Since he abruptly returned home to Syria from Britain five years ago to inherit the regime of his ailing father, 36-year-old Bashar Assad has rarely smiled in public. After all, running Syria is a serious business. Lately, though, Assad has shown the world a different face. On a recent visit to Cairo to discuss the Middle East situation, he actually cracked a half-smile.
Last month, in interviews with Arab and international media, Assad announced his willingness to engage in peace talks with Israel -- without any pre-conditions. Just weeks before, Assad had said that he would begin withdrawing Syrian troops from Lebanon, signaling his compliance with UN Security Council Resolution 1559. And that wasn’t all. He also decided to host a preparatory meeting to help ensure the “freedom of information in the Arab world.”
Are these indicators of a new, friendlier Assad than we have seen over the past few years? Or has the Dictator of Damascus, Jr. finally adopted the style of his father, a.k.a. the Sphinx?
Diplomatically speaking, Assad’s sudden campaign for peace in the region is perfectly timed. Facing increasing criticism of his regime’s human rights record and continued involvement in Lebanon and Iraq -- policies that have brought on sanctions by the US under the Syria Accountability Act -- Assad desperately needs to shift attention away from his regime’s repressive measures and employ a softer style while continuing with business as usual. If you can’t dazzle ‘em, you can certainly baffle ‘em.
The “withdrawal” of forces from Lebanon was just as cleverly timed. Last August, the UN condemned Syria’s occupation of Lebanon and outlined a timetable for a Syrian military pullout. Assad, whose recent meddling in Lebanese politics allowed the pro-Syrian President Lahoud to win another term -- a move heavily condemned in Lebanon and abroad -- needed to show some measure of compliance with the will of the international community. About 60 buses of Syrian troops have reportedly made their way back to Damascus, but the heavy Syrian equipment, including tanks and artillery, remains in place. Little movement was observed in the ranks of the Muhabbarat, the Syrian intelligence service that controls power centers in Lebanon’s political and economic structure. In the south, the Syrian-backed Hizbullah still controls terrorist training camps, armories, missile caches and a TV station preaching Jihad against the West.
The timing of the overture to Israel comes at a critical point in Israel’s political climate. Israeli PM Ariel Sharon is in the midst of a groundbreaking step to remove Israeli settlements and military bases from Gaza. Initially planned as a unilateral action, the withdrawal is evolving into an initiative coordinated with the emerging post-Arafat Palestinian leadership. Sharon’s decision, while cautiously supported by a majority of Israelis, has drawn criticism from much of his right-wing constituency and has threatened his government’s ability to serve out its term. Opening a new Syrian track will raise the issue of the Golan Heights, a subject even more sensitive to middle-of-the-road Israelis than the areas of Gaza and the West Bank. Assad surely knows that for Sharon to negotiate the Golan today would be tantamount to political suicide, and it would bury the Gaza plan.
Perhaps Assad’s new face is best described with his initiative for “freedom of information in the Arab world,” under which Syria hosted a conference billed as coordinating the governance process of the Internet.
Syria has only two Internet service providers; both are state-controlled. The Syrian Computer Society intercepts e-mail to identify and monitor dissidents. Among the country’s political prisoners is the first known cyber dissident, a Syrian citizen who was arrested in February 2003 for e-mailing a banned newsletter.
Assad’s timing is perfect, and his intentions could not be clearer. Facing diplomatic pressures abroad and Islamists at home who seek to destabilize Iraq and Israel, Assad must shift attention to the traditional Israeli scapegoat.
Assad’s well-calculated offer should not be dismissed, however. Peace in the region relies in part on a decisive Syrian campaign against the headquarters of terrorist groups in Lebanon and Damascus. Assad’s will to address these issues, perhaps advanced through the efforts of American and European diplomats, may indeed pay off in the long run. If not, it’s just another round of empty Middle East rhetoric.
Nir Boms is former vice president of the Center for Freedom in the Middle East. Elliot Chodoff is a military political