Middle East Policy Council

Journal Essay

The Evolution of Bashar al-Asad

David W. Lesch

Summer 2010, Volume XVII, Number 2

Dr. Lesch is professor of Middle Eastern history and chair of the Department of History at Trinity University in San Antonio, TX. His most recent book is The Arab-Israeli Conflict: A History (Oxford University Press, 2008).

A U.S. official recently commented to me that in his government office the analysts had determined Syria to be more “diabolical” than Iran because Syrian President Bashar al-Asad “is ten times smarter than [Iranian President] Ahmadinejad.” My, how times have changed. It was not that long ago that iterations emanating from Washington and beyond regularly derided, even mocked, Bashar as incompetent, naïve and weak. Indeed, when Bashar came to power in 2000 following his father’s death, I pointed out in writing some of the similarities with the fictional character Michael Corleone from the Godfather movies, noting that Michael, like Bashar, was not originally selected to engage in, much less take over, the family business.1 A number of people suggested to me that the correct analogy should have been made not with Michael, but with the weak, confused brother, Fredo. This was usually followed with some derogatory remarks that the “real” leader of Syria should be Bashar’s tough-minded older sister, Bushra, or even the president’s cosmopolitan wife, Asma. As seen particularly in Arab society, this was an attack at Bashar’s manhood, i.e., his ability to lead.

Congressional testimony in 2002 and 2003 surrounding the passage of the sanction-lined Syrian Accountability Act (SAA, signed into law by President George W. Bush in 2004) helped establish this negative view of Bashar by overtly attacking Syria and its president, oftentimes in an insulting fashion. These diatribes emerged out of the post-9/11 environment, when Congress seemed to be on anti-terrorist steroids, each member trying to outdo the other in building up his or her credentials. This group-think also contributed to congressional support for the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Syria was an easy target, as was its president. In the jargon of the time, they were low-hanging fruit. Syria could easily be attacked verbally, and even militarily in targeted strikes, without serious repercussions. In testimony before the House Committee on International Relations in September 2002 on the SAA, Rep. Dick Armey (R-TX) proclaimed,

 

Our inaction on holding Syria accountable for its dangerous activities could seriously diminish our efforts on the war on terrorism and brokering a viable peace in the Middle East…. Syria should be held accountable for its record of harboring and supporting terrorist groups; stockpiling illegal weapons in an effort to develop weapons of mass destruction; and transferring weapons and oil back and forth through Iraq.

 

The co-sponsor of the SAA, Eliot Engel (D-NY), asserted, “We will not tolerate Syrian support for terrorism. We will not tolerate Syrian occupation of Lebanon…. I do not want to witness horrors worse than 9/11. I urge the Administration to get tough on Syria.” His cohort from New York, Gary Ackerman, said, “This is not too big a nut to crack. Syria is a small, decrepit little terror state that has been yanking our diplomatic chain for years.” Alluding to President Bashar being a licensed ophthalmologist, Shelly Berkley (D-NY) stated the following:

 

I don’t care if he’s a doctor, a lawyer, a plumber, a carpenter — this is not a kinder and gentler leader. This is a kinder and gentler terrorist, and we don’t need another one of those. He is no different from his father; perhaps, even worse because he should know better. This is a disgrace that this country isn’t standing up to this terrorist and making sure that this type of behavior is not only condemned, but eliminated.

 

Bashar had been in power a little over two years when these comments were made. They were ignorant, based as they were on a lack of knowledge in Congress of how Syria works — or, in many cases, doesn’t work. For instance, Bashar had announced in the early days of his regime that he intended to authorize the opening of private banks in Syria, a novelty for a publicsector-dominated country where most of the fluid capital found its way into Lebanese banks. When the private banks did not materialize by 2003, Bashar was taken to task by some members of Congress and officials in the Bush administration for not following through with what he had promised, thus further revealing his ineptitude and prevarication. He could not be trusted.

