By Christopher Phillips, The Guardian 17 February 2010
Washington’s decision to send a new ambassador and top diplomat to Damascus this week represents a remarkable turnaround for Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. Five years ago, President Assad appeared weak and isolated as he stood before parliament to announce his army’s withdrawal from Lebanon. Greeted by rapturous applause in Beirut and nervous surprise in Damascus, the optometrist who had inherited power barely five years before undid in one speech what had taken his father 24 years to secure: domination over Syria’s western neighbour.
Western, UN, Arab and popular Lebanese pressure had proved too much for the young president and within six weeks of the car bomb that killed Rafiq Hariri and prompted the crisis, Syrian troops were gone and Assad looked vulnerable. Some even questioned how long he could hold on to power.
As Beirutis last weekend commemorated the fifth anniversary of Hariri’s death, much has changed. In Lebanon, Syria’s allies dominate, giving Damascus compliance without the need for troops. In the Arab world, the various leaders have one by one ended their cold war with Damascus, notably Saudi Arabia who effectively endorsed Syria’s renewed dominance in Lebanon last October.
Internationally, the EU have finally offered Syria the association agreement that it suspended in 2005, and Obama’s new ambassador and diplomatic mission this week represents a renewed engagement from the White House, which many hope will end the mistrust and sanctions of the Bush era.
Far from being a pariah, Assad is now courted by the west and Arabs alike as potential power-broker in their disputes with Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas. Fuelled by Syria’s surprising recent economic resurgence, its flourishing new alliance with Turkey, Assad’s regime security and Arab-wide popularity, the younger Assad is swiftly earning a reputation for diplomacy and prudent exercise of power that eclipses even that of his revered father, Hafez. How has Assad achieved this sudden turnaround in fortunes?
On the one hand, even at the height of crisis in 2005, the threat to Assad’s internal power in Syria was exaggerated. While neocon commentators wanted the US army to march from Baghdad on to Damascus, Iraq’s insurgency was already bogging down American hopes of militarily transforming the Middle East. Such hopes were finally scuppered by Israel’s failure to defeat Hezbollah in 2006.
Similarly, though congressmen passed sanctions on the Ba’ath regime, they lacked the teeth to topple the government. At the same time, the domestic opposition in Syria remained weak and, though a government in exile was formed by an unlikely alliance of the defecting former vice president Abdel Halim Khaddam and the Muslim Brotherhood in 2006, they lacked any significant internal support.
That said, Assad took no chances and demonstrated unexpected political fortitude within months of the Lebanon withdrawal to consolidate his rule. Most of his father’s cronies, the “Old Guard” who helped engineer Bashar into power, found themselves honourably retired and replaced by a “New Guard” of technocrats and loyalists after the June 2005 Ba’ath congress. Many of these new figures, such as foreign minister Walid al-Muallim and deputy prime minister for economic affairs Ali al-Dardari, have been instrumental in the diplomatic and economic successes that have enabled Syria’s swift recovery.
More challenging than maintaining power at home was ending Syria’s international isolation, and Assad again surprised sceptics with his diplomatic skill. He drew closer to fellow outcast Iran, while opportunistically wooing other regional players. He rapidly endorsedTurkey’s 2007 incursion of Iraq to consolidate a burgeoning alliance with Ankara and was quick to visit Moscow to back Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia, securing much-needed defence supplies in the process.
Vital support and investment was also sought from Qatar, culminating in its mediating the 2008 Lebanese peace agreement that paved the way for a return to Syrian dominance. Assad’s successful cultivation of these allies ensured the failure of the Washington-led diplomatic boycott and, alongside Bush’s failures in Iraq and instability in Lebanon, prompted the gradual realisation by Europe, the “moderate” Arabs and finally the US that Syria could not be sidelined.
Assad’s liberalising economic policies have also reaped rewards, with Syria’s unexpected growth enhancing Damascus’s emerging international confidence. New trade from Turkey, Iraq and the EU has eased fears that economic demands would force Syria to compromise with the US and Israel. Instead, western investors are flocking to Syria, and even the tourist industry is expanding, with Damascus recently named by the New York Times as seventh top destination for 2010. Not surprisingly, Assad’s domestic popularity is enhanced by the developing middle class, who credit their president for this economic success.
This popularity is mirrored in the wider Arab world, where Assad wasvoted most popular Arab leader in a 2009 Zogby poll. This further boosts Damascus’s regional clout, already vying with Egypt and Lebanon for cultural dominance over the Arab world following the widespread popularity of the Syrian drama and soap-opera industry which further projects a positive view of Syria into Arab living rooms.
While sharing his father’s unwillingness to bend to US pressure and, perhaps less ruthlessly, stifling of opposition at home, Assad has shown himself to be a different kind of leader. Since the Lebanon withdrawal he has demonstrated opportunism when backed into a corner and a sound reading of the international climate. After the initial disaster of 2005, Assad was quick to adapt the hard power exercised over Beirut by Hafez into the soft power and indirect influence that has seen Syrian dominance in Lebanon return.
As the US ambassador’s residence in Damascus is once again inhabited, its occupier will find himself dealing with a more confident and influential Syrian president than the one his predecessor left behind in 2005.