In recent years, Syria has come to occupy a somewhat paradoxical international profile. On the one hand, it is an authoritarian dictatorship in the best traditions of the modern Middle East. On the other, it is a constant target of US political attack; accused of being a sponsor of terrorism because of its enmity to Israel, and relations with Hizbullah and Islamic Iran. Damascus, steeped with Islamic history, is also regarded as one of the least westernised of Arab capitals, and is a centre for Islamic studies among Muslims in the West. As a result, many Muslims who routinely attack other Arab regimes make an exception for Syria. This is a concession that Bashar al-Assad’s regime does not deserve.
In terms of its foreign policy, Syria’s apparently less than pro-Western stance needs to be qualified. It is explicable in terms of a number of pragmatic considerations. The first is Israel’s continued occupation of the Golan Heights, and Syria’s refusal to concede them; and any enemy of Israel is bound to be vilified by the West. The second is its involvement in Lebanon, where it is seen as an ally of the Hizbullah, and therefore tarnished (in Western eyes) as having Islamic links. The third is its relations with Islamic Iran, for which Iran itself is often attacked. Speaking privately, Iranian officials make it clear that they have no illusions about the nature of Bashar’s regime, but that Iran has pragmatic political reasons for maintaining good relations with Damascus; not least that these are essential for facilitating Iran’s relations both Hizbullah and Hamas (which has its main offices outside Palestine in Damascus). Iran also considers it important to have friendly relations with at least one major Arab regime, in order to be able to monitor and minimise as far as possible anti-Iranian feeling among Arab states. All these factors are enough to damn Syria in the West’s eyes, even though Washington knows that Assad is not an enemy or a threat in the same way that Iran and other Islamic movements are. However, constantly Syria serves two purposes for the neo-cons. One is that it helps maintain the sense in the West of a substantial Islamic enemy which can be blamed for all the US’s failures in Iraq, Lebanon and elsewhere. Another is that Syria is still seen as “low-hanging fruit” by some US officials: an enemy that it is easier to pick off than Islamic Iran, when the time comes for the US to be doing something.
However, despite the impression deliberately created, Syria’s relations with the US are not totally hostile. Last month, for example, Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic speaker of the House of Representatives, was welcomed in Damascus by Asad, who assured her that he wants better relations with the US. Her trip was of course criticised by the Bush administration, but shows that some inWashington see Syria’s role differently. It is also worth recalling that despite the public enmity, Syria’s highly experienced security agencies are cooperating with the US in its “war on terror”; it is one of the countries to which the CIA has sent prisoners for interrogation and torture.
This political balance is just one way in which Bashar al-Asad’s regime may be regarded as successful. The key priority for all the Arab regimes is securing their own power and suppressing opposition, particularly Islamic. This too Asad has done extremely successfully. The Ikhwan al-Muslimeen, Syria’s main opposition group, have been severely suppressed since the defeat of the militant wing, inspired by Sayyid Qutb and led by Marwan Hadid and Said Hawwa in the 1960s and 1970s. To this day, any hint of Ikhwan activism in Syria is severely cracked down on. Now based in exile, under the leadership of Ali Sadreddine Bayanouni, the Ikhwan is part of the opposition alliance that boycotted last month’s parliamentary elections, but poses little threat to the regime.
Bashar al-Asad has little reason to doubt that he will be re-elected as president in a single-candidate referendum due in July. Other Arab leaders, such as Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, must be green with envy.