The fact of the matter is that Syria is practically immune to innovation and short-term change. There is an almost institutionalized revulsion to it from the lowest-level bureaucrats to the heads of ministries. Change in Syria just does not happen quickly; it is incremental at best. Syria’s First Lady, Asma al-Asad, herself steeped in the financial world as a broker on Wall Street with J. P. Morgan before she married Bashar, commented to me,

 

We have not had private banks in Syria for 50 years. Our public banks are not functioning….We have staff who do not speak English, who do not have computers. So we are on a very, very basic level….We had no idea how to do this. We don’t have the experience.

 

Both of the Asads told me that the biggest mistake they made in this case was announcing to such fanfare the intention to establish private banks. It created expectations that could not possibly be met in a year or two. A handful of private banks were, indeed, established in 2004, a number that has grown in ensuing years along with other monetary reform; and in early 2009, the long-promised Syrian stock exchange commenced operations. This is the Syrian way, but in the sound-byte, four-year-term American sociopolitical system, it did not happen fast enough. It is easy, almost a political imperative, to find fault with our presumed enemies. It is also easy, almost a political imperative, to overlook flaws in our friends.

Raised expectations were Bashar’s main problem from the beginning. I half-jokingly mentioned to him the first time we met, in May 2004, that he had made a mistake in letting it be known to the media, which widely disseminated it, that he liked Phil Collins’s music. This tended to feed to an emerging profile of the unknown second son of Hafiz al-Asad upon coming to power in 2000 that he was a pro-West, modernizing reformer cut from a different cloth than his taciturn father. Bashar was the ophthalmologist, not the heir to the throne; that was his more flamboyant and charismatic elder brother, Basil, who died in a car crash in 1994. Bashar was then in London at the Western Eye Hospital attempting to get the equivalent of board certification in ophthalmology. And in his inaugural speech in July 2000, he leveled unprecedented criticism at the previous regime — his father’s. He was the forward-looking head of the Syrian Computer Society, something of a computer nerd himself and an avid amateur photographer. He liked the technological toys of the West.

Cold War, and he lived through the tumult in Lebanon. These relationships and historical events shaped his Weltanschauung, not his sojourn in merry old England. Israel is Syria’s primary competitor, and Bashar is suspicious of the United States. For Syrians, Lebanon should be non-threatening at all costs and preferably within its sphere of influence. In addition, Bashar is the keeper of the Alawite flame. Making home videos with Sony camcorders and listening to the Electric Light Orchestra are his hobbies; maintaining Syria’s traditional interests is his obligation.

Perhaps Bashar is partially to blame for raising expectations. After all, he did consecrate a period of political openness with the so-called “Damascus spring” in 2001, which was quickly followed by a wave of political repression. Most officials and commentators in the West, however, failed to comprehend that he had spent all of 18 months in London, and they were not during the formative years of his life. He is the son of Hafiz al-Asad, a child of the Arab-Israeli conflict. He grew up amid the Cold War, and he lived through the tumult in Lebanon. These relationships and historical events shaped his Weltanschauung, not his sojourn in merry old England. Israel is Syria’s primary competitor, and Bashar is suspicious of the United States. For Syrians, Lebanon should be non-threatening at all costs and preferably within its sphere of influence. In addition, Bashar is the keeper of the Alawite flame. Making home videos with Sony camcorders and listening to the Electric Light Orchestra are his hobbies; maintaining Syria’s traditional interests is his obligation.

Confrontation

Bashar also came to power in a threatening regional environment. The al-Aqsa intifada had erupted a few months after he became president. Then, in rapid succession, came the attacks of 9/11 and the U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Syria’s near neighbor Iraq. The rules of the game were changing, and they were being dictated by the Bush administration in a way that placed Syria on the outside looking in.

