Last fall, Bashar al-Assad's regime seemed on the ropes: isolated, directionless, and implicated in the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Syria was forced to withdraw its troops from Lebanon after nearly thirty years, and Assad seemed about to be deposed. Yet Assad has made a comeback of sorts. The Syrian government is cracking down on dissent (NYT), and Assad seems to be consolidating his power. The regime's maneuverings are explained in this new CFR Background Q&A.
It appears Assad could ride out the storm, especially as U.S. and international attention turns toward Iran's nuclear threat and Iraq's growing instability. Mona Yacoubian and Scott Lasensky of the U.S. Institute for Peace (USIP) write in a policy brief that while opposition groups within Syria are quietly pushing for regime change, most Syrians are willing to accept Assad in return for stability. The two USIP analysts appear to have had their December 2005 predictions validated; they wrote then that international pressure on Assad could strengthen him at home and called opposition groups scattered and ineffective. Farid Ghadry, president of the Reform Party of Syria, details the regime's suppression of internal dissent in the Middle East Quarterly, and says internal opposition groups need support from the international community if they are to make any difference.
In the meantime, Syria is strengthening its relations with its neighbors. Syria expert Joshua Landis details Syria's new cozy relationship with Iraq in his blog, SyriaComment.com. Landis also tells cfr.org's Bernard Gwertzman that mutual distrust between the United States and Syria over Iraq, Lebanon, and other issues makes any cooperation between the two countries unlikely.
Yet Syria still faces dilemmas. Its economy is struggling, and it needs to open up to regional and international trade to raise its citizens' standard of living. But doing so could erode Assad's authoritarian control. "The dismal outlook has fortified the prevailing siege mentality in both domestic and foreign policy," writes William Harris, a professor of political studies at Otago University in New Zealand, in the Middle East Quarterly. This CFR Background Q&A profiles more than a dozen top Syrian political figures who aid Assad in implementing his policies.
Neighboring Lebanon is having its own problems emerging from Syrian control. A national unity dialogue has produced few results. However, the Beirut-based Daily Star says the talks set a useful precedent for national cooperation across sectarian lines, and should be continued. Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora visited U.S. President George W. Bush at the White House April 19 and left with positive words, but no concrete gains. Siniora told Newsweek that while many are still calling for pro-Syrian Lebanese President Emile Lahoud to resign, Lahoud is "not free" to do so because of threats to his security.