Politics & Policy

Assad’S Predicament

Syria's choices.

October 6 was Hafez al-Assad’s birthday. It was also the 30th anniversary of a surprise attack by Syria and Egypt on Israel. The war was a calamity for both. Within 14 days Israeli tanks were 35 miles from Damascus and 60 miles from Cairo with nothing to stop them from moving forward. Until his death in 2000, the bitter taste of the 1973 defeat spoiled Assad’s birthday celebrations. This year’s October 6 was a day of great anxiety in Damascus after Israel launched its own surprise attack when its warplanes attacked an Islamic Jihad training camp in Syria, in retaliation for the organization’s suicide bombing that killed 19 people in Israel. It was the first time in two decades that Israel attacked a target in Syria and Syrian President Bashar Assad is now facing a critical dilemma: Should Syria respond militarily or should it swallow its pride and let the strike go unanswered?

Three years into his rule, Assad’s son is perceived as a weak and isolated leader who has so far failed to fill the void left by his father. His adventurism, lack of leadership qualities, inexperience, and miscalculation have already brought Syria to the verge of a clash with the U.S. due to Syria’s support of Saddam Hussein’s regime before and during the war in Iraq. On the domestic front, Bashar has failed to solve Syria’s severe social and economic problems. Equally abysmal is his attempt to assert his power over the generals of the Syrian army and build himself a reliable power base.

But more than anything it is Bashar’s insistence on harboring some of the world’s most deadly terrorist groups, among them Hezbollah, Hamas, and the Islamic Jihad, that is getting him in trouble. Since its withdrawal from Lebanon in May 2000, Israel has made it a policy to hold Syria accountable for terrorism emanating from Lebanon or from its own territory.

Last week’s attack is the fourth time since Bashar’s rise to power that Israel exacted a price from Syria for its support of these groups. On April 17, 2001, following a Hezbollah attack that left one soldier dead, Israeli warplanes blasted a Syrian radar station in Lebanon, killing four Syrian soldiers. Later, on July 1, 2001, also following Hezbollah attacks, the Israeli air force hit another Syrian radar station. Two months ago, in a display of force, Israeli warplanes flew over Assad’s palace in Damascus leaving no doubt of Israel’s capability to penetrate Syrian air with impunity.

In all three cases Syria’s response was restrained. But an authoritarian regime such as Syria’s cannot abide the appearance of weakness for long. An Israeli strike seven miles northwest of the Syrian capital is a painful insult. Failure to restore Syria’s dignity might undermine the legitimacy of Bashar’s regime, weakening him even further. But for Bashar, the military option is almost nonexistent. Though the Syrian military is large in numbers, the quality of its forces and weapons does not come close to that of Israel’s. The Syrian army suffers from acute problems of aging equipment, bad maintenance, lack of training, and poor leadership. In the air, Syria has a bigger disadvantage. The last time the air forces of the two countries clashed, in 1982, 86 Syrian aircraft were shot down in one day with no Israeli losses.

On the other hand, surrendering to President Bush’s June 2002 demand that Syria withdraw its support for terrorism, expel their organizations, and close their camps might be even more damaging. In Assad’s view, these organizations have so far been an asset rather than a liability. An organization like Hezbollah, for example, provides Syria with valuable services such as money laundering, weapons smuggling, and drug trafficking while also securing the allegiance of Lebanon’s Shiite population. More importantly, Hezbollah’s ability to keep Israel’s northern front hot serves Syria’s purposes by constantly reminding Israel that peace on this border will not be possible as long as Israeli tanks continue to sit on the Golan Heights. Control over rejectionist Palestinian groups enables Assad to undermine any attempt to reach a separate Israeli-Palestinian peace while Syria’s territorial claims remain unfulfilled.

Assad finds himself, therefore, at a point from which no path seems particularly attractive. Military retaliation is unlikely to work, cleansing Syria from terrorism could weaken its grip in Lebanon and diminish its chance to get back the Golan, but continued support of terrorist groups is likely only to bring more of the same.

As a scion to a perpetual survivor, Bashar is averse to making tough choices and is likely to overcome his predicament by choosing none of the above. Judging by Bashar’s treatment of Hezbollah, when the organization raises the temperature too high, he is likely to send the Jihad’s leader Ramadan Shallah to a short period of hibernation while the terrorist camps continue to operate without interruption.

This game will be short lived and is likely to end in a calamity. Hezbollah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad all have an agenda larger than fighting Israel. Many of their operatives have crossed the Syrian-Iraqi border in order to take part in the jihad against the U.S. Intelligence sources have reported that Hezbollah might already be planning a big attack inside Iraq.

If some of those terrorists whose organizations are hosted under Assad’s umbrella succeed at some point in targeting Americans, warplanes would surely fly again over Damascus. And at that point, the language spoken by their pilots would not be Hebrew.

Gal Luft is executive director of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security.

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