Since the early 1970s, Syria had been able to straddle both regional and international fences. Hafiz relished this position; it allowed him to select which side of the fence to be on, based on the circumstances of the day. He was, after all, a foreign-policy pragmatist. Syria alone among the major Arab players in the Middle East could play this role. On the one side of the fence, Syria is the cradle of Arab nationalism, at the head of the confrontation states in the Arab world arrayed against Israel and supportive of groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas. It has also not given in to what in the region is often called the “American project.” On the other side of the fence, Syria sent troops to support the U.S.-led UN coalition forces that evicted Iraq from Kuwait in the 1991 Gulf War. Damascus has also entered into both indirect and direct negotiations with Israel for over three decades, often with U.S. brokerage, coming tantalizingly close to a peace deal with Israel in 2000.

The Bush administration essentially told Damascus that it could no longer play both sides of the fence; it had to choose one. After intelligence cooperation with the United States on al-Qaeda following 9/11(which led one U.S. official to state that Syria had saved American lives), relations began to unravel. The United States invaded Iraq; Syria opposed the move. Essentially, Bashar did not adequately adjust to the crucial underlying changes in American foreign policy after 9/11. This heightened Syria’s exposure to the U.S. regime-change rhetoric that characterized the Bush doctrine. Damascus thought the old rules of the game were in place, and administration officials periodically led them to believe this was the case.

The Syrians may have been guilty of selectively hearing what they wanted to hear. At the same time, however, the new rules of the game were being written in Washington in the corridors of Congress, the Pentagon, the vice president’s office and influential conservative think tanks by those who saw Bashar and his regime as part of the problem rather than the solution. The focus of foreign-policy power in the Bush administration shifted away from the State Department as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq progressed, leading to a more bellicose posture toward Syria. State Department officials, including Secretary of State Colin Powell, made comments from time to time praising Syria’s cooperation against jihadists crossing over into Iraq. This reassured Damascus that perhaps the old rules still applied, but in hindsight these statements carried little weight within the U.S. foreign-policy apparatus, as Powell and the State Department became marginalized.

Thus Bashar’s continued verbal assaults on Israel and support for Hezbollah and Hamas well into 2003 played right into the hands of the ascendant group of U.S. foreign-policy ideologues. The Syrian leader was relatively unaware that he and his regime were becoming more of a target. As President Bush stated on June 24, 2003, “Syria must choose the right side in the war on terror by closing terrorist camps and expelling terrorist organizations.” Syria assumed that the clear distinction between al-Qaeda, on the one hand, and Hamas/Hezbollah, on the other, was self-evident, as this was well understood by most in the region. It was apparently lost on the Bush administration, however.

No longer could the differences between Washington and Damascus be resolved as part of a Syrian-Israeli peace process. Syria now had to meet all of Washington’s concerns before negotiations with Israel could even begin. From the point of view of Damascus, this was a nonstarter, for it would entail unilaterally relinquishing its few remaining assets, such as its ties with Hezbollah, Hamas and Iran, before the initiation of talks. As a result, Syria was considered by the Bush administration to be a rogue state. A series of accusations were hurled against the regime in Damascus when the United States invaded Iraq, from harboring members of Saddam Hussein’s regime and hiding Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction to supplying military equipment to Iraqi fighters. The most pointed accusation of all, however, would only gain momentum as the Iraq insurgency took shape: that the Syrian regime was actively supplying the insurgency with financial and logistical assistance. Now, according to U.S. officials, Syria was costing U.S. lives. It had crossed a line. And when the Bush administration shifted its emphasis toward promoting democracy in the region, especially in Lebanon, Syria’s authoritarian regime became a natural target. With the international revulsion over the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri in February 2005 — under orders from Damascus, in Washington’s view — the subsequent Cedar Revolution in Lebanon, the evacuation of the last Syrian troops from the country by April, and the initiation of a UN investigation of the Hariri murder, Bashar was clearly on the defensive. The Bush administration expected that isolation and pressure would lead to substantial changes in Syrian behavior, if not foment regime change. It obviously failed.

Learning On The Job

In response to the accusations from the United States, Bashar told me in 2004,

 

Some see me as bad, some see me as good — we don’t actually care what terms they use. It is not right to apply this term to Syria. I mean, look at the relationship that Syria has with the rest of the world; if you have good relations with most of the rest of the world, you are not a rogue state just because the United States says you are.

