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Bashar al-Assad has maintained his country’s key position in Mideast politics by drawing out the peace process and turning it into warfare by other means

Tony Badran
June 22, 2010
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at Al-Shaab Palace in Damascus, June 24, 2009.(Louai Beshara/AFP/Getty Images)
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad at Al-Shaab Palace in Damascus, June 24, 2009.(Louai Beshara/AFP/Getty Images)

In the annals of “big policy ideas,” perhaps none has had as much staying power in the face of a dismal track record than the seemingly perpetual conviction that integrating Syria into the pro-American order in the Middle East is a real, achievable possibility. The ultimate authority invoked in support of the idea that Syria is the keystone for stability in the region is usually Henry Kissinger, the arch-realist of American foreign policy, who is said to have said, “You can’t make war in the Middle East without Egypt and you can’t make peace without Syria.”

With the exception of a brief suspension during the George W. Bush presidency, the notion of Syrian centrality has dominated U.S. thinking—and often Israeli thinking—about the Middle East, and the Obama Administration is no exception. The idea that it is important to appease Syria at all costs appears to be behind the lack of any notable response to recent reports indicating that Syria may have passed Scud-D ballistic missiles to Hezbollah in Lebanon. This dangerous development comes after a tripartite summit in Damascus between the leaders of Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah in February at which the Syrian and Iranian presidents openly mocked Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her comment about wanting to see Syria distance itself from Iran. Instead, Damascus and Tehran waived visa requirements between their two countries.

The model for what U.S. and Israeli policymakers hope from Syria is the Camp David accord with Egypt, which established what some refer to as the “Pax Americana” in the Middle East. The Egyptian model was and remains the premise behind approaching Syria, as was evident during Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman’s testimony before the House Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia in April, when Rep. Dana Rohrbacher wondered in his remarks what it would take to turn Syria around to becoming a more moderate Arab country “like Jordan or Egypt.”

While Cold War efforts to remove Syria from the Soviet orbit failed, a similar, enduring subplot has emerged regarding its 30-year-old alliance with Iran. The ubiquitous argument was summarized in a 2009 essay by Richard Haass and Martin Indyk in Foreign Affairs:

Syria is the principal conduit for Iran’s influence in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories. Israeli-Syrian negotiations threaten to sever these ties. Drawing Syria away from Iran would also deprive Tehran and its Hamas and Hezbollah proxies of a critical ally. Such a strategic realignment would weaken Iran’s influence in the region, reduce external support for both Hamas and Hezbollah, and improve the prospects for stability in Lebanon. A U.S.-brokered peace between Israel and Syria would remove Damascus as an enemy and, in the process, likely cause the breakup of the Iranian-Syrian alliance.

Advocates for pursuing Haass and Indyk’s recommendation include a list of revered former officials, often identified as Realists, such as former Secretary of State James Baker, former national security advisers like Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski, a coterie of former ambassadors and peace processors, not to mention a host of policy mavens in the think-tank world.

Their argument rests on a basic linkage theory, which, incidentally, also accepts key aspects of the Syrian official line: The problems in the region are related, and they revolve around the Arab-Israeli conflict and Israel’s occupation of Arab lands.

In this conceptual universe, Syria is at the center of the conflict. A weak country, unable to match Israeli power and American penetration of the region, it struck a realist, defensive alliance with Iran as well as with non-state actors Hamas and Hezbollah in order to avoid isolation, but also to gather assets to pressure Israel and the United States to the negotiation table to recover the Golan Heights. In doing so, Syria manages to frustrate any regional deals that ignore its interests. Therefore, any deal in the region has to be “comprehensive,” i.e., involving the Syrians. After all, you cannot make peace without Syria, as the adage has it.


Another part of the idea that Syria is the key to regional peace, and can be won over to the West, has to do with the nature of Syria’s rulers. The Assads—who have ruled Syria since 1970—aren’t ideological, like Iran, the theory goes, but are secular and pragmatic horse traders. As former Secretary of State James Baker, one of the ardent supporters of this worldview, put it, “a deal is there to be had.”

