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JERUSALEM ISSUE BRIEF

Vol. 4, No. 2     29 August 2004


Syrian Foreign Policy Under Bashar al-Assad

Eyal Zisser


  • Hafez al-Assad was a master in using terrorist organizations to promote Syrian interests and achieve political gains that he couldn't otherwise accomplish. By using terror and local agents, Syria gained control over Lebanon and forced both Israel and America to leave. Yet there has been no Syrian involvement in operations inside Western countries since 1986.

  • Since the beginning of the 1990s, many radical Islamic forces have settled in Syria after the Islamic groups and the Syrian regime came to recognize their mutual interests vis-ą-vis the United States and Israel. For the Syrians this meant ignoring the radical dimension of the Islamists, and for the Islamists this meant ignoring the secular dimension of the Syrian regime.

  • Bashar al-Assad enjoys the support of the Syrian population and there is no real opposition. He clearly benefits domestically from his position on Iraq that allows the smuggling of weapons and the infiltration of terrorists through Syria.

  • Syria's goals in Iraq are, first, to get the Americans out. The presence of the Americans in Iraq is a threat to Syria regardless of what happens in Iraq. Second, Syria seeks to maintain Iraq as a state, mindful of the riots last March in the Kurdish area in northern Syria. Third, Syria is interested in having some influence over Iraq in the future.

  • A peace agreement between Syria and Israel is unlikely anytime soon, first of all, because the Syrians are not ready to sign an agreement which is separate from an agreement with the Palestinians.


The Legacy of Hafez al-Assad

People often speak of the legacy of the late Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad. One important aspect of this legacy was his use of terrorist organizations to promote Syrian interests and achieve political gains that he couldn't otherwise accomplish. He was fully aware of Syria's military weakness vis-a-vis Israel and the United States, and from the 1970s used proxies in Lebanon and Jordan against Israel in a clever way.

Much of Syria's success in Lebanon has to do with the use of terror. For example, the murder of Bashir Gemayel, the elected president of Lebanon, on September 14, 1982, was carried out by the Lebanese organization closest to Syria - the Syrian nationalist party (SSNP) - which is still active. The murder of Gemayel played a major role in the failure of Israel's plan to bring about a change of regime in Lebanon to one friendly to Israel.

A year later, Hizballah was behind the blowing up of both the American embassy and the U.S. Marine headquarters in Beirut, killing almost 250 American soldiers in October 1983. This was done by a local agent of the Syrians and it is widely believed that the Syrians were behind it. It led to the American evacuation of Lebanon, so in the eyes of the Syrians this was a success. By using terror and local agents, Syria gained control over Lebanon and forced both Israel and America to leave the Lebanese arena.

The only time the Syrians had second thoughts about using proxies was in 1986 after the Hindawi affair, an attempt by Syrian authorities to blow up an Israeli airplane at Heathrow Airport in London. After this incident, and warnings to the Syrians by both the Americans and the British, there was a Syrian decision not to be involved in what we call international terrorism - to use or encourage terrorist groups to operate in Western countries or in the United States. Since then, there has been no direct Syrian involvement in such incidents.


A Secular-Islamist Alliance

The Syrian regime is secular by nature and at one time its major enemy was the local Syrian Muslim movement - the Muslim Brothers. In 1982 the Syrians engaged in a massacre of this group in Hama, and since then the Muslim Brothers have not disturbed the regime. Indeed, since the beginning of the 1990s, radical Islamic forces from around the region have become allies of the secular Syrian regime, including Hamas and the Islamic movements in Egypt, Algeria, and Yemen.

This occurred because both the Islamic groups and the Syrian regime came to recognize their mutual interests vis-a-vis the United States, Israel, the process of normalization, and threats to the regional position of Syria, and they put aside the disputes of the past. For the Syrians this meant ignoring the radical dimension of the Islamists, and for the Islamists this meant ignoring the secular dimension of the Syrian regime. Since the beginning of the 1990s, many radical Islamic forces have settled in Syria. This has caused some difficulties for the Syrians, for example, with the Egyptians when they discovered a man responsible for terrorism in Egypt living in Damascus. There is a clear Syrian indifference and a readiness to ignore all of the activities of these Muslim groups.

There was the interesting case of the PKK, the Kurdish dissident group targeted by the Turkish authorities at the end of the 1990s. After Turkey threatened Syria with war, the Syrians gave up and suddenly, in one day, a problem that couldn't be resolved for years was solved.


Syrian Support for the Insurgency in Iraq

In discussions of Syrian involvement in Iraq and Syrian responsibility for terrorist activity in Iraq or in Israel itself, we often hear that Bashar al-Assad, the leader of Syria since June 2000, is not the real man in power and doesn't really rule Syria. It is said he is surrounded by what is called the Old Guard and they operate behind his back and he's not to be blamed. Clearly, Bashar al-Assad is not Hafez al-Assad, but as far as his legitimacy is concerned, he enjoys the support of the Syrian population and there is no real opposition.

Syria was against the war in Iraq from the beginning. Yet for years there had been animosity between Syria and Iraq, and for years the Syrians perceived Iraq under Saddam Hussein as their enemy. This changed in 1997 when Hafez al-Assad decided to warm relations between Syria and Iraq, despite an attempt on his life during the 1980s. He was motivated mainly by the economic benefits and some political benefits, mainly versus Israel, at the time led by Netanyahu. Assad considered Iraq under international monitoring as weak and not threatening to Syria, and that Syria could only benefit from these relations.

