Is Syria an Ally or Adversary of Radical Sunni Movements?

, December 3, 2007

Vol. 7, No. 23    December 3, 2007

  • Bashar al-Assad is clearly not his father. He is not respected or feared as was his father. People accept him in Syria not because of his character or his charisma – which is nonexistent – but because the average Syrian citizen sees no alternative.
  • Syria displays a bunker mentality. It sees itself as a small country, constantly under attack by foreigners and by neighboring countries, always the target of a conspiracy, like Cuba or North Korea, which have a similar bunker mentality.
  • American-Syrian relations were destroyed because of mistakes made by Bashar al-Assad. He destroyed Syria’s close relations with the European Union, especially with France. He also destroyed the delicate relations his father built with the Egyptians, the Jordanians, and the Saudis. His father was smart enough to create this web of alliances that balanced each other. This doesn’t exist anymore.
  • There is a debate in America about whether the U.S. should engage in a dialogue with Syria, but what Bashar wants from America is full capitulation, a total American withdrawal from Iraq. Bashar is not happy about the prospects for the emergence of a pro-Western regime in Iraq. There is also nothing to discuss with Bashar about Lebanon unless the Americans are ready to give Lebanon back to the Syrians.
  • We should be very realistic about what we can get from Syria. Syria is not about to become a close ally of the United States and part of what we call the moderate camp in the region. Syria is not Egypt, which is a big country with a long history and tradition, and which feels secure and sure of itself. This is why in the long run we can only get something very limited from Syria.

 

Bashar al-Assad’s Syria

What more can be done in order to remove Syria from its alliance with North Korea and Iran? What more can be done to engage Syria in a more positive dialogue with Israel, the international community, and the United States? Unfortunately, there is very little we can do.

When we speak about Syria nowadays, we speak about Bashar al-Assad. When Bashar became president of Syria in June 2000, it wasn’t clear if the generals, the bureaucracy, and the party members would ever accept him. Bashar has now survived for seven years and I see no real threat to the stability of his regime.

Bashar is the one who makes the decisions. When he became president we used to speak about the Old Guard, people who were left from the period of his father, Hafez al-Assad, like Vice President Abdul Halim Khaddam and Minister of Defense Mustafa Tlass. They are all gone. Khaddam is now in exile, Tlass retired, and all around Bashar are people who were appointed by him and not people left from his father’s era.

However, he is clearly not his father. He is not respected or feared as was his father. People accept him in Syria not because of his character or his charisma, which is nonexistent. The main reason for Bashar’s support is the lack of any alternative seen by the average Syrian citizen. The democratic option, which probably will bring radical Islamists to power, is not popular in Syria. There is no liberal, pro-Western democratic camp as there was in Eastern Europe when the Soviet Union collapsed.

The Syrians have Lebanon on one side, which is approaching a new civil war, and on the other side they have Iraq, where the war actually reaches Syria in the form of almost two million Iraqi refugees. When the man in the street in Damascus sees the disintegration and chaos of Iraq, he concludes that it is better to stay with what he has right now that provides him with limited stability and security – the regime of Bashar al-Assad. That is the main reason why this regime is popular. In addition, Bashar’s anti-Israeli and anti-American rhetoric is well accepted among the Syrian population and that is also a source of support for this regime.

 

Syria‘s Bunker Mentality

In order to understand Syria we have to take into consideration not only Bashar but also the mentality of the Syrian regime. Since it became an independent state in the 1940s, Syria has displayed a bunker mentality. It sees itself as a small country, constantly under attack by foreigners and by neighboring countries, always the target of a conspiracy. We usually compare Syria to Egypt or other Arab countries, but the more correct comparison is to states like Cuba or North Korea, which have a similar bunker mentality.

The Syrians really believe that there is an American conspiracy to take over the Middle East. Seeing this immediate threat, they became closer with radical Muslim movements and with Iran, even though Syria’s natural place is with Saudi Arabia, with its Arab brothers, and not with Iran.

The Syrians were surprised to discover that their readiness to cooperate with radical Islamic groups helped them in unexpected ways. For example, for some time the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood supported Syria.

Hafez al-Assad never came out with any creative ideas to promote and achieve progress in Syrian-Israeli or Syrian-American relations. It was always the Israelis or Americans presenting their proposals to be rejected or discussed by the Syrians. We should not expect the Syrians to follow Anwar Sadat – to have a vision about how to get their country out of the bunker and to achieve economic progress. That is not Syria. This was not Hafez al-Assad, and it is not Bashar either.

In the early 1990s, a year or so after George Bush senior was defeated in the 1992 elections, he came to visit his friends in the Middle East. Bush didn’t visit Israel, but he did visit Hafez al-Assad, back when American-Syrian relations were considered to be an asset for the Syrians. American-Syrian relations were destroyed because of mistakes made by Bashar al-Assad. He destroyed Syria’s close relations with the European Union, especially with France. He also destroyed the delicate relations his father built with the Egyptians, the Jordanians, and the Saudis. His father was smart enough to create this web of alliances that balanced each other. This doesn’t exist anymore.