Once the Syrians get what they want, Baker and his cohort believe, they will become more cooperative, leading to at least a reformulation of their ties to Iran and allied militant groups. Syria will ultimately embrace the West, they believe, because Iran cannot satisfy Syria’s serious economic woes. Only the West can offer Syria the investments it needs. This gives rise to other convictions about Assad himself, who is portrayed as a secular modernizer who, in the words of Brent Scowcroft, “cannot be comfortable clutched solely in the embrace of Iran.”

Secretary of State Clinton made this premise explicit at a hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, on the heels of a trip to Damascus by William Burns, the undersecretary of state for political affairs: “We have laid out for the Syrians the need for a resumption of the Israeli/Syrian track on the peace process, which had been proceeding through the offices of the Turks, and generally to begin to move away from the relationship with Iran, which is so deeply troubling to the region as well as to the United States.”

Assad’s reaction was swift and unambiguous: He hosted a tripartite summit with Iran’s president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah during which Assad and Ahmadinejad specifically ridiculed Clinton’s statement. Assad told reporters he and Ahmadinejad “misunderstood” Clinton’s comments, “maybe because of translation error or limited understanding.” Instead, he said, Syria and Iran signed an agreement canceling visa requirements between their countries. Ahmadinejad piled it on: “Clinton said we should maintain a distance. I say there is no distance between Iran and Syria. We have the same goals, same interests and same enemies. Our circle of cooperation is expanding day after day.”

Assad’s rhetorical slight was matched by his escalating transfer of advanced weaponry to Hezbollah, namely anti-aircraft systems and long-range missiles, culminating in the recent Scud crisis.

Given the conceptual framework within which the Administration is operating, it was unsurprising that the reaction to Assad’s behavior was one of befuddled confusion. Deputy Secretary of State James Steinberg shrugged off the Damascus summit as “theater.” Optimists even saw it as evidence of Iranian “insecurity” and “nervousness.”

After the reports of Scud missile transfers from Syria to Hezbollah, Assistant Secretary of State Jeffrey Feltman offered the following commentary on the Damascus summit to the Lebanese daily An-Nahar: “First, it seems that there is a pattern, as I mentioned in the [House] hearing, that after every visit [to Syria] by a U.S. or Western official, an Iranian official visits Damascus, or a Syrian official visits Tehran. I don’t know what this pattern means, but it could signify some very important things.”

Feltman had made the same observation during a stormy hearing of the House Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia a few days earlier, in response to a remark by Rep. Dan Burton, who described Assad’s summit with Ahmadinejad as “spit in our face.” Feltman retorted that the pattern suggests that the Iranians are worried or that something was going on behind the scenes. He neglected to mention that this same pattern has been going on for 30 years, without any real impact on the endurance of the Syrian-Iranian alliance, which seems as solid as—if not more solid than—it has ever been.

The fact that the Administration’s hopeful understanding of Syrian motivations fails to make sense of actual Syrian behavior has not been lost on U.S. policymakers, who nevertheless seem stuck in the same old box. As one official told Foreign Policy’s Josh Rogin, “We do not understand Syrian intentions. No one does, and until we get to that question we can never get to the root of the problem. Until then it’s all damage control.” Why Assad behaves the way he does was dubbed “the million-dollar question” by the same official.


At the heart of the Administration’s flawed conceptual framework is an acceptance of the idea that Syria’s behavior is ultimately reactive, driven by grievances against Israel and the West, the occupation of the Golan Heights chief among them. By accepting the centrality of the United States and Israel, policymakers miss far more powerful local factors that motivate regime calculations.

