Will Assad have the courage and the vision to rise to the historic occasion and change the geopolitical dynamics throughout the Middle East?
The time and circumstances have presented Syria's President Bashar Al-Assad with a clear choice: Continue to convey an image of an impotent dictator sounding eerily similar to the embattled, aging and ousted despots who have failed to meet their people's needs, blaming foreign conspiracy for their shortcomings, or display bold leadership and vision in order to use the opportunity of the unrest to institute basic reforms and turn toward the West. The notion that Assad would do the latter is perhaps wild and far-fetched, but the benefits Syria would reap and the effect on other countries involved as a result would be of a magnitude that could change the geopolitical landscape of the Middle East in an unprecedented way.
Assad's March 30th address was disappointing. Prior to the speech, there had been great anticipation that he would remove the emergency law that has been in place since 1963, as well as institute other reforms to gradually open Syrian society in ways that would strengthen Syria's domestic and foreign policies. Instead, Assad accused the proverbial scapegoat for Syria's problems: a conspiracy led chiefly by Israel and the United States to undermine Syrian "stability." Of course, there is no foreign conspiracy, and Assad knows it, and if he continues to ignore the wave of protests that have arrived at his doorstep, he will do so at his own peril. Certainly Syria's people do not buy Assad's tall tale.
Syria is known among the Arab states for the quality and quantity of its intellectuals and academics. Syria's youth are increasingly demanding greater freedoms and access to the world. For these intellectuals and young men and women, Assad's j'accuse speech must have rightfully appeared as outdated and hackneyed rhetoric. The Syrian people also know that in the current context, Assad's ability to employ ruthlessness to maintain his regime is limited. The days of Hama, when Hafez Assad reportedly killed thousands in leveling part of the city to clamp down on the Muslim Brotherhood in 1982, are over. The more Syrians killed by Assad's regime, the more likely that the Syrian people and the international community will resort to greater and more lethal methods to bring about his downfall.
The choice for Assad, however, is not between continuing his iron-fist reign and undertaking political reforms. Some argue that lifting the emergency law, which he promised to do in his speech last Saturday, will undermine the regime-I don't buy it. There are plenty of steps Assad can take to promote the kind of gradual reform that would address the basic demands of his people while maintaining the stability and fabric of his regime. However, to do so successfully, he must begin to reassess his relations with Iran, and its surrogates Hamas and Hezbollah. Assad's alliance with these entities has proved successful in recent years. He has captured the attention of the region -- and the United States -- while overcoming the suspicion and scrutiny of the investigation into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, and has used Syria's ties to Iran and extremist groups to gain leverage over potential future talks with the U.S. and Israel.
But now the tide has turned in the region, and to rely on this alliance would be to bet on the wrong horse. Iran is embattled with its own domestic unrest, and when push comes to shove, neither Israel nor the US will allow Iran to become a regional hegemon equipped with a nuclear weapon. Meanwhile, Hezbollah's allegiance to Iran and increasing influence in Lebanon will soon grow beyond Syria's control. Even Hamas seeks a prolonged ceasefire with Israel and is in unity talks with Fatah as the Palestinians look to the United Nations General Assembly for recognition of their own state come September. Neither of these groups has the appetite to seriously challenge Israel and face the prospect of utter destruction. Moreover, Syria must now deal with its own internal combustion and, in this regional context, Assad's current positioning offers him little hope for a successful, viable strategy (which may have prompted his second speech).
Assad should take heed of the events in Tunisia and Egypt and the uprising that is sweeping the entire Arab world. Perhaps more than any other Arab leader, however, he might be able to weather the storm of discontent, provided he resolves to adopt a strikingly new strategy. Why can he survive where others could not? He is young, Western-oriented and educated, has access to vast intellectual resources in his country, and -- most importantly -- he is in a pivotal position in the Middle East. This last point is particularly compelling for the United States. Rather than fight against the wind of revolutionary change, Assad should go with it. In doing so, he should follow the footsteps of Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat. Sadat's abandonment of the Soviet Union in favor of the United States was a bold and farsighted move. If Assad were to take a similar step in connection with Iran, he could reap the benefits of the return of the Golan Heights from Israel, a strengthened economy, and a more influential position of stability and leadership at the nexus of the Arab world. He doesn't have to completely sever ties with Iran and unsavory extremist groups in a flash.
The moment Assad turns to the United States, he will be sending a positive signal to Israel, albeit tacitly, and begin some basic reforms of the U.S.-Syria relationship. This will translate to diminishing ties with Iran as well as logistical and financial support for Hamas and Hezbollah. Assad can turn to the West without overtly declaring his intention to withdraw from the Iranian orbit-but in effect still withdraw. Furthermore, he does not need to forsake Hamas and Hezbollah. Syria's continued relationship with them could place it in an even more significant role through which to influence these groups to abandon their self-destructive dream of destroying Israel and instead join to advance regional peace and security.
Despite the Syrian crackdown and killings of protesters, the United States hasn't recalled its newly installed ambassador for consultation. While the White House is still trying to undermine Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, it recognizes the potential Basher al-Assad has to fundamentally change the geopolitical dynamic, if he makes the right moves. The United States should now begin to tacitly convey that he should make gradual reforms, making good on his promise to remove the emergency law and expand economic and media freedoms. In addition, if Assad begins to look west, the U.S. must have the will, and program in place, to support him. Throughout the Middle East, the United States has shown that if its national security interests and the interests of its allies (Bahrain and Saudi Arabia as a case in point) demand that a leader plays a critical role -- like Syria could -- in promoting those interests, they will work with this leader. A byproduct of this process would be to bolster the stability and position of Syria in the region. The United States' goals in its engagement with Syria are well-known: To weaken Iran and its proxies, Hamas and Hezbollah. For Assad to advance these goals, he will need something substantial in return. Contrary to the beliefs of many, the U.S. has a great deal to offer: A new economic relationship and U.S. aid (along the lines of that provided Egypt following the Egypt-Israel peace treaty) as well as a return of the Golan Heights upon successful, U.S.-facilitated and incentivized negotiations between Syria and Israel while carefully addressing the later national security concerns.
What kind of legacy does Assad want to leave behind? The young 45-year-old Syrian leader has a historical opportunity to oversee, and even lead, the Arab world through a period of historic transformation. However, to do so he must stop acting like the old dictators in the region, and act more like the kind of strong, forward-looking leader the protesters on the streets demand. Furthermore, he must stop the violent confrontations on the streets that will greatly advance the prospect of his ouster, and the subsequent uncertainty that would replace him. Assad may be able to create a model of change without relinquishing power as long as he does it sooner rather than later. Otherwise, Assad will increasingly be on the defensive and lose tremendous ground as time elapses. Yes, he is surrounded by an entrenched ancient regime that has vested interests in maintaining the status quo, but they too know that the current situation is no longer sustainable and their days in power are numbered unless there is change for which the public yearns.
Assad already knows what chips the United States is willing to play. It is in this administration's interest to validate the engagement policy it has pursued with Syria, by bringing Assad to moderation and to the Western camp, particularly as President Obama faces myriad challenges in the region and an upcoming presidential reelection campaign. The question now is: What chips will Assad be willing to play, and can he rise to the occasion? Perhaps not. If he does however, he must decide quickly, or he may soon find that he has no chips left at all.
This article was originally published by the Jerusalem Post on 4/15/2011, and can be accessed here.