Assad’s Olive Branch Can Bear No Fruit!

Ammar Abdulhamid Fri. Dec 29, 2006

According to an article in Time magazine this month, I am the central figure in some cockamamie plot to overthrow the Syrian government. The plan, apparently, is to undermine Bashar al-Assad’s regime through the ballot box, starting with the parliamentary elections scheduled for March 2007.

But as every Syrian knows, these elections tend to be quite staged and inconsequential. Perhaps the American officials who concocted the classified plan for regime change believed they could make it appear more credible by assigning a primary role to a dissident like myself. No one, however, could exude the kind of aura needed to cover the naiveté of the proposed scheme.

If nothing else, this half-baked plot exposes how much the United States is struggling to develop a coherent policy toward Syria. Washington is clearly unable to grasp the reality on the ground, both in Syria and across the Middle East — and nowhere is this disconnect more visible than in the naive insistence, by the Iraq Study Group and others, on linking progress in Iraq to the revival of Syrian-Israeli peace talks.

If Israel returns the Golan Heights to Syria, the advocates of this line argue, the Assad regime will become more agreeable to helping the United States in Iraq and to reining in Hezbollah and Hamas. But little consideration is given, at least officially, to the fact that Assad may not be in a position to help achieve any of these things once the United Nations’ investigation into the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik al-Hariri is completed.

This open secret has led many to believe — with ample justification — that despite the Iraq Study Group’s emphasis on obliging Damascus to abide by all relevant U.N. resolutions, the Assad regime will ultimately be rewarded with a free pass on the Hariri assassination. Indeed, there is an implicit acknowledgement among all advocates of talks with Assad that the regime’s real interest lies more in killing the Hariri investigation than in retrieving the Golan. But since this matter cannot be acknowledged publicly by either Damascus or Washington, returning the Golan is made out to be a key to solving the region’s problems.

Why, some might ask, should Israel care about all this, if in the end it gets something out of the deal — such as the containment of Hezbollah and Hamas?

For one, it is not really clear that Damascus actually can deliver in this regard, seeing that the real financial backer here is Iran. So, unless the Assad regime suddenly becomes willing to turn against Iran, it is unlikely to cause a serious break in the flow of arms and funds to Lebanon and Gaza.

No matter how desirable this turnaround might seem in the eyes of American and Israeli policy-makers, it remains an unlikely course of action for Assad. The alliance between the two regimes dates back to the early days of the Iranian revolution, and the security and economic dimensions of the relationship have been developed for years.

Iran invests hundreds of millions of dollars in Syria, and annual bilateral trade tops a billion dollars. More importantly, Iranians have been able to heavily infiltrate the Syrian security apparatuses, to the point where Tehran has the ability to manipulate existing differences among different members of the Assad family. Today, Iran is both a security threat and a lucrative business partner to the Syrian regime — and both sides are well aware of it.

The fact that Iran has so much influence on the Assad regime likely means that Iranian concerns would filter into talks between Israel and Syria. Considering the nature of relations among Iran, Israel and the United States at the moment, it is not at all clear that diplomacy with Damascus would be productive.

And that’s not all that could hamper Damascus’s ability to achieve peace. There is the Assad regime’s growing nationalistic jingoism, as well as the fact that the ruling Alawites represent less than 10% of Syria’s population. And, of course, there’s the ongoing Hariri investigation.

This might mean that even if Damascus does agree to sit at the negotiating table — which itself is far from a given — discussions could drag on due to the Assad regime’s inability to commit to specific concessions. Any concession to Israel, or to the United States, would likely be held against the regime by its domestic critics, meaning that Assad would be hard pressed to settle for anything less than a perfect deal.

Indeed, it was just such an impossible quest that made then-president Hafez al-Assad — who was a far more credible and pragmatic leader than his son — walk out on talks with President Clinton in 2000. How reasonable, then, would it be to expect that the embattled Bashar Assad will accept what his respected and feared father could not? One need only look at how the younger Assad has tried to appropriate Hezbollah’s perceived victory in Lebanon to grasp that at this stage, he is more interested in burnishing his militant credentials than his diplomatic ones.

Yet even if Assad were to sign a peace treaty with Israel — which, again, seems rather hard to imagine at the moment — such a deal would almost certainly be viewed as tainted by most Syrians. Any concessions made to the Jewish state would be portrayed by critics of the regime as Assad preserving his power at the expense of the national interest.