 

Weathering these multiple storms took a good deal of skill, with a little bit of luck thrown in. Bashar al-Asad is no longer the untested, inexperienced leader. No one remains president in Syria for 10 years without being capable. Bashar was often portrayed negatively when cast against his father in Middle East circles, but one must remember that Hafiz did not become Hafiz al-Asad, the clever, tough leader and shrewd negotiator, overnight. He, too, had had to negotiate a steep learning curve, part of which was being taken to the diplomatic cleaners on separate occasions by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger during and after the 1973 Arab-Israeli war.

Bashar had to tread very carefully. As seen from Damascus, the invasion of Iraq implanted 150,000 U.S. troops in a country on its eastern border armed with the Bush doctrine and fresh off a swift, and to the Syrians shockingly easy, military removal of the only other Baathist regime on earth. To the north was Turkey; and while Syria had markedly improved its relationship with Ankara, the latter was still a member of NATO. To the south, of course, was Israel as well as Jordan, with which Syria had a longstanding mercurial relationship and which, in any event, was a U.S. ally. Bashar looked out from his perch in Damascus and saw that his country was virtually surrounded by actual and potential hostile forces. The only friendly neighbor was Lebanon; and, even there, various domestic factions were agitating more assertively for a Syrian troop withdrawal and less Syrian interference, something that became a reality after the Hariri assassination.

In the fresh glow of the Bush administration’s “mission accomplished,” several implicit threats were hurled at Damascus that Syrian officials took very seriously. Syria could be next on the Bush doctrine’s hit list. As such, it is no surprise that the Syrian regime at the very least cast a blind eye toward Arab insurgents crossing over into Iraq. Damascus wanted the Bush doctrine to fail, and it hoped that Iraq would be the first and last time it was applied. Anything it could do to ensure this outcome, short of incurring the direct military wrath of the United States, was considered within its rights.

While certainly under pressure from the United States to do more on the border, Bashar also had to face a domestic constituency that identified strongly with the Iraqi insurgency. The Syrian regime was caught a bit off guard by the popular reaction in the country against the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, particularly as manifested among Sunni Muslim salafist groups. Because Bashar still had not solidified his hold on power, he could not afford to be seen as doing Bush’s bidding — nor did he want to. In fact, the more the United States pressured Syria, the more it compelled Bashar to appeal to a combination of Arab, Syrian and Islamic nationalism to strengthen his base of support. As U.S. pressure accelerated following the Hariri assassination, Bashar drummed up a nationalistic response that reinforced the portrayal of internal critics of the regime as accomplices of the West.

 

The external threat environment gave the regime something of a free pass to crack down on civil-society and democracy activists, some of whom, in and outside of the country, were in contact with and being supported by the Bush administration. With chaos reigning in Iraq and instability growing in Lebanon, it was not hard to remind the Syrian populace that U.S.-promoted democracy could likewise rip the fabric of its own society apart.

Trying to walk a fine line, Bashar hardened the Iraqi border a bit, but by 2005, it was clear that the United States had sunk into a quagmire and was not in a position to turn its guns against Syria. At this time, there was little harm in meeting some of the U.S. concerns. After all, it emerged soon enough that Damascus and Washington have a shared interest in stability in Iraq, one area in which the two countries can continue to improve the bilateral relationship.

The failure of the Bush doctrine in Iraq certainly took some of the heat off Bashar just as pressure in Lebanon was ratcheting up. The Bush administration and anti-regime Syrian exile groups overplayed their hand vis-à-vis Damascus by late 2005, following a seemingly damning preliminary UN report against regime figures close to the Syrian president regarding the Hariri murder. Bashar was able to use the crisis atmosphere to finally consolidate power. In other words, he used the internal fallout of “losing” Lebanon to push aside domestic foes and albatrosses. Most particularly, he forced the resignation (and exile) of Vice President Abd al-Halim Khaddam at a Baath party congress meeting in June 2005. Even though Khaddam gave some damning interviews and lent some weight to the exiled opposition, the fact that he was doing this outside of Syria was evidence that Bashar had consolidated his position. Khaddam has since faded into virtual oblivion.