What is often referred to as a transient “marriage of convenience” between Syria and Iran is now in its 31st year, having enjoyed its silver anniversary during the Bush Administration. In fact, the relationship between the Assad regime and Ayatollah Khomeini predates the victory of the Islamic Revolution in Iran. Hafez Assad cultivated ties with the cadres of the Iranian opposition to the shah and even offered to host Khomeini in Damascus when the Iraqi Baath regime expelled him from Najaf in 1978. One figure that played an initial role in the relationship was the Iranian-Lebanese cleric Musa al-Sadr, who had sided with the Syrians in Lebanon in order to balance Palestinian influence.

Sadr had bestowed a measure of religious legitimacy on Assad’s Alawite sect (deemed heretical by orthodox Islam), declaring Alawites to be Shiite Muslims in 1973. Sadr was also hosting a number of Iranian opposition cadres in Lebanon, where they were able to train and assist the opposition movement to the shah. These figures, who went on to assume leadership positions in Iran’s newly founded revolutionary regime in 1979-1981, would move through Syria and were offered Syrian-issued passports to facilitate their movement. One such activist, Sadegh Ghotbzadeh, who went on to become Iran’s foreign minister, was given a Syrian passport and cover to work in Paris as a correspondent for the Syrian government paper, al-Thawra.

The Assad court historian, Patrick Seale, reports that on a visit to Tehran in August 1979, then-Syrian Foreign Minister Abdel Halim Khaddam boasted that Syria had supported the Islamic Revolution “prior to its outbreak, during it and after its triumph.” Well before Jordan’s King Abdullah warned of a “Shiite Crescent,” Seale had already written that Assad pursued a policy “to confront the world of Camp David” through an alliance with revolutionary Iran.

Far from recoiling from a Shiite Islamist “awakening,” Assad welcomed it. The “secular” Assad congratulated Khomeini over the victory of the Islamic Revolution and dispatched his information minister with a present for the new Iranian leader in Qom: an illuminated Quran.

The current effort to lure Syria away from Iran through incentives (political and economic) is hardly the first. For example, in 1986 the Iranians were “nervous” about an attempt at rapprochement with Syria led by Jordan, whose King Hussein also attempted achieving a reconciliation between Assad and Saddam Hussein. Between 1985 and 1988, there was a concerted effort backed by Saudi Arabia, the United States, and even Syria’s Soviet patron to entice Damascus into the so-called “Arab fold.”

Much like today, Syria’s economy was in dire straits, and the country was diplomatically isolated. Western observers figured that Assad’s choice was an easy one to make. And yet to their befuddlement, Assad refused, despite serious Soviet and Saudi pressure. The Syrian-Iranian alliance not only survived, it was consolidated during the subsequent two decades. Clearly, what outside observers have been arguing was Syria’s best interest was not in sync with its leadership’s calculation.


There is an immense gap between Syria’s grandiose self-image and the reality of its weakness as a second-tier regional actor. Damascus has always liked to invoke grand memories of its relatively brief imperial moment when it served as the seat of the Umayyad caliphate. This was a historical exception to geographical Syria’s status as a buffer zone and invasion route for larger, neighboring empires. But illusions of grandeur persist. The latest extravagant version of this charade being peddled by Assad is one that paints Syria as the nexus of “a single, large perimeter [with Turkey, Iran and Russia] that combines five seas: the Mediterranean, the Caspian Sea, Black Sea, the Arabian Gulf and Red Sea,” as the Syrian president grandly proclaimed in a May 24 interview with the Italian daily La Repubblica. “We’re talking about the center of the world.”

Continue reading: “a redefining of defeat as victory.” Or view as a single page.

Of course, Damascus still boasts about its status as the “beating heart of Arabism” and the “citadel of steadfastness and rejectionism” against Western colonialism. Furthermore, it insists in its interaction with Western states that they publicly acknowledge that Syria is a “central” player that is “key” to solving the region’s problems. In so doing, Syria acquires free leverage. It then uses this dance to secure clout over regional adversaries and to enhance the image of a first-tier actor.

However, Syria doesn’t possess any intrinsic sources of power that would allow it to project much influence over its Arab rivals. And so, in order to punch above its weight, the Assad regime has relied on sponsorship of terror groups of all stripes, as well as its relationship with Iran.


