Al-Assad between demonstrations and isolation

By Adel Al Toraifi

When the events [Muslim Brotherhood uprising against the Syrian regime] broke out in Hama in February 1982, the revolutionary leadership in Iran found itself facing a difficult test, being forced to choose between supporting the ruling (secular) Baath Party, or championing the armed Muslim Brotherhood revolutionaries, whose beliefs were closer to the ideology of the radical mullahs. The al-Assad’s regime and the Muslim Brotherhood were amongst the first to recognize the Iranian revolution, and Syria provided logistical support to Iran in its wars in Iraq and Lebanon. Damascus had also put itself forward as an ambassador for Iranian interests, particularly towards the Soviet Union and the Arab States. As for the Muslim Brotherhood, they considered the Islamic Revolution in Iran to be a sign of the region’s thirst for an Islamic model of rule, and a number of Muslim Brotherhood advocates tried to use the Iranian Revolution as a tool for support and pressure in their confrontation of the Arab regimes. However, the phase of reconciliation and harmony between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Iranian regime ended when on the eve of the events in Hama, former Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati announced that Iran was standing alongside President Hafez al-Assad, describing Syria’s Muslim Brotherhood as “agents of America and Zionism”. Since then, Tehran has stood by President al-Assad during even more difficult circumstances, and even when competition was mounting between followers of the two sides in Lebanon, Tehran remained sensitive to its special relationship with Syria.
Today, Syria is facing a major challenge to its legitimacy, in the form of massive popular demonstrations in a number of cities. The question that is preoccupying observers today relates to the future of the Iranian-Syrian axis, which has existed since 1979, and whether this will be able to continue in the event of regime change.
What is happening in Syria represents a genuine challenge to the legitimacy of President Bashar al-Assad, and the Syrian Baath Party, and the survival of the regime will depend on its ability to contain the popular discontent. However, what is certain is that if violent demonstrations continue, and spread to the capital Damascus, this will only increase the likelihood of the president’s departure and regime change. At the present time, Syrian authorities are trying to use a mixture of security force on the ground, whilst offering unprecedented concessions, in order to alleviate the spread of civil disobedience. It has been stressed on more than one occasion that the demonstrations have a “sectarian” nature, and this is true. The Syrian Baath party previously included, and still does, a large proportion of the Sunni community; however its leadership ranks include many who belong to different sects. It must also be noted that the sectarian pluralism within the Baath party has tended – particularly over the past two decades – towards the Alawite sect, which is the same thing that happened in the Iraqi Baath Party, which became extremely Sunni during the mid-1980s. There were objective reasons for this change, perhaps the most important was the repeated coup attempts by Sunni officers, either being instigated by the Iraqi Baath party in the 1970s, or as a result of a sectarian rift between the Sunnis and the Alawites, which led to the armed Hama uprising [by the Muslim Brotherhood against the Syrian government].
The Syrian regime, which has been in power for over four decades, was able to overcome a number of challenges, such as the 1973 [Yom Kippur] war, and even internal divisions between key figures in the regime, as occurred in 1984, 1991, and 1999. However, the regime’s legitimacy internally has always been questionable, and the regime has resorted to severe measures in the management of its internal affairs. The government disrupted any attempts regarding the development of political parties, and quelled the emergence of views outside the umbrella of the authority. The main weapon of the regime was, and remains, the use of the “resistance” card to oppose peace agreements, as well as the exploitation of Palestinian and Lebanese groups to influence Arab public opinion. It could be argued that Syria was able to draw a realistic picture of “Arab nationalism”, and impose great respect for President Hafez al-Assad as a strong and influential political figure in the region. Thus, some experts argue that Syria could not sacrifice its external positions, and sign peace agreements, without compromising its regional legitimacy.
Syria enjoyed participation in a tripartite axis (Saudi Arabia – Egypt – Syria) since the mid 1990s, and this strengthened Syria’s position, and opened it up economically to Gulf investments. However, when Bashar al-Assad came to power Syria began to fluctuate in its positions, and the 2003 Iraq War played a significant role in directing Syria towards extremism, and intransigence in its regional positions. The Syrian regime felt that it was the target of US pressure, and consequently began an intelligence war to destabilize Iraq, and Prime Minister [Rafik] Hariri was assassinated during the Syrian occupation of Lebanon. With the rise of the conservatives and the Revolutionary Guards in Iran, al-Assad became a strategic pawn in the Iranian plan, and Syria transformed over time from Iran’s equal partner to nothing more than a junior partner, equivalent in value to an armed group such as Hezbollah. Some Arab countries tried to isolate Syria in order to pressure it to reduce its ties to Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s project. Between 2007 and 2010, many initiatives were offered to Syria to urge it to change its extremist and uncompromising positions, but to no avail. President al-Assad was quick to accept the initiatives, but without offering anything in return and only after agreement with Iran, prompting many to believe that his regime did nothing but provide its visitors with lengthy lectures, and that the real solution was to be found in Tehran, rather than Damascus.
At the beginning of the recent unrest, President Bashar al-Assad was quick to conduct an interview with the Wall Street Journal, in which he talked about styles of governance – in a manner of offering advice – in which he criticized the Tunisian and Egyptian presidents. He described them as not being responsive to the will of the people who sought “resistance”, saying that Syria is immune to what happened because the regime did not abandon resistance in confronting Israel, as other [Arab] states did. However, just six weeks later al-Assad has found himself facing the same fate, which means that the “resistance” is not immune to the demands of change. Currently, the Syrian regime is seeking support from some Arab states, and these are the same states which al-Assad previously described as “half-men” [for criticizing Hezbollah]. At the same time, the Americans, the Europeans and some Gulf states have quickly moved to confront Gaddafi in Libya, yet they do not exercise the same enthusiasm in criticizing the abuses of the Syrian regime when dealing with protestors and riots. Here, [US Secretary of State] Hilary Clinton has said that the United States does not intend to carry out any sort of military intervention, and that “Syria is not Libya”, even going as far as to describe al-Assad as a “reformer.”