In addition, with the intense anti-American feeling in the region, the more the Syrian exile opposition appeared to attach itself to the United States, the more it became discredited in Syria; the more Bashar seemed to stand up to Washington, the more popular he would become, and not only inside Syria, but in the Arab world in general.

Bashar continued his maneuvering, reshuffling his cabinet in early 2006 and implanting loyalists in the military-security apparatus. A senior Syrian official was asked in December 2005 if his country would make concessions, muddle through or lash out in order to relieve the burden of international pressure. He responded that Syria would do all three. This is the Syrian way, and Bashar was in control.

Confidence

I have personally seen Bashar al-Asad grow more comfortable as president over the years — perhaps too comfortable. When I first met him in 2004, he was still a bit unsure of the world about him. Particularly befuddling was U.S. policy. In 2005, he was defensive and angry, especially as Syria had been forced out of Lebanon, something for which he felt he should have received at least a little credit. In early 2006, having survived the worst that 2005 had to offer, he began to feel more secure in his position, more sure of his future. In the summer of 2006, during the Hezbollah-Israeli war, Bashar’s confidence grew, perhaps in proportion to the regional perception that Hezbollah, by surviving the Israeli onslaught, had inflicted a defeat upon the IDF. His anger at the United States turned almost into cockiness; the Bush administration had taken its best shot, and he was still standing.

In May 2007, amid Bashar’s re-election in a referendum to another seven-year term, I noticed something in him that I had not detected before: self-satisfaction. Maybe this is inevitable in a neo-patrimonial authoritarian state, and maybe he was getting his due after such a tough ride, but Bashar has been a very unpretentious leader, even self-deprecating. Despite being surrounded by very dangerous circumstances, he never seemed to take himself too seriously. Indeed, one time I asked him to talk about his greatest accomplishments to date, and he responded that perhaps we should spend more time on his biggest failures. He is not a commanding figure at first glance. Soft-spoken, gregarious, with a child-like laugh, he does not fit the typical profile of a dictator. However, for this very reason, he commands attention, because you know what lies beneath him in the pyramidal Syrian political and military structure. That he has reached that pinnacle and remained there despite his unassuming nature is almost counterintuitive.

The election of 2007 generated tremendous mass support for Bashar. Mingling among the throng around Umayyad Square in Damascus for two days, I could sense that a good portion of this affection was genuine. Certainly much was pre-arranged, as in Syria when one group, whether it be a ministry or a private corporation, starts to organize celebratory events, others get onboard very quickly, creating an avalanche of support. But this time it was bolstered by strong pro-Bashar sentiments in the country. He had finally been able to tap into an aquifer of support he had built up, and he experienced it in grand style. It seemed to be a cathartic moment for him after the difficulties of the previous two years. He seemed genuinely touched by the celebrations and parades in his honor. More important, he got the message: his people were behind him.

This was the case even though he ran unopposed in a referendum. Visiting a polling location, I observed that each “voter” had to check the “yes” or “no” box in public amid a band playing and people singing pro-Bashar tunes. It would be an intrepid voter who would check “no,” especially with security personnel no doubt watching closely. The Bashar posters draped over almost every standing structure and out of every window and the “I love Bashar” (in English and Arabic) pins, pendants and billboards belied his eschewing of such cultish popular behavior to date. Bashar understood that the 97 percent vote to reelect him was not an accurate barometer of his real standing in the country. He said it was more important to look at turnout rates for voters, as those who did not vote were more than likely to have voted “no.” According to Syrian estimates, the voter turnout rate was 75 percent, still a very favorable response for Bashar.

