When Syrian dictator Hafez Assad finally died in 2000, hopes were high in Damascus, Western capitals and even Jerusalem about a possible change in this country. The heir apparent Bashar Assad was educated in England, and was an Internet user. With such credentials, the naive belief was that he would initiate Western-style reforms and might even make peace with Israel.
All these expectations disappeared rather quickly, none more so than in the souks and bazaars of Damascus. There, a new joke circulated about the Assad regime. Whereas, under Hafez, the dictator blinked and his henchmen understood the message, now the henchmen blinked and Bashar understood. Be that as it may, the fact is that Bashar inherited an idiosyncratic regime, resisting any change and fortified behind high walls of long-held brutality and violence.
Clearly, Bashar followed the basic doctrines of his father’s regime and differed only on style. The young man talks much more than his father did and is known to be very impatient. However, he has followed the rigid anti-American, anti-Israel and pro-Iranian policies of his father. He has also continued the unabated use of terrorism and the intensive involvement in Lebanon. For the Assad regime, terrorism is a modus operandi. They used it against their own people, most notably in the massacres of the Sunni Muslims in February and March 1982. Those who use terrorism against their own compatriots will most likely do it, and with great joy, against their external enemies.
Lebanon has been the main killing field for Syrian terrorism. The most authoritative expose of Syrian policy with regard to Lebanon is in a speech given by Hafez Assad as early as July 1976, following the Syrian invasion of this country. In it the dictator explained that Lebanon was basically a domestic Syrian problem, due to the historic connections between the two countries. Besides, Lebanon allowed Syria to intervene in Palestinian politics. But Lebanon provided a crucial potential danger to Syria’s own stability, because of its traditional democratic and capitalist system, and its mosaic of different ethnic and religious groups — much as with Syria. Disintegration of Lebanon, so said the dictator, could lead to the same situation in Syria, where a minority of Allawis dominated the Sunni majority.
For 30 years, Syria has terrorized Lebanon, defying in the process Israeli and American interventions, particularly in the early 1980s, while continuing to terrorize its other neighbors. There was only one of those which found the way to resist Syria. This was Turkey, which bled badly during the 1990s from the ongoing Kurdish terrorism initiated from Syrian territory. In October 1998, the Turks issued a strict ultimatum to the Syrian dictator. Stop your support for the Kurds or we are invading and destroying your regime. The unexpected happened. The dictator capitulated on Oct. 20, 1998, and since then there has been no more Kurdish terrorism from Syrian territory. It happened, because Hafiz Asad knew that the Turks meant serious business and his regime was about to fall.
Nowadays, there are two countries that can repeat the story of 1998. One of them is Israel, but the Israelis are unwilling to open up a new front and endanger the relations with the Palestinians. The other country is the United States, which may be willing but militarily unable right now to conduct a full-scale military operation against Syria. We still have another option to deal with Bashar, and this is using the traditional achilles’ heel of the Syrians — Lebanon.
It’s not enough to demand the withdrawal of Syria’s occupation army from Lebanon. There are in Lebanon many forces from all religious denominations, particularly Christians and Sunnis who could be used to threaten the internal stability in Syria. Let’s remember that in Syria the Sunnis are the ones who are traditionally downtrodden by the regime, as opposed to what it was in Iraq. An active American policy using overt and covert political and intelligence operations, backed by financial inducements, designed to approach the Sunnis of Syria, will pay America dividends, not just in Syria, but also in Iraq and in the rest of the Sunni Middle East.
In the old days, when Syria was chronically unstable, it was joked that when Syrian politicians in exile sneezed in Beirut, the rulers in Damascus got the flu. America is capable of doing much more than that. The time is ripe and the dividends in store are enormous.
Yossi Olmert is a former director of the Israeli Government Press Office. He also served as an adviser to Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir and Defense Minister Moshe Arens.