There can be no doubt that there are flaws, and double standards, with regards to how crises affecting the region are being dealt with, for during the past decade even Gaddafi’s regime was described as moving towards reform, but we have clearly seen the result of the regime’s insistence on remaining in power, and the same applies to the Syrian regime in Hama in 1982. It seems that for the first time the United States and Iran – and possibly even Israel – all agree on the necessity of the Syrian regime’s survival, for the collapse of the regime could harm everybody’s interests, for as the saying goes, “better the devil you know.”
In his book “Assad: The Struggle for the Middle East” (1998), Patrick Seale states that President Hafez al-Assad was suffering from depression in the late 1980s. Seale claims that al-Assad hardly appeared outside of his well-guarded office, and only dealt with his generals and ministers over the phone. He would sometimes call his foreign ambassadors in the middle of the night, talking to them about the history of Syria until the early hours of the morning, and asking his guards to prepare cups of tea. At this time, an armed Iranian group kidnapped a Syrian intelligence officer in Tehran. Al-Assad was disturbed by the incident, particularly the Iranian group’s affiliation to Lebanon’s Hezbollah. Tehran threatened to sever relations [with Hezbollah] unless the officer was returned within 48 hours, and this is indeed what happened. President Hafez al-Assad benefited from this lesson, and made moves to open up to some Arab countries and reduce Syria’s dependence on Iran. He supported the Taif Agreement, despite Iranian reservations and Hezbollah’s non-participation. Damascus moved closer to the Clinton administration, to the point that in 1998 the Iranians feared that al-Assad was on the verge of sacrificing Syria’s relations with Tehran.
Today, Syrian-Iranian relations are experiencing a major test, but it is certain that these will witness major transformations. 

First Published in Asharq Alawsat on Thursday 31 March 2011

About altoraifi
Al Toraifi is the current Editor-in-Chief of Al Majalla, the leading Arab magazine. A specialist on Saudi foreign policy, he is recognized as a commentator and participant in televised programs for CNN, NBC, BBC and Al-Arabia TV. Awarded the post-graduate International Conflict Prize 2008 from Kingston University for outstanding work, Mr Al-Toraifi is currently a PhD candidate at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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