This is the first time I felt that Bashar began to believe the sycophants, that to lead the country was his destiny. Maybe it is, but his view of the office had certainly evolved since the early years of his rule. In the 1950s, U.S. authorities frequently referred to friendly dictatorships as transitional authoritarian regimes, a necessary stage in the heat of the Cold War that would “transition” to democracy with U.S. guidance and support. Of course, more often than not, the transitional authoritarian leaders did not want to transition. They liked the level of power they had accumulated, and in many cases had become convinced (or had convinced themselves) that the well-being of the country was synonymous with their tenure in power. Considering that domestic and regional unrest have somewhat abated, I wonder if Bashar has passed the tipping point in this regard.

By late 2007, Bashar felt vindicated. Syria was even invited to attend the Annapolis conference the Bush administration sponsored that November, with the intention of jumpstarting the Middle East peace process. European and Middle Eastern diplomats were beginning to travel to Damascus to meet with Bashar on a regular basis. The wall of U.S.-imposed isolation appeared to be crumbling.2 While not claiming victory outright, Bashar certainly believed that the noose had been lifted from his neck; indeed, time was on his side now. Syrian officials scoffed at the popular notion that their country could be brought in from the cold à la Libya, and that a friendly U.S.-Syrian relationship awaited Damascus if only it would give up Hezbollah, Hamas and Iran, as Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi had renounced weapons of mass destruction and made amends for the 1988 Lockerbie airplane bombing. Quite to the contrary, the Syrians believe they have stayed the course, and it has proved to be the correct one. It was the United States that needed to be brought back in from the cold. The 2008 presidential election, with the victory of Democratic candidate Barrack Obama in a resounding renunciation of the Bush presidency, allowed the United States — not Syria — an opportunity to make amends.

Taken Seriously

Bashar — and Syria — just wants to be taken seriously by the international community. In a telling exchange in July 2006 during the Hezbollah-Israeli war, I asked the Syrian president what he thought about President Bush’s expletive that was inadvertently caught on tape at the G-8 summit meeting earlier in the month. In a conversation with British Prime Minister Tony Blair about the conflict in Lebanon, Bush said, “Yo Blair, you see, the…thing is, what they need to do is get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this s**t and it’s over.” Despite the U.S. president’s mis-reading of the influence that Syria did not actually have over Hezbollah, Bashar’s reaction was unexpected and interesting. He said, “I love it. I love that he [Bush] said that. It makes me feel great, because at least he is thinking about Syria. He is thinking about us.” Syria was not behind Hezbollah’s actions, and Damascus was lucky the Israelis knew that and decided not to take out their wrath against Syria as well. But the perception that Syria could inflict a bit of damage gave it some utility, some leverage, some more arrows in what had been a nearly empty quiver.

As Syrian scholar Sami Moubayed commented, however, Damascus wants to be seen as a problem solver, not a problem seeker. One might say that Syria sees its ability to create problems, which it believes it had every incentive to do when the noose was being tightened, as now providing it with the ability to solve problems. Certainly Bashar has been consistent with me in trying to portray his county as a positive facilitator in the region. He has, with a good bit of legitimacy, touted Syria’s role in defusing crises:

● Orchestrating the 2007 Meccan agreement that briefly reconciled the Palestinian Authority with Hamas

● Mediating the release of British sailors captured by Iran in the Persian Gulf later in the year

● Helping to bring about the Doha agreement, ending the mini-crisis in Lebanon that developed in May 2008 (and, by the way, secured veto power in the Lebanese cabinet for pro-Syria Hezbollah and its allies)

If Syria is denied this role, its utility — and leverage — in the region would be drastically reduced, so do not expect Damascus to completely sever its ties with Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran. Quite to the contrary, Bashar sees his country as a conduit for the West to develop a dialogue with these very entities. While Syria continues to maintain friendly relations with them — to the great consternation of the United States — Bashar believes that his country cannot play the role of regional facilitator unless it cultivates its diverse connections. Unfortunately, his timing in doing so, especially in early 2010, when the Obama administration appeared to be reaching out to Damascus, is occasionally less than ideal. This has given the naysayers in Washington more grist for the mill, feeding their opposition to any improvement in U.S.-Syrian relations.

