Asia Time Online - Daily News
Asia Times Chinese
AT Chinese

    Middle East
     Oct 1, 2005

In the heart of a volcano
Reviewed by Sreeram Chaulia
Buy this book

The recent Tal Afar offensive in northern Iraq has yet again brought neighboring Syria to the top of the US policy agenda. Long rumored as the next target in the "war on terrorism", Syria is under the American microscope for sponsoring militancy, pursuing weapons of mass destruction and repressing its own people.

A challenging "problem state" that undermines the superpower's objectives in Iraq and the greater Middle East, Syria has escaped drastic action thus far because of strong internal differences and lack of analytic consensus in the US establishment. Flynt Everett, the Central Intelligence Agency's senior Syria watcher in the late 1990s and Middle East specialist for the State Department and the National Security Council under George W Bush, has written this actionable portrait of Syria's young ruler, Bashar al-Asad, to dispel the confusion. Arguing that the neo-con penchant for forcible regime changes is deranged, he prescribes a 'carrots-and-sticks' policy of conditional US engagement with Syria.

Sectarian cleavages between the Sunni Arab majority and the non-Sunni communities wrecked Syria's social harmony for centuries. The persistence of Salafi Islamism among Sunnis reinforced sub-national ruptures and ensured that the modern nation-state that emerged in 1946 lacked legitimacy. Another threat to nation-building was the supranational identity nurtured by politically conscious Syrians, rooted in the Arab revolt of 1916-20. Deprived of the cherished single state in historic Syria (Levant or Bilad al-Sham in Arabic) that joined today's Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, it viewed the creation of Israel as a permanent obstacle to nationalist aspirations. Syria's undistinguished economic performance after independence completed the picture of a weak and divided country.

Despite intrinsic marginality, Syria's strategic location at the heart of the Levant gave it centrality in the US agenda. Former president Hafiz al-Asad's tenacious assertion of Syrian interests on the regional stage compelled American attention for the last three decades. From Hafiz's perspective, the rationale for US intervention in the region was to bookend Israel's hegemonic position. His worst-case scenario had Syria encircled by pro-Western Iraq, Turkey and Jordan, a Lebanon that does a separate peace deal with Israel and a rump Palestinian entity. Fearful of never regaining the Golan Heights lost to Israel in1967, Hafiz was bitter toward Arab states striking individual peace agreements with the Zionist enemy. His skilful maneuvering guaranteed American and Arab recognition that an Israel-Syria settlement was a precondition for comprehensive peace. No American administration was able to escape Henry Kissinger's quip, "Arabs cannot make peace without Syria." (p7)

US efforts to broker an Israel-Syria accord aimed not only at completing the "circle of peace" but also at anchoring Syria in the moderate Arab camp against the intractables. However, Hafiz's successful domination of Lebanon and strategic alliance with Iran hindered American designs, as did his cultivation of "rejectionist" Palestinian groups and Kurdish outfits. Also bothersome were assessments that Syria's indigenous chemical warfare program, deliverable through a ballistic missile arsenal, was the most advanced in the Middle East. The hereditary transition after Hafiz's death in 2000 deepened Syria's uncertainty factor in Washington's calculus.

Bashar inherited from his father an enfeebled presidential staff apparatus incapable of formulating bold reform initiatives. Since the succession mechanism was completely personalized, Bashar was constrained by the need to be seen as keeping faith with Hafiz's legacy. Industrial monopolies that were controlled by old-guard officials could not be broken up in the wake of an anti-reform coalition of the mediocre fossilized bureaucracy. The socialist economy anchored by Hafiz was unfit for the demographic explosion of restive Syrian youth. Capacity deficits hampered Bashar's banking revamp and creation of special economic zones.

The litmus test for stabilization lay in management of Syrian domestic politics. Leverett assesses that Bashar's reformist impulses "are somewhat attenuated". (p60) In his five years as president, progress was slow and subject to setbacks and even reversals. The emergence of a genuine civil society movement ("Damascus Spring") was short-lived, as political "salons" dwindled to14 from 300 in two years after a crackdown launched to silence radical calls for multiparty democracy. Nevertheless, the state did allow "slow expansion of social space" (p96) by permitting operation of many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and private universities. Appreciating the risk of proceeding too rapidly, Bashar conceived of a phase-by-phase strategy - administrative reform as a precursor to economic reform, and social reform as an antecedent for political reform. His personal inner circle and kitchen cabinet comprised Western-educated technocrats who shared these gradualist inclinations.

In foreign policy, Bashar's choices were governed by the conditions set by Hafiz, viz defending Syrian hegemony in Lebanon, "appropriate conditions" for talks with Israel, revitalized alliances with moderate Arab states, "strategic insurances" with Iran and Iraq and resolving outstanding differences with the US. Bashar's alternative advisory network for foreign affairs, staffed with figures such as Walid al-Mu'allim and Buthayna Sha'ban was strained by serious changes in the geopolitical environment that threatened to blow away Hafiz's core principles.

