In December 2010 President Obama appointed the first US ambassador to Syria since 2005. That ambassadorial post had gone unfilled since the Bush administration recalled the US ambassador in protest for what it said was Syrian involvement in the assassination of Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri in February 2005.
Less than a month later, the Syrian-backed Shiite terrorist organization Hezbollah forced the collapse of Lebanon’s unity government in an attempt to thwart a UN tribunal report that was prepared to implicate members of Hezbollah in al Hariri’s murder. 14
Adding further fuel to Syrian confidence is Assad’s belief that his country is immune to the current unrest sweeping the Arab world and, as such, he will not suffer the same fate as former Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali Zine and former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. While some may argue that viewpoint, there are several factors that make the case.
For starters–unlike the leaders in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and Jordan–Assad is viewed by Syrians as an uncompromising opponent of both the United States and Israel. His backing of the Palestinian and Lebanese terrorist groups, Hamas and Hezbollah, as well as his continued challenge of Israel’s occupation of Syria’s strategic Golan Heights, allow him to maintain a level of popular support.
As explained in an editorial in Syria’s government-controlled press, the current troubles in the Arab world stem from “the complete acquiescence of some (Arab) regimes to the U.S. and their acceptance to take Zionist dictates.”
Since 2000 Assad has also enacted in Syria some of the economic reforms being clamored for by Arabs in the ongoing Mideast rebellions, specifically moving Syria away from Soviet-style economic restrictions by letting in foreign banks, allowing imports and empowering the private sector.
Of course, it also helps that Assad has another, unmentioned asset to keep power: a brutally harsh regime that routinely draws outcries from international human rights groups. Throughout his thirty-year reign Assad has been ruthless in putting down opposition uprisings, best illustrated in 1982 when he quelled a rebellion by razing the Syrian town of Hama and butchering its 40,000 citizens.
Still, despite Assad’s public bravado, he is taking few chances to test his regime’s durability in today’s political climate. For example, after allowing two small, peaceful demonstrations to be held in Damascus, he had the next demonstration quickly and violently dispersed by police.
Those clashes were followed by increasing reports of intimidation and the blocking of communications by agents of the Mukhabarat, Syria’s intelligence services. Fearful that its citizens would use the internet to exchange information and potentially organize protests, Syrian authorities placed further restrictions on the internet by banning programs that allow access to Facebook and other messaging programs. Official explanations of the ban said it was to prevent Israel from “penetrating Syrian youth.”
Of course, Syria’s current bravado has a potential downside. Israel, which has never been reluctant to forcefully protect its interests, finds itself in the most threatening situation in its history. As it looks out at the current political landscape it sees its peaceful relationships with Egypt and Jordan in jeopardy; Hezbollah in control of Lebanon; Hamas emboldened; and Iran undeterred in its quest for nuclear weapons.
So, when Hamas recently fired rockets into the Israeli city of Beersheba and was met by a fierce Israeli response, Benjamin Netanyahu said: “I don’t advise anyone to test Israel’s determination.” Or as Moshe Ya’alon put it: “I hope they won’t put our capabilities to the test.”
While their words were directed at Hamas, both men may have been just as easily talking to Syria and cautioning them about the inherent risks of its current forays. Unfortunately, for now, it seems a gamble Syria is willing to take.
Frank Crimi is a writer living in San Diego, California. You can read more of Frank’s work at his blog, www.politicallyunbalanced.com.
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