In late 2008, when I visited with Bashar, he certainly believed that he could now sit back and wait to see how things unfolded, such as the policy direction of the new Obama administration as well as the shape of the new Israeli government. He felt empowered politically; 2008 was a pretty good year for him. The Doha agreement enhanced, for the time being, the Syrian position in Lebanon. French President Sarkozy welcomed Bashar to Paris on Bastille Day along with other heads of state, including Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, signaling a significant breach of the West’s attempt to isolate Syria and a major victory for Bashar. Perhaps most important of all, the Bush administration was all but gone, following a presidential election that brought to power someone whose foreign-policy philosophy was a direct repudiation of his predecessor’s. To date, President Obama has indicated in word and action that he is favorably disposed toward exploring a dialogue with Damascus. Traditional diplomacy has made a return. Perhaps the old rules of the game will return as well.

If Syria wants to be taken seriously, however, it can do a much better job at pubic diplomacy. Bashar — and Asma — is much more adept at it than his father was, but Hafiz barely engaged in it at all; in fact, the elder Asad seemed to have a healthy disdain for it. As Bashar gains confidence in his international standing, one hopes he will become more comfortable with public diplomacy. To him it is a matter of trust, and he remains very suspicious, as does Syria as a whole, of the outside world. I have seen his public diplomacy at the domestic level improve immeasurably over the last six years. I was with him (and his wife) after a special concert at the new opera house in Damascus in May 2007, and he did a superb job of working the room at the reception that followed the performance, listening intently to every person with whom he visited. By the end of the evening, he had spoken personally with everyone. I saw him work the balcony, so to speak, while viewing the post-election parade in front of his very modest presidential office in the Rowda area of Damascus. He made eye contact with and pointed toward as many of the people marching in front of him as he could, even inviting whole families from the street to spend some time with him on the balcony. He spoke with each member of the family and listened to what each of them had to say. It was very impressive, and it is very effective. This seems to come naturally to him, when he allows himself to do it.

Syria is vulnerable to pressure, and there is not much it can do about it in any immediate sense. The Israelis struck a suspected nuclear site in Syria in September 2007. Hezbollah’s operations mastermind, Imad Mughniyeh, was assassinated in a fashionable district of Damascus in February 2008 in what was a very embarrassing incident for the Syrian regime. With virtual impunity, the United States staged a cross-border raid in October 2008 to kill an alleged Iraqi insurgent. The response from Damascus to the latter affront: close the American cultural center and the American school. Not exactly earth-shattering. But Israel and the United States know Syria cannot do much to retaliate directly. Bashar was wise to keep his eye on the ball despite these incidents, not allowing them to spiral out of control or reverse what has been his steady emergence from the cold, especially as it was clear that a more favorably disposed president was likely to come to power in Washington. This equanimity reveals what he has learned over the years and how much his vision of Syria’s foreign-policy objectives has been stamped on the Syrian foreign-policy-making apparatus.

But Bashar is definitely not all-powerful. He struggles against systemic corruption and an institutional, bureaucratic and cultural inertia. On many issues, he has to negotiate, bargain and manipulate the system to get things done, and I have witnessed this first hand. An array of Faustian bargains was erected under his father, such as unswerving loyalty in return for personal enrichment. This has the regime sincerely saying and wanting to do one thing while important groups connected to or actually in the regime are sometimes doing something quite different. There is really nothing Bashar can do about it without undercutting his support base, especially in a threatening regional environment when he needs all the friends in and outside of the regime that he can muster. He told me something in October 2008 that provided insight into his thinking along these lines. We were discussing the potential of elevating the indirect Syrian-Israeli peace negotiations brokered by Turkey that had begun earlier in the year to direct talks. He said that he really did not want to elevate them without more assurance of success, that he was “new to this game” and, since it was his “first time doing this,” that he “could not afford to fail.” He made his decision regarding pursuing negotiations with Israel, and he has arrayed people around him who agree with it. But there are elements who do not agree, so Bashar believes he has just one shot at this, and he had better get it right.