Bashar tried to assuage and contain anti-Syrian sentiment in Lebanon while preventing a truly independent power center in Beirut. Reduction and withdrawal of Syrian troops was balanced by an increase in Syrian intelligence personnel. Hezbollah's ascendance in Lebanese polity was facilitated as a counterweight to (former Lebanese prime minister) Rafiq Hariri's rising profile and as a useful lever to oversee the parliamentary arena. Bashar also built up Hezbollah's military capabilities with Iranian assistance as a deterrent to Israeli military action that was apprehended after Ariel Sharon's election in 2001. At the same time, Bashar avoided escalation that could lead to full-fledged war with Israel, maintaining a "call for jihad does not imply war". (p262) He influenced Hezbollah's periodic stand-downs for fear of getting caught on the wrong side of the Bush administration's "war on terror". Hezbollah, through joint training and logistical support for Islamic Jihad and Hamas, was also a useful instrument to raise Syrian clout with the Palestinian Authority.

Possibilities of a Syrian peace treaty with Israel foundered due to the Al Aqsa intifada (uprising) and Bashar's growing anti-Semitic rhetoric. Sharon's expansion of settlements in the Golan Heights added to the impasse. Like his father, Bashar's public diplomacy sapped the American "roadmap for peace", which envisioned a two-state solution for Israel-Palestine and effectively ignored the Syrian angle. He also rallied moderate Arab states to explicitly support Syria's peace process position, though Hariri's assassination in February put Damascus' relations with Saudi Arabia in a bind. Leverett considers it plausible that US pressures on Iran over its nuclear activities and on Syria over Lebanon will boost Tehran-Damascus strategic cooperation further.

Deterioration of Syria's ties with the US is the most important challenge for Bashar, who correctly prophesized that Iraq would be a quagmire for the Americans. US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's pot shots at Syria as the "next target" after Iraq generated anxiety in Damascus. Civilian officials in the Pentagon continue to charge that the Iraqi resistance is receiving funds and manpower through Syria. Neo-conservatives at the office of the US vice president oppose Syrian offers of help against al-Qaeda, maintaining that benefiting a state sponsor like Syria would be a reward for bad behavior. Leverett disagrees with this line and quotes what Bashar told him in person in 2004 - "Syria is a state, not a charity." It is "increasingly frustrated by US unwillingness to bargain". (p145)

Additional sanctions and critical rhetoric have had little success in modifying Syrian stances for more than 25 years. Unilateral sanctions in the era of globalization only prompt the targeted state to diversify its trade partners, as Syria has ably shown in the case of American energy sector investment prohibitions. The hawks prefer an Iraq-like scenario where tribal and familial authorities replace a strong secular regime in Syria, but the post-Saddam difficulties being faced by the US Army is a clear red-light indicator of the limits of such "solutions". Reliance on expatriate Syrian oppositionists (the "exile strategy") to overthrow Bashar is another faulty and failure-ridden path.

One constructive way for Washington is to restart the "Syrian Track" with Israel. Given Sharon's disinterest in Syrian preconditions for talks, the best that the US could do is to "provide sufficient cover for Bashar" by publicly conveying that it understands Syrian and Arab demands for the complete return of Golan Heights. On a parallel, Leverett wants the US to conditionally engage with Syria in the manner that bore fruit with Sudan and Libya. Bashar is a "suitable subject" for engagement, not irredeemable like the Taliban. Syrian-Iraqi trade and Damascus' participation in post-Saddam reconstruction can be negotiated for eliminating the cross-border infiltration of jihadis. Delisting Syria from the US State Sponsors of Terrorism gallery in exchange for shutting down paramilitary proxies would be a win-win proposition, as Bashar's standing for internal reforms would simultaneously improve. Leverett's liberal carrots also include removal of the blockades on Syria's accession to the World Trade Organization and on the flow of official US funds to Syrian NGOs. Free riding and failure to comply with these quid pro quos would invite American "hot pursuit" across the Iraqi-Syrian border and non-restraint on Israel to retaliate massively against Hezbollah attacks.

Though neatly imagined, Leverett fails to nail down the basic Arab belief, shared also by Syria, that the US does far less than its potential to control its proxy, Israel. Another mistake is to think that de-proscription from the State Sponsors list is enough for Syria to "get out of the terrorism business". As long as the Israeli threat remains, Bashar, who contends that Syria is "in the heart of a volcano", will keep the paramilitaries in tow. Creative and highly readable, this book suffers from low cognition of the special relationship between the US and Israel as the center of gravity, which alone can transform the Middle East for better or for worse.

Inheriting Syria. Bashar's Trial By Fire
, by Flynt Leverett, Brookings Institution Press, Washington DC, 2005. ISBN: 0-8157-5204-0. Price: US$ 27.95. 286 pages.

(Copyright 2005 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us for information on sales, syndication and republishing.)


Blame it on Syria (Aug 4, '05)

Damascus puts Syria first (mar 5, '05)

Dangerous vacuum in Lebanon (Mar 3, '05)

Bush has clear run at Syria (Mar 2, '05)


All material on this website is copyright and may not be republished in any form without written permission.
01060Ś178 Copyright 1999 - 2005 Asia Times Online Ltd.
Head Office: Rm 202, Hau Fook Mansion, No. 8 Hau Fook St., Kowloon, Hong Kong
Thailand Bureau: 11/13 Petchkasem Road, Hua Hin, Prachuab Kirikhan, Thailand 77110