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Syria Stands Alone

Author: Esther Pan
October 21, 2005
This publication is now archived.

Syria's slow decline

What a difference five years makes. At the beginning of the century, Syria was a proud Arab country, ruled with brutal consistency for thirty years by Hafez al-Assad, comfortably assured of its decades-old grip on Lebanon, and admired in the Arab world for standing up to Israel and representing the principles of pan-Arab unity. Then, in June 2000, Hafez al-Assad died.

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Today, five years into the reign of his son and successor Bashar al-Assad, Syria is an international pariah whose actions have driven even Arab allies to reconsider their support of Damascus. Under Bashar’s leadership, the country has pursued a disastrous set of policies that have rapidly led to near-unanimous international opposition. The latest and most serious of these began in fall 2004, when Bashar forced an extra-constitutional extension of Lebanese President Emile Lahoud’s term through the Lebanese legislature, a naked display of power that antagonized then-Prime Minister Rafik Hariri into quitting the government and joining the political opposition. Hariri spoke of running for president himself amid growing support for ending Syria’s 29-year occupation of Lebanon. Then, on February 14, 2005, Hariri and twenty-one others were killed in a massive car bombing in downtown Beirut.

Suspicion immediately fell on Syria, and the extensive security and intelligence infrastructure it used to control Lebanon for decades. Bashar and Syrian officials repeatedly denied involvement in Hariri’s murder, but few believed the denials. UN special investigator Detlev Mehlis’s report into the assassination accuses members of Assad's most inner circle—including his brother-in-law Assef Shawkat—and the Syrian intelligence apparatus in Lebanon of deliberately plotting the murder over several months. The UN Security Council is currently examining the report and will debate the issue next week. The United States and France are proposing new Security Council resolutions, including one that would expand the mandate of the UN investigation into the Hariri murder—and possibly set up an international tribunal to try those found responsible—and another that would authorize sanctions against Syria for funneling weapons to the terrorist group Hezbollah and Palestinian terrorists based in Lebanese refugee camps for use against Israel. The United States also wants to punish Syria for permitting the funding and aiding of insurgents who cross the Syrian border to join the insurgency against U.S.-led forces in Iraq. 

And the bad news doesn’t stop: Next week, a separate report by UN envoy Terje Roed-Larsen will be delivered to Secretary-General Kofi Annan. Roed-Larsen’s report will detail the progress toward implementing UN Security Council Resolution 1559, which mandates the withdrawal of all foreign troops from Lebanon and dismantling Hezbollah and other militias. Hariri’s support for this resolution, which passed in September 2004, is what prompted Syrian officials to plan to kill him, according to the Mehlis report. 

The consequences of “targeted assassinations”

How did things fall so far, so fast? Bashar al-Assad, who inherited a country dominated by the security and intelligence apparatus run by his minority Alawite group, seems to be presiding over the potential demise of the Alawite regime. Investigators are closing in on Assad's closest advisers and officials: On Mehlis’ recommendation, Lebanese authorities arrested four pro-Syrian generals and charged them with murder in the Hariri case. The four—Major General Jamil Sayyed, former chief of General Security; Major General Ali Hajj, former director general of the Internal Security Forces; Brigadier General Raymond Azar, former director general of military intelligence, and Brigadier General Mustafa Hamdan, former head of the Republican Guards—worked closely with Ghazi Kenaan, who ran Syria’s intelligence apparatus in Lebanon from 1982-2002, which meant he effectively ran Lebanon. Kenaan was questioned extensively by Mehlis in September; only weeks later, Kenaan was found dead of a gunshot wound to the head in his Damascus office October 12, days before the Mehlis report was due. Syrian authorities ruled Kenaan’s death a suicide.

Syria watchers immediately suspected otherwise. “Most people think it was an assassination,” says Emile el-Hokayem, an expert on Syria and the Middle East at the Henry L. Stimson Center in Washington. Kenaan had amassed great wealth—some estimates say more than $200 million—skimming money from Lebanese trade and industry in his time there. He could have retired or gone into luxurious exile, experts say. Instead, he was probably either “convinced” to commit suicide or murdered, says Rick Francona, a former U.S. military attaché in Damascus and a Middle East analyst for NBC News. He says Syrian officials, afraid Kenaan would implicate them to Mehlis, likely ordered him killed.

