Problems are popping up all over for Syria.
Jewish Telegraphic Agency
yrian President Bashar Assad is confused
and worried. The heat is on, and it's not
clear he can take it.
Israel points a menacing finger at Syria for
hosting terrorists, accusing it of enabling the Feb.
25 terrorist attack in Tel Aviv, which has been
blamed on the Damascus-based Islamic Jihad.
Assad has said he wants to renew peace talks
with Israel, but at the same time he wants to
please his backyard radicals. In addition:
• Anti-Syrian sentiment in Lebanon is sizzling.
• The United States and France are pressing
Syria to withdraw from Lebanon.
• The United States is growing impatient with
Syria's tolerance of Palestinian and Iraqi terrorists
• Assad wants to appease the United States
without losing face with Arab hardliners.
• Syria's longtime ally, Egypt, is toying with
"democracy," while Assad's own internal reforms
So which way can Assad go? The Syrian leader
is genuinely worried that sooner or later his
regime could go the way of Saddam Hussein's,
but he seems unwilling or unable to take drastic
measures in response to Western pressure.
To be on the safe side, Assad claims innocence.
On Feb. 28, he shrugged off any responsibility for
the attack in Tel Aviv. At the same time, he
warned that the United States was about to attack
Assad told an Italian newspaper, La Repubblica,
that Syria wanted Middle Eastern stability, and
insisted it had no hand in the Feb. 15 assassina-
tion of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik
Hariri or in the Feb. 25 Tel Aviv bombing.
Relations between Syria and the United States
have soured even more since the Beirut bombing
that killed Hariri. "If you ask me if I'm expecting
an armed attack" from the United States, "I've
seen it coming since the end of the war in Iraq,"
Assad told La Repubblica.
In an effort to appease the Americans, Syria last
weekend extradited one of Saddam's half-brothers
to Iraq. Sabawi Ibrahim al-Hassan al-Tikriti is -
suspected of playing a major role in the Iraqi
insurgency during the past two years.
Assad's tactics are to give a little and take a little
without going overboard, trying to keep as many
options open as possible. Recent statements on Syria's
deployment of forces in Lebanon are a case in point:
Lebanon's defense minister, Abdul Rahim Mrad,
confirmed last week that Syria soon would rede-
ploy its troops to the eastern Bekaa Valley, which
borders Syria, in conformity with the 1989 Taif
agreement. That pact, which put an end to
Lebanon's 1975-1990 civil war, allows "the two
governments to determine the strength and dura-
tion of the presence of the Syrian forces," but does
not set a specific deadline for Syrian withdrawal.
Bashar Assad: expects U.S. attack on Syria.
Syria rejected U.N. Security Council Resolution
1559, passed in September 2004, which called for
removal of "all foreign troops" from Lebanon. It
may be quoting the Taif agreement as a face-sav-
ing measure in preparation for an eventual with-
drawal from Lebanon.
Syria has carried out a series of redeployments
in Lebanon since June 2001, cutting down its
military presence there from 40,000 troops to
14,000. "From a technical viewpoint, the repatri-
ation" of Syrian forces "could happen by the end
of the year. But from a strategic viewpoint, it will
only happen if we get serious guarantees. In a
word, peace," Assad told La Repubblica.
Syria long has argued that large segments of the
Lebanese political community insist on the con-
tinued presence of the Syrian army as an essential
tool for stability. Given Syria's economic and mili-
tary domination of Lebanon, however, such assent
is not considered to be freely given.
Last week, Egypt dispatched intelligence chief
Omar Suleiman to Damascus for talks to "contain
the situation in Syria and Lebanon within an
Arab framework." Shara then traveled to Saudi
Arabia for talks with Crown Prince Abdullah bin
Abdul Aziz. Mubarak is expected to visit
Damascus soon for a summit with Assad.
But there is more to Assad's nervousness than
just threats from Washington and Jerusalem.
Election results in Iraq have tipped the scale on
the delicate balance between Shi'ite and Sunni
Muslims in the Arab world.
Once the United States pulls out of Iraq, the
Shi'ite majority will rule the country for the first
time, creating a "Shi'ite crescent" running from
Iran east to Syria. It will extend west to the
Shi'ites in Lebanon.
The weakening of Sunni Syria could affect the
Sunni-majority Arab states, including Jordan,
Saudi Arabia and Egypt. Arab states have been
subject to heavy American pressure to open their
societies to democracy and civic participation.
According to some analysts, Mubarak's dramatic
decision to allow a competitive presidential elec-
tion came in response to reports that Washington
would demand that Egypt spend part of its annu-
al $2 billion in U.S. aid on political and econom-
Mubarak has taken several measures to convince
the Americans that he's indispensable. Not only
has he pressured Syria to pull its troops from
Lebanon, he has upgraded his involvement in the
Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Accused of trying to
stifle dissent and engineer his son's succession, he
initiated an amendment to the electoral law that
permits more than one candidate to run in the
country's next presidential election.
In contrast, Assad has made a few overtures but
no great progress toward civic freedom. Syria now
has civic society clubs — though those that
allowed provocative political critiques were quick-
ly shut and their members jailed — but there is
no real fight against corruption.
Assad does allow a certain measure of free
speech. Last year, he allowed the publication of a
petition signed by several hundred intellectuals
who demanded comprehensive political reform.
But that was all they got — some publicity but
Judging from his performance so far, Assad still
believes democracy is a dirty word.