [UNDP], 2006), p. 285.
 "Ranking: Countries," 2007 Index of Economic Freedom (Washington, D.C.:
Heritage Foundation, 2007), pp. 355-6.
 A Global Competitiveness Report, 2006-2007 (Geneva: World Economic
Forum, Sept. 26, 2006).
 As-Safir (Beirut), May 17, 2006; Ar-Ra'y al-'Amm (Kuwait), Apr. 26,
 Asharq al-Awsat (London) Apr. 17, 2007; As-Safir, Aug. 28, 2007.
 Nimrod Raphaeli, "Syria's Fragile Economy," Middle East Review of
International Affairs, June 2007.
 Detlev Mehlis, "Report of the International Independent Investigation
Commission Established Pursuant to Security Council Resolution 1595 (2005),"
United Nations, New York, Oct. 21, 2005.
 "The Situation in the Middle East," U.N. Security Council Resolution
 Bashar al-Assad, speech, SANA, Aug. 15, 2006; Syria Today (Damascus),
July 3, 2007; Tishrin, July 9, 2007.
 Author interview with European diplomat, Tel Aviv, June 12, 2007;
Carsten Wieland, Syria at Bay, Secularism, Islamism and 'Pax Americana'
(London: Hurst, 2006), pp. 127-9.
 See Robert G. Rabil, "Has Hezbollah's Rise Come at Syria's Expense?,"
Middle East Quarterly, Fall 2007, pp. 43-51.
 Al-Hayat, June 21, 2006.
 Newsweek, Apr. 24, 2007.
 Faruq al-Shar', Syrian vice-president, The Christian Science Monitor,
Mar. 8, 2007; Al-Watan (Kuwait), June 25, 2006.
 Ha'aretz (Tel Aviv), June 20, 2007; Reuters, July 12, 2007.
 Author interview with two former U.S. diplomats, Tel Aviv, Apr. 13,
Aug. 23, 2007.
 Author interview with former U.S. diplomat, Tel Aviv, Aug. 23, 2007.
 For more, see Nicholas Blanford, Killing Mr. Lebanon: The Assassination
of Rafik Hariri and Its Impact on the Middle East (London: I. B. Tauris,
2006); Al-Mustaqbal (Beirut), Nov. 23, 2006; An-Nahar, June 23, 2007.
 Ha'aretz, Apr. 25, 2007.
 Lee Kass, "Syria after Lebanon: The Growing Syrian Missile Threat,"
Middle East Quarterly, Fall 2005, pp. 25-34.
 Andrew Semmel, acting U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for
nuclear nonproliferation policy, The Washington Post, Sept. 14, 2007.
 David W. Lesch, Syria and the United States: Eisenhower's Cold War in
the Middle East (Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1984), pp. 138-89; Bonnie
F. Saunders, The United States and Arab Nationalism: The Syrian Case,
1953-1960 (London: Praeger, 1996), pp. 21-54.
 Dennis Ross, The Missing Peace: The Inside Story of the Fight for
Middle East Peace (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004), pp. 137-63,
 Ha'aretz (Tel Aviv), Sept. 8, 2007.
 CNN, Sept. 10, 2007; The New York Times, Sept. 11, 2007; The Washington
Post, Sept. 13, 2007.
 David Schenker, "Losing Traction against Syria," The Washington
Institute for Near East Policy, Policy Watch no. 1290, Sept. 21, 2007; Fred
Kaplan, "Let's Make a Deal," Slate Magazine, Sept. 16, 2007.
 Leverett, Inheriting Syria, pp. 147-66; The Iraq Study Group Report,
The James Baker and Lee Hamilton Commission (Washington, D.C.: U.S.
Institute of Peace, 2006).