One senior Syrian official explained it in no uncertain terms in an interview with the International Crisis Group in January 2009: “They [the Unites States] talk to us when it is a question of cutting ties with Iran, Hamas and Hizbollah. But if we do, will they carry on speaking to us?”

It is this dynamic that makes a mockery of the notion that Syria should be “brought back into the Arab fold.” Whatever the nature of this “fold”—and there never was “one” fold, but competing alignments—what is sure is that Syria never was part of it. In reviewing the history of regional blocs, from the anti-Soviet Baghdad Pact in the 1950s to the present, Syria was never part of a pro-United States strategic architecture. Syria’s perennial quest for primacy among the Arabs has led to adversarial relations with all its Arab neighbors: Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, the Palestinians, and Saudi Arabia.

Fouad Ajami once recalled an old quote by the Lebanese Druze chieftain Kamal Jumblatt that captured an essential truth about the difference between Egypt and Syria. “Whoever rules Egypt is a pharaoh,” Jumblatt said. “And whoever rules Damascus is a wali, a provincial governor.” Syria, Ajami wrote, “was born ‘weak and beleaguered’ and remained a brittle, uncertain state, oscillating between claims of grandeur and a feeling of being persecuted by mightier powers.”

Syria neither wants nor can it replicate Anwar Sadat’s peace with Israel because it would mean that the grandiose house of illusions constructed by the Assad family would collapse, revealing the weak country behind the rhetoric. For Syria to accept to be “another Jordan” is to acknowledge its real, feeble weight. The idea of integrating Syria into a pro-American regional order through the peace process misunderstands fundamental Syrian interests, as it expects Syria to relinquish the only assets that make it relevant in regional politics.


Ironically, Assad’s own statements on “peace” with Israel should have made quite clear that Syria has no intention of severing ties with its old friends, regardless of the status of the Golan Heights. Assad has created room for future maneuver by introducing a distinction between “peace” (which includes a maximalist view of restoration of “Palestinian rights”) and a “peace treaty” (which he called a mere “piece of paper you sign. This does not mean trade and normal relations, or borders, or otherwise”), telling The New Yorker’s Seymour Hersh: “If they say you can have the entire Golan back, we will have a peace treaty. But they cannot expect me to give them the peace they expect.”

In his interview with La Repubblica, Assad downgraded that term even further, calling it a “truce”: “Many in the West do not understand the difference. If Israel is ready to return the Golan, we cannot say no to a peace treaty. But only a comprehensive solution guarantees true peace. An agreement limited to Syria and Israel will leave unresolved the question of Palestine. More than a peace, it will be a truce. In fact, with five million Palestinian refugees scattered throughout the Arab world, tensions would remain high.”

In a March 27 interview with Charlie Rose, Assad explained what he means by this “peace treaty”: “There is [a] big difference between talking about [a] peace treaty and peace. Peace treaty is like a permanent ceasefire. There’s no war, maybe you have [an] embassy, but you actually won’t have trade, you won’t have normal relations because people will not be sympathetic to this relation as long as they are sympathetic with the Palestinians: half a million who live in Syria and half a million in Lebanon and another few millions in other Arab countries.”

In other words, Assad says he would be generous to accept Israeli territorial concessions on his terms, but he cannot be expected to actually offer anything of value in return. In his interview with Hersh, Bashar also addressed the issue of his relationship with Iran and ceasing support for groups like Hezbollah and Hamas. He told the journalist that relations with Iran were “not part of the peace process. This peace is about peace between Syria and Israel.” Assad repeated this basic position to La Repubblica: “Iran has nothing to do with my negotiations.” As such, he said to Hersh that Israel and the United States should not “waste time talking about who is going to send arms to Hezbollah or Hamas. Whenever you have resistance in the region, they will have armaments somehow. It is very simple.”