What exactly this would mean for the future of Syria is hard to say, but one can get a pretty good idea by looking next door, in Iraq and in Lebanon. With communal lines being drawn ever darker, the minority Alawites’ rule in Syria is far from guaranteed.

As such, peace with Assad may not necessarily mean peace with Syria. Indeed, a peace treaty might not even outlive the regime. So unless Israel, the United States and the international community are willing to assume the role of protector, it is unlikely that peace with an Assad-ruled Syria will prove enduring. Syria cannot make peace with anybody, least of all Israel, until it first makes peace with itself.

Ammar Abdulhamid, a Syrian blogger and author, was forced into exile in 2005 for criticism of the Assad regime. He is founder of the Tharwa Foundation, an independent initiative focusing on diversity issues in the Middle East, and is a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy.

12 thoughts on “Assad’s Olive Branch Can Bear No Fruit!

  1. Have you looked at your son’s blog lately?It’s all innocent teenage stuff I guess, but really, do you truly want to have the link up for the world to browse? He seems to have posted all the conversations with his female friends – their side only, not his. ??? Call me old-fashioned (and if you knew my history, you wouldn’t) but it seems a little strange to have the boy’s personal conversations so publicly available. Your daughter’s site is protected from public view. Just saying.Looking forward to reading your blog more.

  2. A complete rational analysis of the situation. Very much to the point. My only regret is that few people have such a crystal clear view.

  3. “Syria cannot make peace with anyone … until it first makes peace with itself”. How true , how true.Unfortunately logic is not the strong point of those who wrote the Iraq Study Report or of many who advocate seeking a Middle Eastern solution by placating the Syrian tyrant. A solution , if it is to be everlasting, will not be tailored to meet the wishes of a dictator but will be based on the merits of the case. There is no doubt that a comprehensive Arab-Israeli solution will mean dealing with all the parties to the conflict, including Syria but that does not imply that one should prop up the Baath regime. The current Syrian regime, as Ammar points out, has been transformed into essentially an outpost of Tehran. Media reports have even speculated that the recent shopping trip by Bashar to Moscow was financed by a $600 million check from Iran. The Syrian Baath has sold itself to Tehran in an attempt to counter the isolation imposed on it by the international community. What it has actually accomplished is nothing short of a faustian bargain. The “Boy King” of Damascus cannot deliver on anything without the approval of his masters and so dealing with him is a waste of time. The artificial life support mechanism of the Syrian Baath cannot function forever. As the conditions in the region change, and they will, the isolation of this most undemocratic bunch will increase and its disconnect with the Syrian population will deepen. Its fall from grace is only a question of time and neither John Kerry nor David Duke can do anything about that.

  4. it’s time to start posting who the leaders of the assad clan are, where they live, pictures of thier houses, the resturants they visit, thier doctors, thier mother’s homes, thier girlfriends, post maps of the streets they live on…time to post on the net these photos, plus more, any information that tells us where thier kids live, which businesses are thiers as stolen booty..expose them…let the people of syria KNOW that that car dealership is owned by some evil shit..and if it’s PUBLIC info already, all the better

  5. Ammar-Kind of a lame question perhaps…but my knowledge of the non-Baath side of Syria is limited. Who are the main groups, what are their relationships like…is their a potential Balkans or Lebanon brewing in Syria. I know there are Christians, Druse but know little else.I do remember Hama very well and Papa Assad’s manner of handling Mulsim fundementalism…but if the lid of the Assads tyranny is ripped off…what might follow?

  6. but if the lid of the Assads tyranny is ripped off…what might follow?can we predict islamic nutjobs?

  7. I will offer an answer to Howie,If Assad goes through a coup, there will be a military government. Syria’s ties with Iran will be severed and Iraq’s stabilization becomes closer to reality. Syria’s relations with its Arab neighbors will then be restored. Syria will then become a real partner for peace in the Middle East. Only Egypt and Jordan were able to deal peace with Israel. Unlike many predictions, the deals lasted and they seem to continue to hold. As you may know, these regimes represent a solid constituency. So they can deliver on what they sign on. Syria’s regime does not have real constituency in Syria. Therefore, it cannot deliver on any of its promises. Its only means of survival are subservience to some foreign power (Russia during cold war and currently Iran) and troublemaking in neighboring countries.