Bashar survived, but he has left Syria standing in place, an undeveloped country with increasing economic problems and no chance of any improvement. At the same time, Syria has created an intimate alliance with Iran and with Hizbullah.

Hizbullah is the friendliest element in Lebanon toward Syria, but they don’t want Syria to come back into Lebanon. They have their own project of gaining control over Lebanon and they are doing well, but it will take them time. If the Syrians come back, they will just divide and rule, and this will be the end of Hizbullah’s dream.

 

A U.S. Dialogue with Syria?

There is a debate in America right now about whether the U.S. should engage in a dialogue with Syria. A dialogue about what? What Bashar wants from America is full capitulation, a total American withdrawal from Iraq. There is nothing to discuss. Bashar is not happy about the prospects for the emergence of a pro-Western regime in Iraq. There is nothing to discuss with Bashar about Lebanon unless the Americans are ready to give Lebanon back to the Syrians, like they did in the 1980s.

Can the Syrians do more to prevent people from going to Iraq and fighting the Americans or the Shi’ites there? Can the Syrian regime do more to destroy the training camps in Syria and block the transfer of money to these people? Yes, it can do more. But this is part of the Syrian mentality and the Syrian way of thinking, that it is all to be bargained over with the Americans.

Bashar only has a theoretical interest in having peace with Israel. He doesn’t have the eagerness, decisiveness, or courage that we saw when Anwar Sadat came to Jerusalem. Bashar has no clear vision of where he wants to see Syria in five or ten years. Bashar is not heading anywhere and there is very little we can do to change his behavior and engage him in a more positive dialogue with the West. He’s still in the bunker and isn’t ready to get out.

 

Radical Islamists and Syria

In 2004, for the first time in twenty years, radical Islamic groups began operating in Syria against Syrian targets. Every few weeks we hear of another group discovered by the government or another incident. Some are people who went to Iraq to fight the Americans and then came back to Syria to continue with their jihad, this time against local enemies – the secular Alawite regime in Syria. The Alawites are still very secular, but the Sunni majority is becoming more and more religious and this will become a challenge to the regime.

The Syrian regime had defeated the Muslim Brotherhood after its revolt in the years 1976-82. But today there are much more radical groups, inspired by and connected to al-Qaeda. The Syrian regime preferred to ignore these groups and allowed them to operate against the Americans. They are very small groups and most of the Syrian population doesn’t support them yet, but clearly, in the long run, Syria will have a problem because Bashar al-Assad and his regime are totally secular, and Syrian society is much more secular than others in the Arab world.

 

The Syrian-Israeli Balance of Power

During the years 2000-2007, Israel twice attacked Syrian positions in Lebanon in April and July 2001 in retaliation for attacks on IDF positions by Hizbullah, killing almost 20 Syrian soldiers. In October 2003, Israeli aircraft bombed a Palestinian training camp seven kilometers north of Damascus. In 2002 and 2006, Israeli aircraft flew over Bashar’s palace.

In all these cases there was no Syrian response. The Syrians were fully aware of the balance of power between them and the Israelis, and they were not interested in engaging in total war with Israel. The Syrians are fully aware that Israel is much stronger and there is no expectation among the Syrian public or in the Syrian army for immediate retaliation. The Syrians prefer to try to take revenge in indirect ways by using Hizbullah or the Palestinians.

Following the war in Lebanon, Bashar al-Assad made his famous speech in August 2006, telling the Israelis that after what happened in Lebanon, the status quo was not going to continue. But Bashar was bluffing and Israel called his bluff in the mysterious air attack in September 2007.

 

Prospects for the Future

When Israelis speak about normalization and peace, what they have in mind is a marriage agreement – something warm with hugs and kisses. What Syrians have in mind is a decent divorce agreement. There will be a settlement, but it doesn’t mean that we are going to be friends. The Syrians argue that they will have the same kind of relations they have with Ukraine, with no need for an embassy, but everyone knows the two countries are at peace.

We should be very realistic about what we can get from Syria. Syria is not about to become a close ally of the United States and part of what we call the moderate camp in the region. Syria is not Egypt, which is a big country with a long history and tradition, and which feels secure and sure of itself. This is why in the long run we can only get something very limited from Syria.

*     *     *

Prof. Eyal Zisser is the Head of the Department of Middle Eastern and African History and the Director of the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University. Prof. Zisser is a leading expert on Syria and has written extensively on the history and politics of modern Syria, Lebanon, and the Arab-Israeli conflict. Among his books are In the Name of the Father: Bashar al-Assad’s First Years in Power; Lebanon: The Challenge of Independence; and Assad’s Syria at a Crossroads. This Jerusalem Issue Brief is based on his appearance at the Institute for Contemporary Affairs in Jerusalem on October 25, 2007.

Prof. Eyal Zisser

Prof. Eyal Zisser is the head of the Department of Middle Eastern and African History and a senior research fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University. His books include Syria: Domestic Political Stress and Globalization (2002), Assad's Legacy: Syria in Transition (2000), and Lebanon: The Challenge of Independence (2000).