Will the Syrian regime take on the world?

Special to The Daily Star

To an outside observer, the Syrian regime must seem bent on pursuing a path of confrontation with the rest of the world. At the beginning of the American invasion of Iraq, and thanks to the bellicose posture the Syrian regime adopted during the early stages of the conflict, a similar showdown with the US was averted only at the last minute. This occurred because cooler heads in the Bush administration prevailed in their argument that a quarrel with Syria would, at that stage, distract Washington from its main task in Iraq. 

Now, and as a result of its continued and shameless dabbling in Lebanese affairs, the Syrian regime has not only angered the US once again, it has also alienated a long-time, and useful, European friend, namely President Jacques Chirac of France. Chirac recently called publicly and explicitly for the Syrian regime to avoid interfering in the Lebanese presidential election. When Syria ignored this and went ahead and imposed an extension of President Emile Lahoud’s term, this provoked consternation and resentment in Paris.

The policies adopted by the Syrian regime in the last few months raise an important existential question about the decision-making process in Syria, and more specifically the way the process is managed and who are the people involved in it. In judging Syria’s decision-making process to be flawed (and we cannot be of two minds about that; the process is definitely flawed), one invariably sees a need for change both in the management style by which policies are formulated, and in the personnel formulating these policies.

This brings to mind a dilemma Syria has been facing during the last four years, since President Bashar Assad took power, namely that of a clash between the “old guard” and a “new guard” in Damascus, and the fact that the entrenched interests of the ruling elite have simultaneously been a main obstacle to reform and the main catalyst for an impending catastrophe.

Bluntly put, the old guard’s deficient worldview and its desire to protect its ingrained interests are combining to create foreign and domestic policies that are, on the one hand, wreaking havoc on Syria’s economy, and, on the other, bringing it closer to an eventual confrontation with the international community. That the US and the French are now on the same side of the situation in Lebanon, when this was not always the case, should be a reminder to the Syrian regime that European support cannot be taken for granted. Moreover, Europe’s independence on Syria in the past was often more a sign of displeasure with Washington’s leadership style than an endorsement of Syrian policies or of the Syrian regime itself.

As things stand now, very few in the world are willing to endorse the behavior of the Syrian regime. In fact, the leadership has become Syria’s greatest liability. The more mistakes the regime makes in conducting Syria’s internal and external affairs, the more it will delegitimize itself in the eyes of both the Syrian people and regional and international policymakers and observers.

The reformist elements within the Syrian regime, Assad included, should realize that the challenge ahead is not about regime survival, but about the survival and viability of Syria as a state (and ours is not the only Middle Eastern country facing such a challenge). The leadership’s future policies should be guided by this realization, and an understanding that Syria is quickly running out of time.

The decision to support an amendment of the Lebanese Constitution to extend Lahoud’s mandate for an additional three years was exactly the kind of impromptu decision that Damascus should avoid making in the future. Although the decision’s sudden nature seemed to indicate, in part, an attempt to settle an internal dispute within the Syrian regime itself, the best way for ending such disputes down the road must be, instead, through the adoption of a bold initiative to enhance political reform and openness.

Once such an initiative is announced, it will likely lead to internal commotion in Syria among those who expect to suffer from a reform process. But such a step will also be supported by many elements within Syrian society, and outside. This includes opposition groups inside the country or in exile, as well as Syrian civil society and human or civil rights activists, the expatriate community, and decision-makers in both the US and the EU.

The considerable international support that Assad received at the beginning of his mandate in 2000, and which he continues to enjoy today in some circles, was premised on an expectation of reform. Now more than ever it will be the president’s ability to deliver on these expectations, while avoiding miscalculations of the kind we have seen in Lebanon, that will determine the fate and future of Syria. But, do the reformers in the Syrian regime have what it takes?

Written in Washington, D.C. during my fellowship at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.