  8. When Sadat decided to negotiate peace with Israel, Egypt was still considered a client state of the Soviet Union. Had fought several wars with Israel. Israel had many concerns including security, public opinion and settelements on the mediteranian and the red seas.Sadat’s policies were not all that popular (he was later assasinated).Israel had developed oil fields on and offshore in the peninsula and had developed tourist resorts on the red sea.The obstacles to peace and the return of Egyptian occupied lands looked a lot more difficult to achieve back then than what we have between Isreal and Syria currently.It took leaders like Sadat, Beigen and Carter and serious negotiations to produce the tangible result.I think today in Syria President Bashar Assad is liked and respected by the Syrian people way more than what President Sadat had to deal with from the Egyptian people.The USA had to provide security garanties and generous compensations for the uprooting of the sttelements and turning over the oil fields to Egypt.Even if Olmert were to become motivated and acquire a vision for peace with Syria, the missing ingredient is an agressive US approach that will bridge the divide and provide creative solutions, backed with security garanties and generous compensations.If the peace agreement between Egypt and Israel were to be conditional upon the dissidents views of Sadat, there would have been no peace agreement.

  9. Sadat wouldn’t have dreamed of going to Israel if he didn’t have the solid backing from the majority of Egyptians. Egypt currently receives a trickle of the amount promised by the US and peace has still the solid backing of the people of Egypt. Peace even survived the assassination of Sadat himself. So it was not US guaranties and it wasn’t US compensations. It was the desire of the people which Sadat read correctly. Bashar is not popular among Syrians. He is ruling through vicious security apparatus and Iranian backing. Without these two ingredients, He cannot last 24 hours as dictator of Syria. Only last week there were some major civil disturbances in Aleppo after another round in Qamishli in October. He knows he cannot negotiate peace and he also knows he cannot deliver on his promises. Not even Hafiz could have delivered on his signature and that’s why he bolted in the last minute. Only changing the current Syrian regime will lead to stability and eventually peace in the Middle East.

  10. Anonymous 12:51 AMSadat did not suffer from the handicaps that plague Assads. He did not have a continuous UN inquiry into his affairs, his personal business interests were not intimately linked to a certain patronage system that could not be reinvented (the Egyptian system was somewhat more sophisticated and flexible), he did not have to establish his militant (if not downright military) credentials, because that was already done, and he did not come from a small religious sect that was and continues to be manipulated for the sake of maintaining the regime in power. You were indeed right in noting that the obstacles for peace between Israel and Egypt were much more than those between Syria and Israel, but only to a certain extant. For, in the final analysis, Hafiz al-Assad did not go to Camp David nor approved of the Egyptian-Israeli peace, for some of the very reasons just mentioned. Sadat did get assassinated, but the Egyptian government never had to kill 20,000 people of its citizens in a span of a short month to stay in power even at the height of its crackdown against the Islamists. The Assads did. The Assads could not have handled peace in 1978, and they cannot handle it now. Yes, they did come close to concluding peace in 2000, but then, the whole peace process was taking place in the context of the end of the Cold War and Syria’s emergence from a long period of isolation, the entire population in Syria, Sunnis and Alawites alike, was looking forward to a new beginning. It did not happen. That moment has long gone now. There is enough blame to go around for this true, but, it is also established that Assad Sr. did walk out on Clinton in Geneva in 2000, because he grew impatient and tried, and because his concerns for maintaining the Alawite regime were of far greater significance at that stage. The Sunni-Alawi Divide is a real issue in Syrian affairs, it may lie dormant now, but this has been accomplished only after very a bloody crackdown by Syrian standards, and the wounds are still festering, because none of the issues was ever resolved.

  11. Howie, and “What is Occupation” Islamic nutjobs are bound to have a lot of influence on life in Syria with or without the Assads, the very policies and the minoritarian character of the Assads have assured that. But it is far from a given. Islamist domination of Syria will be bad for business, and the Syrian business community knows it, between an army that will remain predominantly Alawite for the foreseeable future, the presence of other minorities in the country, including Druzes, Christians and Kurds, the secular-minded Sunnis, and they are legion, albeit disorganized, the Baath Party itself, which the opposition does not want to outlaw in itself, only its monopoly, and the fractious nature of the Islamists movements themselves, I think Syria has a good chance of steering a course far from Islamist domination, though, it will grow more socially conservative. Leila, if I removed the link to Mouhanad’s blog, he won’t like it. It is there due to his insistence. He likes fame, after all, he plans to be the one to follow in his grandmother’s footsteps and become an actor.

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