This way, some experts say, Syria could try to blame Hariri’s assassination entirely on Kenaan and isolate the damage caused by the UN probe. But “anyone who knows anything about the power structure in Lebanon knows that it’s impossible that the generals decided to [assassinate Hariri] on their own,” says Gary Gambill, a Middle East expert and political analyst. A decision that weighty would definitely come from the top, he says. “It’s not really a question of, ‘Is Assad guilty?’” Gambill says. “In my view, he ordered Hariri’s death.”

Hariri’s murder, in a massive explosion in downtown Beirut in broad daylight, was the last straw in a series of events that showcased the recent deterioration of Syria’s international relationships. Bashar’s decision to oppose the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq earned him U.S. enmity; he has exacerbated the damage since by aiding insurgents who attack U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq. Hariri was a particularly provocative choice of target because he had very close ties to both Saudi Arabia—where his multibillion-dollar business empire was based, and whose king, Abdullah bin Abdulaziz, was a personal friend—and France, where his money was said to have financed part of President Jacques Chirac’s latest presidential campaign. Hariri was also a frequent and welcome visitor to Washington . As a result, the United States, France, and Saudi Arabia all explicitly warned Bashar to leave Hariri alone, experts say. In that context, “killing Hariri was a declaration of open war,” Gambill says. And the fact that Hariri was killed by a highly sophisticated car bomb in the signature manner of Syrian intelligence shows the Syrians were thinking more about the political-intimidation effect of their act than covering their tracks. “They got sloppy,” Gambill says. “They’d been in Lebanon – which they call “the province”—too long. They didn’t think they’d ever have to account to anyone for what they did.”

Syria’s past impunity

Syrian officials killed opposition figures with shocking casualness for a good reason: It worked. “Past Syrian assassinations were usually effective at causing the Lebanese political establishment to fall into line,” Gambill says. This year alone, there has been a steady stream of politically-targeted attacks: Hariri was killed in February; journalist Samir Kassir and the former leader of Lebanon’s Communist Party George Hawi were killed by car bombs in June; Lebanon’s defense minister Elias Murr narrowly escaped a car bomb attack in July; and in September, Lebanese journalist May Chidiac lost her left arm and leg to a bomb placed under the seat of her car. “Assassination and intimidation are part of the political culture of both these countries,” Hokayem says. 

But after Hariri’s death, some experts say, the culture of impunity has lifted. Countries that, in the past, were willing to look the other way are now saying Syria must pay for its crimes. “The violence taking place under Bashar is weakening Syriaand threatening the regime,” says Hussein Ibish, a Washington-based journalist and Lebanon expert. “The continuing campaign of violence has only served to further isolate Syria, galvanize opposition to Syria-backed President Emile Lahoud, and bolster a nonsectarian Lebanese national identity. With every new attempt at intimidation, Syria’s grasp [on Lebanon] slips a bit more,” writes Christopher DeVito in an October 2005 Foreign Policy article titled “Syria’s Self-Defeat.”

Mistakes and bad judgment

To veteran Syria hands, Bashar has displayed a shocking degree of ineptitude in his repeated misjudgments of the reactions Syria’s policies will inspire. “Bashar’s not the leader his father was,” Francona says. “He’s a technocrat. He never consolidated his power, he’s trying to please too many people, and he’s deluding himself.” Bashar is repeatedly accused of being tone-deaf to international opinion and too weak to master the fractious tribal and regional demands of leading a country like Syria. “He was placed in that position [president] by his father’s associates, and the sad part is he hasn’t grown into his own man,” says Richard Murphy, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria and Saudi Arabia who served in Damascus during Hafez al-Assad’s reign. Hokayem agrees, saying Hafez al-Assad was much better at consolidating Alawite support than Bashar. Hafez spread out power and played ambitious courtiers against one another; Bashar has concentrated influence within a small circle of close advisers and generally does not seek to build consensus, experts say.

Some experts trace the trouble to Bashar’s mishandling of Lebanese politics. “All of this violence and instability follows from the imposition of a second term for Lahoud with the inevitability of a Greek tragedy,” Ibish says. “Once they decided to unconstitutionally extend Lahoud’s term, events followed a grim, logical, and perfectly predictable pattern.”

