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Regional Outlook : What Next, Assad? Will You End Up Like Saddam? : These are the questions being asked by Washington as the Administration moves closer to the Syrian leader.

March 26, 1991|NICK B. WILLIAMS Jr. | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DAMASCUS, Syria — A historic capital of the Arab world, still a power in the last decade of the 20th Century, the face of the leader looking down from murals on urban barracks of his formidable, missile-girded military.

This was Baghdad.

This is Damascus.

Syrian President Hafez Assad still has his 4,000 Soviet-made tanks, 500 warplanes, bristling air defenses and batteries of Scud missiles, and he placed his army on the winning side of the Persian Gulf War that humbled Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, one of his rivals for leadership among the Arabs.

Assad, the former air force pilot and plotter in the Baath Arab Socialist Party who led his country off the Arab mainline in the 1970s and '80s, now stands shoulder to shoulder with populous Egypt and the super-rich Saudis, eager for a regional position in George Bush's "new world order."

But wait.

This is the same man and same regime that played hardball against the Western powers for decades, giving the Soviets their surest foothold in the Middle East in exchange for arms and the shadow of protection. This regime remains among the handful accused by the U.S. government of harboring terrorists. This president put down a domestic revolt in the northern city of Hama in 1982 with a brutality that still makes Syrians tremble.

Should Washington do business with Assad, trust him as one of the Arab pillars for a secure Middle East? Or will he become, like Hussein, a loose cannon, an Arab strongman fed guns and credit by foreign capitals that mistakenly thought they could control his appetite for power?

The Bush Administration is prepared to take the calculated risk, to build a power base for Arab influence on a Cairo-Riyadh-Damascus axis, working with it for stability in the region and, potentially, progress on the Arab-Israeli front.

The 60-year-old Assad has been ready to play ball for more than a year. He read the writing on the Berlin Wall. Syria's Soviet sponsors could no longer afford, financially or politically, to bankroll his isolationist stand in Arab affairs. Unable to play Moscow against Washington, the Syrian leader removed his self-imposed barriers and resumed diplomatic relations with Cairo, an early step in what his foreign minister, Farouk Shareh, calls the reshuffled deck of Middle East power.

Assad's pragmatism is what Washington is banking on. In the American sense, he practices international politics as the art of the possible, taking what he can, when he can. An example: With the Persian Gulf crisis holding the focus of the big powers last fall, Assad committed air and ground forces to crush the rebellion of Christian warlord Michel Aoun, a nemesis of Syrian hegemony in Lebanon.

By contrast, the impetuous Hussein took what he wanted when he wished--and paid the price.

The two men have been called the binary dark stars of Arab politics, rivals for leadership of the secular, socialist Baath Party, a movement built on the dream of Arab cultural renaissance, modernity and unity. But their differences are more personal and nationalistic than ideological. Both brought social advances to their countries, and both have maintained power through a heavy application of secret police.

Mideast and Western officials who have known Assad and watched him work in his 20 years in power call him cautious, cunning and ambitious. It's important to examine his motivations, they say.

Assad's ambition is driven in part by his origins: He is the son of a poor family of a Muslim minority, the Alawites. Since his rise, Alawites have gained positions in the country's military and security services in sharp disproportion to their 10% of the population. The situation represents a key vulnerability of the regime and underlies the ruthless determination at the top. Assad still rides a tiger in domestic politics.

The other overriding motivation of the leadership is common to most Syrians--at least those over 40. They may not relate to the flowering in Damascus of early Islam's Umayyad dynasty, but they know of Greater Syria--that loosely defined part of the Ottoman Turkish Empire that, until the end of World War I, gave Damascus sway over what is now Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and the Israeli-occupied West Bank of the Jordan River.

Syrian maps still show no boundary with Lebanon, which was carved out as a separate, Christian-dominated state by the French colonialists in 1920. Nor does Damascus see a need to establish an embassy in Beirut.

What Assad wants, said a diplomat who has worked in Damascus, could be seen on an Ottoman map. "All Syrians want Greater Syria," he said. "Practically, that means a total absence of Israeli influence in Lebanon, a weak Palestinian state under Jordanian influence and a Jordanian government that listens closely to Damascus. Nirvana? Nirvana would allow Assad to name the Jordanian foreign minister."

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