There were further changes under Bashar al-Assad, who is young and more open to change. For example, the improvement in relations between Syria and Turkey had to do with the fact that Bashar was not committed to the past the way his father was. His visit to Ankara, acknowledging the fact that the formerly disputed area of Hatay (Alexandretta) is now in the hands of the Turks, was something his father could not even imagine. As far as Israel is concerned, Bashar is not affected in the same way as his father from the traumatic events of 1967 and 1973. On the one hand, this may make him less careful about using Hizballah against Israel. On the other hand, it could make him more flexible about a possible diplomatic settlement with Israel. He declared in a recent interview with the New York Times, "I am ready to have normal relations with Israel" - something his father never dared to say.

As the war in Iraq came closer, Bashar al-Assad strengthened Syria's alliance with Saddam Hussein in the economic, political, and military spheres. The smuggling of weapons and the infiltration of terrorists through Syria was clear evidence that Bashar was ready to help the Iraqi regime in a way his father never dared to do. America was not focusing on Syria before the war, but the mistakes made by Bashar made Syria a target for the Americans.

The Syrians have a problem reading the Americans and democratic society in general. The Syrians were shocked by the American victory in Iraq, and now hope things will get better. From what is happening in Iraq today, Bashar said, "We are encouraged by the American failure. It means we are not on the American agenda and the Americans are not going to attack us."

Syria's goals in Iraq are, first, to get the Americans out. The presence of the Americans in Iraq is a threat to Syria regardless of what happens in Iraq. The Syrian position indeed reflects that of the average man on the street, and Bashar clearly benefits domestically from his position on Iraq. Second, Syria seeks to maintain Iraq as a state, mindful of the riots last March in the Kurdish area in northern Syria. Third, Syria is interested in having some influence over Iraq in the future.

While it is doubtful that the Syrians stand directly behind the terrorist groups operating against the Americans in Iraq, it is clear that a decision was taken by the Syrian regime to simply let matters take their own course. The Syrians enable volunteers to enter Iraq and ignore the transfer of money and ammunition to terrorist groups there. Whenever anyone complains, the response is, "We do our best, but we have no information" - the same response they gave the Turkish authorities when they complained about the PKK.

The Syrians have lately started to rethink their position as a result of a terrorist attack against the UN headquarters in Damascus in April 2004 by local Syrians, who went to Iraq to fight the Americans and after a few months returned to Syria to continue their struggle against the West and against the enemies of Islam. The Syrian regime knows that in the future those dissidents may also attack other enemies of Islam, including the secular regime itself.


No Separate Peace with Israel

A peace agreement between Syria and Israel is unlikely anytime soon, first of all, because the Syrians are not ready to sign an agreement which is separate from an agreement with the Palestinians. In Israel, the current government is too busy with the Palestinians and there is no urgency to reach an agreement with Syria since it is very quiet along the Israeli-Syrian border. The Americans view Bashar al-Assad the same way they viewed Saddam Hussein. If the Americans are not pushing for an agreement, it is unlikely that Israel and Syria will do it by themselves.


The Future of Hizballah - Syria's Proxy

Syria and Iran have a very strong alliance that was formed in the 1980s. It is a rather strange alliance between a secular Arab nationalist regime and a radical Islamic regime, but still is a very close strategic alliance. Yet disagreements do exist. In 1996, when Syria appeared to be close to signing an agreement with Israel, it was the Iranians that accused the Syrian regime of treason.

In Lebanon, both Syria and Iran have joined forces to support Hizballah against Israel, but in the future, the question of whether Hizballah should maintain its arsenal and become a major player in Lebanon could lead to tension between the two countries.

For Hafez al-Assad the father, Hizballah was a tool, an employee of Syria in Lebanon. With Bashar, it's different. He sees Hizballah's Nasrallah as a great leader, a model to be followed. Hizballah has become a regional power. The Syrians have used Hizballah not only against Israel but also as a player on the domestic Lebanese scene to threaten the other players so they will obey the dictates of Damascus. Hizballah is deeply rooted today within the Shi'ite community in Lebanon and has reached its achievements due to Syrian ignorance, indifference, and encouragement.

Hizballah is facing a dilemma today about whether to maintain its jihadic identity as a radical organization that is totally mobilized against Israel, or to undergo a process of Lebanonization, representing the Shi'ite community within the Lebanese domestic scene. Hizballah is not just a few hundred fighters arrayed against Israel. It also has thousands of members on local councils and elsewhere. Nasrallah needs to think twice before he enables an escalation along the border with Israel, although without the approval of Syria, nothing could happen in the military sphere.

As far as Israel is concerned, the threat of Hizballah is not limited to Israel's northern frontier, which is relatively quiet. Israel is more concerned with Hizballah's emerging role as the mastermind behind Palestinian terrorism, once again with the deep involvement of Iran and with Syrian ignorance. Israel cannot ignore Hizballah's extensive involvement in directing and financing Palestinian terrorist activities against Israel, and we may be hearing more about targeted killings of Hizballah activists in Lebanon.

*     *     *

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 most recent books include Syria: Domestic Political Stress and Globalization (2002), Assad's Legacy: Syria in Transition (2000), and Lebanon: The Challenge of Independence (2000). This Jerusalem Issue Brief is based on his presentation at the Institute for Contemporary Affairs in Jerusalem on July 21, 2004.


Dore Gold, Publisher; Yaakov Amidror, ICA Program Director; Mark Ami-El, Managing Editor. Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (Registered Amuta), 13 Tel-Hai St., Jerusalem, Israel; Tel. 972-2-5619281, Fax. 972-2-5619112, Email: jcpa@netvision.net.il. In U.S.A.: Center for Jewish Community Studies, 5800 Park Heights Avenue, Baltimore, MD 21215 USA, Tel. (410) 664-5222; Fax. (410) 664-1228. Website: www.jcpa.org. © Copyright. The opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect those of the Board of Fellows of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

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