As the United Nations Security Council debates what to do about Detlev Mehlis’s report on Syrian involvement in the assassination of Rafik Hariri, the outside world realizes how little is known about one of the most hermetic regimes still in place in the Middle East.
The Mehlis report points the finger at very highly placed officials within both the Syrian and Lebanese governments. Syria is has now hit the headlines. But will this lift the veil that has covered it for decades?
One of the most secretive societies in the Middle East, Syria has always presented a challenge to journalists, policy analysts, and the average citizen interested in international politics. This is why books on Syria are so rare. And those that make sense are even rarer.
Flynt Lavrett’s book is one of the few that do make sense. It is a sympathetic and well-researched account of Syria since the death of its long-time leader President Hafez al- Asad five years ago. The author, a former official at the National Security Council (NSC) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) dealt with aspects of relations with Syria during the Clinton administration. In that capacity he had a rare chance to hold in-depth discussions with senior Syrian leaders, most notably Bashar al Asad who succeeded his father as president.
Just under half of the book consists of annexes containing documents, lists of sources, and a lengthy chronology of events since Hafez al Asad’s death. The average reader could skip all that section while the specialist would be glad to have so much information in a single place.
Lavrett has much grudging praise for what he describes as Hafez al-Asad’s “grand strategy” that enabled Syria to punch much above its weight for three decades. He repeats the cliché, originally attributed to Henry Kissinger, that while Arabs cannot make war without Egypt they cannot make peace without Syria.
Nevertheless, Lavrett’s own narrative shows that the Asad “grand strategy”, in the end, produced very little results for Syria. That strategy aimed at three goals.
The first was to prevent the Arabs from signing separate peace deals with Israel. But three of them, Egypt, Jordan and Lebanon did just that, although the Lebanese later abrogated their peace treaty with the Jewish state.
The second was to keep the Palestinian issue under Syrian controls. But that, too, did not happen. From the late 1980s the principal Palestinians organisations distanced themselves from Syria, leaving behind a few small rejectionist groups.
Last but not least, the strategy aimed at securing the return of the occupied Golan Heights to Syria. And, yet, Syria is the only one of Israel’s neighbours not to have regained a single inch of its land by Israel. The Egyptians have regained the Sinai and the Jordanians recovered more than 90 per cent of the land they had lost to Israel in 1967. Later, Israel returned the strip of and it had occupied in southern Lebanon for decades. And just a few days ago Israel organised a complete withdrawal from Gaza, returning to the Palestinians a chunk of their land. Syria, however, has gained nothing from its “grand strategy.”
The most interesting part of Lavrett’s book deals with President Bashar al-Asad’s first five years in office. Lavrett is sympathetic to the young Asad and believes that Bashar is sincerely, though quietly, committed to reform and liberalisation. Lavrett says Bashar is “a long-term thinker” and should not be judged by the apparent immobilism of his regime in the short-run.
But what is the evidence for this optimism?
Lavrett says Bashar is slowly dislodging the “Old Guard” and creating his own team, and give us a list of names of officials- from Buthaina Shaaban to Walid al-Muallim, Imad Mustafa, Sami al-Khiami, Ghassan al-Rifa’i, and Nabil Sukkar who are supposed to be the new president’s new guard along with the president’s wife, his younger brother and his brother-in-law.
Lavrett’s book suffers from some recent events. For example, he mentions Ghazi al-Kanaan, a security officer who acted as the virtual ruler of Lebanon for years, as a “key player” in Bashar’s administration. But Kanaan was sacked almost at the time that Lavrett’s book was being printed. Lavrett also claims that Abdul-Halim Khaddam, the veteran vice-president, might serve as a centre of opposition to reforms desired by Bashar. But Khaddam, too, was forced into retirement before the book came out. Worse still, he assures us that Syria will not withdraw all its troops from Lebanon. But that, too, has already happened.
The author criticizes the Bush administration for having abandoned Washington’s traditional engagement of Syria while failing to develop an alternative policy. But he offers no convincing argument to back his claim that such a policy is urgently needed. In fact, the opposite could be argued. Syria is now virtually friendless and is in no position to have much of an impact, apart from making some mischief in Iraq. It is perfectly possible for Washington to ignore Syria until the reforms that Lavrett says Bashar is determined to introduce, appear on the horizon.
Lavrett says the US has four options in Syria.
• The first is to increase pressure on Damascus to change its behaviour on issues that mater to the US. Lavrett says this is not going to work because sanctions imposed by just one power and ignored by others have always proven ineffective.
• The second option is regime change through military force. Lavrett says this is difficult and, in the light of the experience in Iraq, could prove more costly than many imagine.
• Thirdly, the US could pressure Israel to revive peace talks with Syria. But there is little chance of that as long as Ariel Sharon is Prime Minister in Israel. Worse still, even a successor to Sharon might decide that, since Syria cannot do much beyond using the Lebanese Hizballah for occasional attacks, there is no reason even to dream of giving back the Golan which, after all, accounts for a good part of the water the Jewish state needs.
• The fourth option, which Lavrett prefers, is a direct US-Syrian dialogue which sets the issue of peace talks with Israel on the backburner. Lavrett says Washington should back Bashar and give him “the coverage he needs to introduce his reforms.” Lavrett cites Libya and the Sudan as promising precedents. In those two countries the Bush promised not to consider regime change in exchange for changes in aspects of the two regimes’ behaviour on issues that interests the US. Could Bashar do what Colonel Muammar al-Kaddafi and General Omar Hassan al-Bashir have done? Lavrett says: yes. Let’s try it!