Like father, unlike son: how Bashar Al Assad lost control

Hafez Al Assad's efforts to mould Syria into an independent regional power have been discredited by the actions of his son, argues Michael Young.

Rebel fighters from the Ahrar al-Sham Islamic Movement target Syrian regime aircraft. Khalil Ashawi / Reuters
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If Hafez Al Assad could come back and see what his son, Bashar, has done in Syria, he would re-enter his mausoleum and slam the door. Virtually every principle the late president sought to impose to enhance his country’s autonomy and regional power has been ignored by his successor.

This was brought home 10 days ago when Israel killed a top Iranian Revolutionary Guard commander, Mohammed Allahdadi, in Quneitra. According to the Lebanese newspaper Al Joumhouria, which cited diplomatic sources, General Allahdadi was tracked through his mobile phone, and was reportedly assassinated only days after the establishment of a joint operations room of Iranian, Hizbollah and Syrian officers in the area.

As Lebanese journalist Hazem Al Amin observed in Al Hayat last weekend, Iran’s subsequent threat of retaliation against Israel was a way of saying: “In Bashar Al Assad’s reduced Syria I’m in charge.” For Mr Amin, just as Iran affirmed that the Golan Heights were part of “its Syria”, Israel’s elimination of the Iranian and Hizbollah members was a riposte to this.

This exchange of messages came at an interesting moment. In Cairo last week, opposition groups, including exiled groups and members of the so-called “internal opposition” tolerated by Mr Al Assad, met to reaffirm support for the Geneva communiqué agreed in 2012. The Geneva process calls for a transitional government with “full executive authority”, widely regarded as a mechanism to move away from Mr Al Assad.

This came on the eve of a conference in Moscow this week bringing together mainly internal opposition representatives and officials of the Syrian regime. Expectations of any breakthrough were low, and the regime lowered them further by appointing as its representative Syria’s UN ambassador, Bashar Jaafari, instead of the foreign minister, Walid Al Moallem.

Lately, Russia has sought to move away from the Geneva framework. In reaffirming its importance, the Cairo conference aimed to prevent efforts to find any alternative path.

By hosting the gathering in Cairo, the Egyptians seemed to be saying that the search for a diplomatic solution must be brought back into the Arab fold. What could be taking shape is an emerging framework for Arab-Iranian dialogue over Syria.

In all this, one thing is evident: Mr Al Assad’s fate, like that of his regime, is entirely in the hands of others, both allies and enemies. Yet his late father spent much time ensuring that Syria and the Syrian regime would not fall into such a trap. Hafez Al Assad doubtless remembered, and hated, how Syria had become a plaything in regional rivalries during the 1950s and 1960s.

Mr Al Assad also remembered his own experiences during the October 1973 war against Israel. At the time, the Syrian president felt that his Egyptian counterpart Anwar Al Sadat had arrived at successive arrangements with the United States that had left Syria politically and militarily vulnerable, not least the Sinai I agreement of January 1974.

Dependency on the decisions of outside powers is something Hafez Al Assad consistently sought to avoid. The wily leader’s policy was, invariably, to put Syria in a position where others would have to come to Damascus to make political requests, placing him in an axial position regionally.

Bashar Al Assad never succeeded in replicating his father’s approach. While he borrowed a favourite tactic of his father in exporting instability, so that Syria could cash in on resolving the ensuing crises, he rarely fulfilled what he promised.

This was particularly true, for instance, when he reneged on a commitment made to US secretary of state Colin Powell in February 2003 to stop smuggling Iraqi oil on behalf of Saddam Hussein’s regime. While the president was trying to maintain Syria’s margin of manoeuvrability, he missed the fact that only by carrying through on his understandings would foreign representatives have an incentive to come to his doorstep.

Today the situation has been completely reversed. Mr Al Assad is almost entirely reliant on Iran, and to a lesser extent Russia, for his political survival. Syria has returned to being a board game for regional states – as Iran, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Qatar, and to a lesser extent Israel and Egypt as well as the United States and Russia all play a role in developments there.

Worse, Iran’s interests and Mr Al Assad’s frequently clash. Iran has facilitated Syria’s fragmentation by focusing on consolidating the regime’s hold over a portion of Syria, from Damascus to the Syrian coast, including the city of Homs, as this is the only means it has to maintain control over the country. Mr Al Assad, in turn, would undoubtedly prefer to be given the means to ultimately reconquer the whole of Syria.

Similarly, for the Golan to become an Iranian card is something Mr Al Assad cannot welcome, as recovering the territory has long been a central Syrian national issue. Losing this to Tehran can only erode the president’s legitimacy.

For Syria to be under the sway of foreign powers means that any solution will only come through an international arrangement, with Bashar Al Assad’s future remaining uncertain. One can almost hear Hafez Al Assad groaning. It was all for nothing, his spirit must be saying.

Michael Young is opinion editor of The Daily Star newspaper in Beirut

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