The Obama administration and the U.S. Department of State share a delusion with the former government of Israel led by the hapless Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and elements within the Israeli Foreign Ministry: both groups believe that President Bashar al-Assad can be convinced to break with the Islamic Republic of Iran and be brought into the fold of civilized nation states, if only the right selection of carrots can be offered to woo him away from the embrace of the Iranian terror-masters. Maybe a combination of the Golan Heights, immunity from prosecution for the Hariri assassination, or better yet, forgetting that it ever happened , and a very healthy dosage of foreign aid, trade and debt-forgiveness by the U.S. and the West might just do the trick…with control of Lebanon thrown in as the cherry on top!
When pigs fly, and hell has frozen over several times, Assad still will not abandon his alliance with Iran. Why? On what basis do I make such a tough prediction? What makes me suggest that Obama and Olmert both have been naïve in thinking an Israel-Syrian peace is achievable with Assad?
President (for life) Bashar al-Assad’s number one goal is to continue living. For Assad, that primary priority of longevity is assured only as long as he is the ruler of Syria. For him, all other concerns pale in comparison. The early February 2008 attempt at a coup d’etat by Assaf Shawqat, Assad’s own brother-in-law and until then his Mukhbarrat chief (Syria’s Intelligence Agency), demonstrates that Assad’s throne is not as securely anchored as was that of his late father, Hafez al-Assad. For the foreseeable future, retaining power remains priority number one for Assad. And since he lives in a very tough neighborhood, it is only by allying himself with other bullies that he can stay in control of his country. As a member of the minority Alawite aristocracy, Assad is feared and despised by most of his fellow Syrians, the vast majority of which are Sunnis. Many of them are supporters of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood , and they only have contempt for the secular lifestyle of the Alawite leadership and the Alawite connections to Shiism. It is only through repression and the imposition of military law—based on the fact that Syria is still technically in a state of war with Israel—that Assad and his fellow Alawites maintain their control of the Syrian masses. If Syria signs a peace treaty, Assad will not be able to keep Syria on a war-footing, and will have to relax his control over the country. To do so—in his mind—is to invite a revolt that could easily topple him from power and send him to his grave. For Assad, despite all the patriotic pronouncements that he makes about regaining them, the Golan Heights are not worth his life.
Assad also knows that if he makes peace with Israel, the United States will quickly lose interest in Syria’s welfare and the foreign aid and favorable trade relations will soon enough disappear because Syria doesn’t have natural resources that interest the U.S. Given Syria’s history of cycles of drought, with the failure of last year’s wheat crop due to drought , and its ongoing economic difficulties , Assad knows that as the price of pita rises, so does the general discontent among the Syrian Sunni masses. It actually makes more sense for him to irk the U.S. and keep America trying to win him over than it does to become its friend, because the U.S. has a poor record of helping those friends that don’t have something to offer in return.
Peace with Israel also would preclude Syria moving back into Lebanon to protect her little neighbor from the “threat of a Zionist invasion”. Peace with Israel effectively would lock Syria out of Lebanon, a piece of real estate that Damascus covets far more than it does the Golan Heights.
But perhaps a more crucial factor to remember about Syria’s alliance with Iran is that it gives Syria access to Iranian, Russian, North Korean, and Chinese military and economic aid. Although Assad needs more aid and is very willing to play “peace charades” to gain Western aid as well as to break out of the isolation that was imposed after the Hariri assassination, he knows that it would be suicidal to break the alliances that he has with Iran. The current Iranian government is much like the Mafia: it will find a way to have its revenge if it feels that it has been double-crossed. Assad sold his soul to the Iranian devil ; he won’t be willing to have Iran repossess it quite so quickly.
Having allowed the Iranian government to take control of much of his defense and his missile capabilities , Assad doesn’t have the ability to remove Iran from his doorstep. He is locked into supporting the rejectionists such as Hassan Nasrallah’s Hizballah and Khaled Mashaal of Hamas, and being supported by the mullahs of Tehran, both as a bulwark against the West and as an anchor amidst a sea of Syrian Sunnis. Small wonder that Nizar Abdel-Kader, former deputy chief of staff of the Lebanese army wrote last year: “With such prospects, Iran seems to remain the ultimate winner of this game, while the future role of Syria will be reduced to serving as a conduit for Iranian logistical support to Hizballah.” (italics mine) Having entered a relationship with Iran in which the Islamic Republic agreed to underwrite Syria’s purchase of new Russian military hardware in exchange for Russia forgiving 73% of Syria’s debt to the former-USSR , Syria is not about to bite the hand that feeds her.
Although difficult to ascertain its exact effect, one cannot discount fear of revenge as a factor binding Assad to his Tehran masters. Having seen how Tehran has used its VEVAK operatives to assassinate opponents and those who have broken with the regime —including but not limited to the assassinations of Kurdish leader Abdel Rahman Qassemlou and two of his associates in Vienna in 1989, of dissident Dr. Kassem Rajavi in Geneva in 1990, of former Iranian Prime Minister Shahpour Bakhtiar and his personal secretary in Paris in 1991, and of the four Kurdish diplomats at the Mykonos Restaurant in Berlin in 1992 —it is doubtful that Assad would risk the wrath of a vengeful Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his VEVAK minions for “double-crossing” the Imam. Dr. Bashar al-Assad may not be as wily as his late father, Colonel Hafez al-Assad, but he did learn a lot from the old fox of Damascus, and staying alive was the primary lesson at all times.
Bottom line: until a mushroom cloud appears over Tehran or the current mullah regime is removed, Bashar al-Assad will remain in Iran’s corner, no matter how large the carrot he is offered by the United States and/or Israel. Once you join the Mafia, you’re in for life; you don’t quit it in this life.
Rabbi Dr. Daniel M. Zucker is founder and Chairman of the Board of Americans for Democracy in the Middle-East, a grassroots organization dedicated to teaching the public and its elected officials of the need to promote genuine democratic institutions throughout the Middle-East region as an antidote to the dangers posed by Islamic fundamentalism. He may be contacted at contact@ADME.ws