This is a very important reason that it is absolutely necessary from his perspective for the entire Golan Heights to the June 4, 1967, line to be returned to Syria. This is vital to his domestic legitimacy, his legacy-in-the-making compared with that of his father (who “lost” the Golan as minister of defense in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war), and to his regional clout, his ability to play the facilitator and create some distance between Damascus and Teheran. In a sense, inculcating the return of the Golan into the minds of two generations of Syrians, while an obstacle to the conclusion of an Israeli-Syrian agreement in the past, could actually work in favor of peace today. It would empower the Syrian regime —Bashar — to deliver on heightened domestic expectations and regional responsibilities as the price for peace.

What the Syrians would really like to see is a unified voice coming out of Washington regarding engagement with Syria. Bashar has been burned in the past by listening to certain voices in Washington over others, and he often chose wrongly in the early years of his rule. There is still a good bit of leftover anti-Syrian inertia in the Obama administration, in the Pentagon and the intelligence communities, and in Congress, not to even speak of the negative image of Syria among the American people. There are also other obstacles to an improvement in U.S.-Syrian relations: a web of UN resolutions, a UN tribunal on the Hariri assassination and a sanctions regime erected by the Bush administration. The Syrians will not fully trust anyone but President Obama himself to offer public declarations on improving the U.S.-Syrian relationship. When Obama talks — or acts — the rest of the U.S. government will line up behind him, just as the rest of the U.S. government lined up behind Bush’s confrontational policies. However, Obama’s waffling during the last year in the face of stiff diplomatic resistance from a hawkish Israeli government has not generated confidence in Damascus that it can count on the U.S. president just yet.

The United States tends to paint a picture of foreign leaders based on whether or not they are for or against U.S. interests. Gamal Abd al-Nasser was viewed as a possible ally and an implacable foe at different times in the 1950s and 1960s based on his own positioning of Egypt in the Cold War. Saddam Hussein was America’s friend in the 1980s and its enemy in the 1990s.

I don’t know if these leaders changed as much as our perception of them did. Bashar has evolved, but he is basically the same person, even if he has an inflated opinion of his role now. Being president of a country will do that. The fact that he was not traditionally groomed to be president, that he gave up his avocation to serve his country, has won him some breathing space in Syria. The regime has milked this as well to buy him a long learning curve, and he has delivered enough, amid constant pressure, to warrant it.

The Bush administration wasted six years with Syria when it could have cultivated a productive relationship with an inexperienced and more pliable Syrian president early on. The Bush legacy to Obama is that the American president will now have to deal with a stronger leader, battle-tested by policies that were meant to get rid of him. There have been positive gestures between Damascus and Washington since Obama came to office. The Obama administration has begun a diplomatic dialogue, has announced the return of the U.S. ambassador to Syria, and has waived some restrictions in the Syrian Accountability Act. On the other side, Syria has played a largely positive role in Lebanon of late, has stepped up security cooperation with the United States along the Iraqi border, and seems to have repaired its fractured relationship with Saudi Arabia while building its friendship with Turkey. These efforts can help offset Iranian influence in the region. The quid pro quos must continue to overcome the recent legacy of mistrust on both sides. With reference to Syria’s support for Hezbollah, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton commented on April 29, 2010, that Bashar al-Asad was “making decisions that could mean war or peace in the region.” This is probably just the way the Syrian president likes it. So, although we seem to be back where we started in 2000, with another opportunity to explore and construct a mutually beneficial relationship with Syria, we are actually far from where we began.

 

1 For this and other remarks on, observations of, or direct quotes from Bashar al-Asad, see David W. Lesch, The New Lion of Damascus: Bashar al-Asad and Modern Syria (Yale University Press, 2005). They are also derived from the author’s many meetings with President Bashar since the publication of the book.

 

2 I saw this firsthand. By 2008, it was much harder for me to see President Bashar, as his schedule was filling up with visiting foreign dignitaries and with his own trips abroad. Between 2004 and 2008, I essentially only had to compete with Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad for his time.