How Syria Survives

Bashar Assad may be stupid, but he has a very smart survival strategy.

It was mid-1957 when President Dwight Eisenhower and Secretary of State John Foster Dulles started to worry seriously about the fate of Syria. “There is evidence in Syria of the development of a dangerous and classic pattern,” Dulles wrote. Soviet aid was rolling in, and Washington got nervous about what would follow: “The country will fall under the control of international Communism and become a Soviet satellite.”

A lot has changed since those days. The Assad family came to power in Syria, the Soviet Union no longer exists, and the domino theory no longer applies. But some striking similarities still pertain: Syria is a weak player in a tough neighborhood, making itself visible by aligning itself with troubling trends. Now it’s the Iranians helping them, it’s Lebanon and Iraq they are destabilizing (and not Jordan, as was frequently the case in the past), and it’s Islamist terrorism and not Communism that makes the United States worried and angry. The headache is similar, as is the failure to find the right remedy.

“By most indicators of strategic importance … Syria would seem destined to be no more than a minor player, relatively easy for greater powers … to marginalize and ignore,” writes Flynt Leverett of the New America Foundation in his new book, Inheriting Syria. Nevertheless, Syrians have been able to show, again and again, that taking them lightly is a big mistake. The disruptive power they apply—by supporting terrorists in Palestine and Iraq, by trying to sabotage any attempt to achieve peace between Israel and the Arab world, by defying U.N. resolutions, by meddling in Lebanon’s affairs—is something U.S. administrations, including the current one, have been unable to overcome.

For the United States, Syria is a constant reminder of the limitations of a superpower. President Bashar Assad, ridiculed by many as an imbecile—in Washington three weeks ago, Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres called him “the son of a clever man”—is a constant reminder of an even more troubling phenomenon: You can be a “stupid” leader and survive. That is, if you believe Assad really is stupid.

The evidence is not as overwhelming as you might think. Assad was patient enough to make the U.N. inquiry into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri a waste of time; Syria was found guilty but didn’t pay a price. He was smart enough to support Hezbollah in Lebanon, defying threats by the international community, and was able to claim victory when the outcome of the Israeli-Hezbollah war was, even by favorable accounts, uncertain.

Like an acrobat on a tightrope, Assad meticulously walks the fine line between two losing strategies: He is not enough of a nuisance to make it necessary to deal with him urgently (Iran, the much stronger country in his camp, and the Syrian circus’ safety net, plays that role), but not quiet enough to make himself negligible and marginalized. Assad is a fine acrobat—a joy to watch—as long as he doesn’t fall. And he understands the ways of the tumbler, knows that the only way for him to stay above the rest of the crowd is to keep moving in the same direction. One stop, even a minor hesitation, will be the end of his journey.

In the West, many think he is dumb, because he doesn’t do what the international community wants him to do. But Assad has other bosses: He looks up to Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, and to the rulers of Iran. If he positions himself between these two, he is safer. The world has tried—is still trying—to defeat Hezbollah in Lebanon. And it is also struggling to deal with the mullahs in Tehran, with zero success so far. Syria is always the country we can deal with “later” or “after” the one we are really busy with.

In a January 2002 piece in the National Journal, Jonathan Rauch reported, “When I asked how high Syria would be on the Bush Administration’s post-Afghanistan … agenda, [the official] replied that the Administration is still sorting out its priorities, but that Syria ‘is going to be on the list, and it’s not going to be at the bottom.’ ” Right after U.S. troops entered Baghdad in 2003, Time magazine reported, “A group of the President’s top foreign-policy advisers … gathered in the White House to discuss the road ahead. Only half the meeting was devoted to developments in Iraq. The rest of the session was spent debating how to tackle a fresh target: Syria.” In the July 2003 London Review of Books, Charles Glass asked, “Is Syria Next?”—a headline so tired it shouldn’t even be sold in a used-book store. But there it was, popping up again in 2004, when Timothy Garton Ash asks “Next Stop Syria?” in Britain’s Guardian.

Fast-forward to 2006, and Israel has decided to target Hezbollah rather than the Assad regime. Meddling behind the scenes wasn’t provocative enough to justify a frontal attack, Jerusalem calculated. Some think it was the wrong decision. At the Pentagon, senior officials insisted on asking why Israel didn’t take the opportunity to deal, once and for all, with Damascus. They asked, but the answer never came, and the moment has passed.

So, now, again, Syria is next in line. But first come: dealing with Iran’s nuclear weapons, stabilizing Lebanon, the massacres in Darfur, the insurgency in Iraq, the opium crops in Afghanistan, and the midterm elections. If Assad keeps moving along his tightrope, he might prove that the next station is the one that never comes.