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Problems Are Popping Up All over in Syria, and Assad Tries to React

March 1, 2005
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Syrian President Bashar Assad is confused and worried. The heat is on, and it’s not clear he can take it. Israel points a menacing finger at Syria for hosting terrorists, accusing it of enabling last Friday’s deadly terrorist attack in Tel Aviv, which has been blamed on the Damascus-based Islamic Jihad.

Assad has said he wants to renew peace talks with Israel, but at the same time he wants to please his backyard radicals. In addition, anti-Syrian sentiment in Lebanon is sizzling; the United States and France are pressing Syria to withdraw from Lebanon; the United States is growing impatient with Syria’s tolerance of Palestinian and Iraqi terrorists; Assad wants to appease the United States without losing his face with Arab hardliners; and Syria’s longtime ally, Egypt, is toying with “democracy,” while Assad’s own internal reforms are stuck.

So which way can he go?

The Syrian leader is genuinely worried that sooner or later his regime could go the way of Saddam Hussein’s, but he seems unwilling or unable to take drastic measures in response to Western pressure.

To be on the safe side, Assad claims innocence. On Monday, he shrugged off any responsibility for the attack in Tel Aviv. At the same time, he warned that the United States was about to attack Syria.

Assad told an Italian newspaper, La Repubblica, that Syria wanted Middle Eastern stability, and insisted it had no hand in the Feb. 15 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri or in the Tel Aviv bombing.

Relations between Syria and the United States have soured even more since the Beirut bombing that killed Hariri.

“If you ask me if I’m expecting an armed attack” from the United States, “I’ve seen it coming since the end of the war in Iraq,” Assad told La Repubblica.

In an effort to appease the Americans, Syria last weekend extradited one of Saddam’s half-brothers to Iraq. Sabawi Ibrahim al-Hassan al-Tikriti was suspected of having played a major role in the Iraqi insurgency during the past two years.

Assad’s tactics are to give a little and take a little without going overboard, trying to keep as many options open as possible.

Recent statements on Syria’s deployment of forces in Lebanon are a case in point. Lebanon’s defense minister, Abdul Rahim Mrad, confirmed last week that Syria soon would redeploy its troops to the eastern Bekaa Valley, whicih borders Syria, in conformity with the 1989 Taif agreement.

That pact, which put an end to Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war, allows “the two governments to determine the strength and duration of the presence of the Syrian forces,” but does not set a specific deadline for Syrian withdrawal.

Syria rejected U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559, passed in September 2004, which called for removal of “all foreign troops” from Lebanon. It may be quoting the Taif agreement as a face-saving measure in preparation for an eventual withdrawal from Lebanon.

Syria has carried out a series of redeployments in Lebanon since June 2001, cutting down its military presence there from 40,000 troops to 14,000.

“From a technical viewpoint, the repatriation” of Syrian forces “could happen within the end of the year. But from a strategic viewpoint, it will only happen if we get serious guarantees. In a word, peace,” Assad told La Repubblica.

Syria long has argued that large segments of the Lebanese political community insist on the continued presence of the Syrian army as an essential tool for stability. Given Syria’s economic and military domination of Lebanon, however, such assent is not considered to be freely given.

Last week, Egypt dispatched intelligence chief Omar Suleiman to Damascus for talks to “contain the situation in Syria and Lebanon within an Arab framework.”

Shara then traveled to Saudi Arabia for talks with Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz. Mubarak was expected to visit Damascus soon for a summit with Assad.

But there is more to Assad’s nervousness than just threats from Washington and Jerusalem.

Election results in Iraq have tipped the scale on the delicate balance between Shi’ite and Sunni Muslims in the Arab world. Once the United States pulls out of Iraq, the Shi’ite majority will rule the country for the first time, creating a “Shi’ite crescent” running from Iran east to Syria. It will extend west to the Shi’ites in Lebanon.

The weakening of Sunni Syria could affect the Sunni-majority Arab states, including Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

Arab states have been subject to heavy American pressure to open their societies to democracy and civic participation.

According to some analysts, Mubarak’s dramatic decision to allow a competitive presidential election came in response to reports that Washington would demand that Egypt spend part of its annual $2 billion in U.S. aid on political and economic reform.

Mubarak has taken several measures to convince the Americans that he’s indispensable. Not only has he pressured Syria to pull its troops from Lebanon, he has upgraded his involvement in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Accused of trying to stifle dissent engineer his son’s succession, he initiated an amendment to the electoral law that permits more than one candidate to run in the country’s next presidential election.

In contrast, Assad has made a few overtures but no great progress toward civic freedom.

Syria now has civic society clubs — though those that allowed provocative political critiques were quickly shut and their members jailed — but there is no real fight against corruption.

Assad does allow a certain measure of free speech. Last year he allowed the publication of a petition signed by several hundred intellectuals who demanded comprehensive political reform. But that was all they got — some publicity but no reform.

Judging from his performance so far, Assad still believes democracy is a dirty word.

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