The picture of peace that Assad draws is one that is identical to the current status quo, except for the fact that Syria would also get the Golan Heights back on its terms and presumably enjoy various trade advantages and economic carrots from the West. Bashar even has a catchy line to describe it: “peace and resistance form a single axis.” This is often misinterpreted as meaning that Assad would continue to support “resistance” until “peace” is achieved. What he actually means, as is evident from his own statements, is that “resistance” will continue regardless of a peace treaty.


Bashar Assad has made it clear that he sees the peace process as warfare by other means. In this, he is merely following his father’s footsteps. When the United States made its peace-processing push in 1990, it figured that permitting Syria to take charge of Lebanon would allow for integrating the Syrians in the peace effort, in order to once and for all achieve a “comprehensive” peace. Hafez Assad gladly pocketed what turned out to be a full decade of peace negotiations, including countless (often humiliating) trips by U.S. secretaries of state to Damascus (where they would at times be made to wait for hours before being granted audience) and reciprocal invitations of Syrian officials to Washington.

Meanwhile, Assad made good use of his control of Lebanon to solidify his alliance with Iran. A central component of that alliance was to guarantee that Hezbollah, Iran’s surrogate, would have free rein in southern Lebanon to continue its war against Israel.

This old duplicitous policy exposes the naïve and narrow thinking of those who argue that peace talks or a peace treaty with Syria would “isolate” Iran and its tentacles, like Hezbollah.

Amitai Etzioni put his finger on the problem in an article in the National Interest last year:

Syria would hardly be the first nation to find it beneficial to promise the moon and the stars in exchange for getting back a major piece of much coveted territory and being removed from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism and its associated sanctions—while making light of its obligations. In this case, that means still seeking to curry favor with Iran, say, by not fully closing its borders.

That’s precisely what Assad, in effect, told Hersh: that he intends to continue arming Hezbollah, regardless. Another way that statement could be read is that Assad is incapable of affecting the armament of Hezbollah, which would render an agreement with him utterly without value.

But over-inflating Syria’s actual importance is a chronic problem in policy circles. Witness, for instance, this recent bit of conventional wisdom from Martin Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel:

Today, nothing could better help Obama to isolate Iran than for Netanyahu to offer to cede the Golan, as four other Israeli prime ministers have, in exchange for peace with Syria, which serves as the conduit for Tehran’s troublemaking in the Arab-Israeli arena.

As Etzioni noted in his article, “The notion that Iran would be ‘isolated’ even if Syria became Israel’s best friend is—to put it mildly—a fantasy difficult to fathom.” Major world players, like China, Russia, and India, all have interests with Iran, as we all know from the floundering U.S. effort at marshaling support for sanctions. As Etzioni concluded, “there is no reason that whatever happens to or with Syria will affect these interests and lineups.”

The delusion persists, nevertheless. On the one hand, there’s denial. Believers are so confident that Syria’s alliance with the Iranian axis is so “unnatural” that the task of U.S. diplomacy has to be to show Assad that his “real interests” lie with the United States. This, in fact, is what the nominee for U.S. Ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, told the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in March.

On the other hand, there’s a redefining of defeat as victory. Advocates now argue that to push for a Syrian realignment is simply not realistic. All we should hope for is to have Syria “balance” its unsavory alliances with deepening ties to constructive players, such as Turkey or Saudi Arabia. And so, as Aaron David Miller put it, “The White House would have to be patient. Syria won’t walk away from a 30-year relationship with Iran; weaning the Syrians from Iran would have to occur gradually.” In other words, Syria would continue to have it both ways.

The Syrians have become used to being afforded such exceptionalism. Assad made a revealing remark to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas at the latest Arab Summit in Libya, telling him “the price of resistance is not higher than the price of peace.” While advocates continue to bring up the Sadat model, they continue to make exceptions for Assad that weren’t afforded to the late Egyptian president. As long as Assad is afforded such exceptionalism, he will continue to push his logic with a sense of impunity.


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Tony Badran, Tablet magazine’s Levant analyst, is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He tweets @AcrossTheBay.

Tony Badran is Tablet’s news editor and Levant analyst.