Even the decision—if there was one—to murder Kenaan shows the current turmoil in Damscus. Kenaan was from a very respected Alawite family, more prominent than the Assads, and was accepted by the Alawite leadership in a way Bashar is not. He had proven his management ability in Lebanon and had the credentials and qualifications to lead Syria —also, in ways Bashar does not. Some U.S. and European officials reportedly thought so too, and Kenaan was discussed as a possible replacement for Bashar al-Assad. “People saw Kenaan as the most credible alternative to Bashar,” Hokayem says. “If Kenaan’s death was an assassination and not a suicide, it’s the best evidence of a power struggle within Syria.”

A possible deal?

There may be a way out for Bashar. News reports say the beleaguered Syrian president has been offered a deal similar to that accepted by Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Qaddafi in 2003: If Syria stops its support for regional terror groups, its aid to the insurgency in Iraq, and its interference in Lebanon, Damascus can head off sanctions and further international isolation. “It’s a variation on, ‘We’ll leave you alone if you cooperate by disengaging from Iraq, Lebanon, and the Palestinian territories,’” Gambill says. “Assad’s basically offered to do that, but there’s some question on whether he can deliver on those promises.”

But there would be a heavy price to pay if Bashar publicly accepted such terms from the west. Under Hafez al-Assad, Syria was seen as a staunch and unyielding defender of Palestinian rights and Arab pride. If Bashar caves, “he’ll be seen as selling out the goal of pan-Arab unity to save his own skin,” Gambill says. That would be unacceptable to Syrians, and thus makes such a compromise unlikely, he says.

But if there’s no international compromise, then what? After five years in power, experts say, Bashar has dashed early hopes he would reform Syria and open it up to the world. That hasn’t happened. Instead, Syrians have seen missteps, foreign policy mistakes, and the loss of Syrian power, territory, and friends (former allies Saudi Arabia and Egypt are siding with France and the United States against Syria on the Hariri issue.) The country as a whole is weaker, and many people blame Bashar. Instead of opening Syria up, Bashar has isolated the country further. “Syrians aren’t used to pariah status,” Gambill says.

Will Bashar survive?

Worldwide speculation is focusing on Bashar’s future. He has no clear successor, and most of the Syrian establishment still views him as the leader. “There’s no obvious alternative at the moment,” Hokayem says. “I think the regime is a bit more stable than people think,” he says. Francona says the vested interests of the Alawite establishment also work in Bashar’s favor. “Too many people in Syria owe their lifestyles and everything they have to the continuation of this regime,” he says. But “if they think Bashar will give everything away, they’ll remove him.” And if he goes, “some other power clique will emerge” that will likely be much more authoritarian, he says.

Murphy also thinks Assad is there for the moment: “The role is his to play,” Murphy says. “The present power structure will keep control and try to muddle through. Better to stay with the one you know, even if you don’t think he’s up to the job.”

Syria’s future

Some experts say Syrians view their future prospects as bleak. “They’ve been terribly isolated. The economy’s tanking. They were basically forced from Lebanon under international pressure. A lot of Syrians think Bashar caved when he didn’t need to, and it’s hurt them,” Francona says. In reaction to the growing dissent, experts say, Bashar is cracking down harder on Syrian society. “Colossal external pressure is forcing the regime to keep an iron fist inside the country,” says Murhaf Jouejati, a specialist in Syrian foreign policy and director of the Middle East Studies Program at George Washington University. This may be exactly the wrong tack. “The only way forward is maybe to introduce some reforms, but that would require subtle political skills, which Assad has not shown,” Gambill says. “My guess is that he’s in trouble, no matter what happens.”

There is some sympathy, though, for the leadership within Syria. “Syrians think Washington and Paris have been very demanding of Bashar, that as soon as he meets a condition they impose several more,” Murphy says. “There’s an idea that there’s nothing he can do to please them.” And too much direct international pressure might backfire, experts say. “If pressure from the United States is applied to Syria in the wrong way, it could drive support to Bashar,” Hokayem says. It remains to be seen if Bashar al-Assad can learn from his mistakes and manage to keep control of the country he inherited from his father.

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