Syria’s serial exporters of instability

July 08, 2006 12:00 AM / Ammar Abdulhamid

What do the Assads of Syria think they are doing? Hardly a day goes by in the country without another activist being arrested, banned from traveling abroad, or sentenced to a long prison term. Occasionally, particularly in the case of alleged members of the Muslim Brotherhood, they are handed down a symbolic death sentence – symbolic because these are almost immediately commuted to imprisonment.

Faced with such conditions, many activists have recently opted to leave Syria. This includes such figures as satirical journalist Hakam al-Baba, who currently resides in Paris, and, more recently, former parliamentarian Mamoun al-Homsi, a recent graduate of the Syrian prison system and one of the chief architects of the aborted “Damascus Spring” – the civil advocacy movement that briefly flourished in 2000-2001.

Furthermore, after a period of lying low, the Assads are re-emerging as one of the Middle East’s chief backers of radical groups – Islamist or ultra-nationalist. The recent showdown with Israel over the fate of an abducted Israeli soldier is a case in point, as the kidnapping seems to have been instigated, if not orchestrated, by Hamas leaders residing in Damascus, where they live under the protection of the Assads.

Together with the Syrian regime’s continuing dabbling in Lebanon and its strengthened alliance with Iran, the Assads seem to be thumbing their noses at the international community. What is prompting this potentially disastrous course of action by the regime? And what’s behind its growing internal and external belligerence?

Problems began after the rise of President Bashar Assad to power in June 2000 to replace his father. As a 35-year-old ophthalmologist who, until his late 20s, had no idea that he would one day find himself in such a position of authority, Assad had few or no qualifications for his new job other than lineage. His lack of experience has been the hallmark of his political career ever since.

But while this might help explain Assad’s blunders, an explanation for Syrian belligerency requires that one dig deeper into the nature of the regime. Assad came out strongly in favor of the armed Palestinian intifada in 2001, was dead set against the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, and he opened Syria’s borders up to jihadists wishing to fight the Americans there. In 2004, he backed a term extension for Lebanese President Emile Lahoud, in the face of international warnings and pleas that he not do so, and his security apparatus seems to have played a major role in orchestrating the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, among other violent acts. This is an impressive record for a young president after less than six years in power.

The aggressiveness of the Assad regime, therefore, seems intrinsic and stems from some inborn trait. Indeed, the Assads represent a small clan within the minority Alawite community. By controlling the country’s army and security services, the Alawites have effectively been ruling Syria for over 35 years now, and their insistence on transferring power from father to son was meant to preserve this state of affairs: Alawite rule in Syria and the Assad family’s control of the Alawite community.

Rather than introduce reform, Assad’s real mandate was to maintain the status quo. And if Bashar had any delusions about the possibility of enacting certain economic reforms, these were quickly dispelled when he realized that any serious effort in this direction would only serve to directly or indirectly upset the interests of the ruling clique. Thus, as had been the case with his father previously, the young president’s inability to change much in domestic Syrian affairs left foreign policy as the only outlet for Assad to draw much-needed legitimacy for his rule.

For this reason, Bashar can never truly be interested in a final resolution of Syria’s outstanding foreign entanglements. Having to continuously manage outside crises is the only way for him and his family to maintain their grip on power. Adventurism, therefore, will remain a mainstay of Syrian foreign policy, no matter how suicidal it might seem at this time, considering the constantly changing geopolitical realities in the region.

So, and in a typical fashion, Assad and the rest of his family will continue to up the ante in their confrontation with the international community. To them the game and the endgame are synonymous. Peace, stability and democratization in Syria and in the region will remain illusory goals for as long as the Assads are at the helm in Syria.

Ammar Abdulhamid is a Syrian blogger and dissident. He runs the Tharwa Foundation, an independent initiative that focuses on diversity issues in the region, and is a non-resident fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.