Interview Nadim Shehadi

"Political Uncertainty Is Assad's Most Important Asset"

After the UN Security Council resolution Syria is politically isolated and under great political pressure to instigate reform. However, the regime might not be as weak as it seems, says Nadim Shehadi Director of the Centre for Lebanese Studies in London

Nadim Shehadi (photo: Jane Ricketts)
The assumption of the weakness of President Assad may prove not to be very true, Nadim Shehadi says

​​How would you assess the range of the regime in Syria now? What are its options?

Shehadi: Syria has been under pressure since the fall of the Iraqi regime in 2003 and has been trying to re-engage with the US on several fronts. It has been cooperative in the war on terror and exchanged intelligence with the US which the US admitted had helped save American lives. It signed a treaty with Turkey, effectively relinquishing all claims on the Hatay, a region annexed to Turkey during the French mandate and which contains the historical Syrian city of Antioch and the port of Alexandretta. Syria has also offered to resume peace negotiations with Israel without any preconditions.

Syria also claims to be helping with the border in Iraq and preventing insurgents from crossing that border; in addition Syria indicates that it can help calm the situation in Iraq through its knowledge of the country, its contacts with the Sunni tribes – many of which are common with Syria – and its good relations with several members of the opposition, some of which were based in Damascus before the invasion.

In short, Syria wants to help with an exit strategy for the US and the coalition from the Iraq occupation which is seen to have become problematic and unsustainable. The regime has also, without much credibility, indicated that it is on a path of reform and change. All of this is put forward in return for ending Syria's isolation, regime survival and getting off the hook with regard to the Hariri assassination in Lebanon, a country that Syria also claims it can stabilise by controlling both Hizballah and radical Palestinian groups opposed to the Peace Process.

The only problem is that the US does not seem to be willing to play ball and appears to be set on regime change in Syria. Syria's options are to gain time by appearing to comply with all US demands, intensify diplomatic contacts with Arab states that are keen on maintaining stability in the region and hope that the situation will become more conducive for engagement with the US.

The regime can gain time through many other means. If the Melhis investigation results in an international tribunal; this will be very costly, bureaucratic and extremely time-consuming. Basically, in the short and medium term, time is on the side of the Asad regime. But in the longer term, change has to happen as this model is both not viable and cannot reform itself. In the meantime, Syria seems to be isolated even by the Arab countries.

How do you think the military will act? Would you agree with Volker Perthes who, in the International Herald Tribune, argued that a Musharraf-like military coup would not be ideal but could be an option to prevent an even worse development?

Shehadi: This is part of several scenarios which have developed about Syria and some have linked it to the alleged suicide of interior minister Ghazi Kanaan who would have been a possible candidate for a Syrian Musharraf from the inner circle of the regime. Such an assumption is based on a presumed weakness of President Bashar el Asad and on him being sacrificed to save the rest of the regime. There is no obvious candidate for this, and if there was, some analysts would not give him a significant chance of success.

I think that Syria already has had its Musharraf: Hafez el Assad, Bashar's father, and that such takeovers are out of fashion, and so is the Baath party mode of Stalinist rule. But I agree with the analysis of Volker Perthes, who is one of the most knowledgeable people on Syria. A lot of this analysis is based on the assumption of the weakness of President Bashar el Assad which may prove not to be very true.

Do the UN investigation, the Mehlis report have any credibility in Syria, or is the government successful in maintaining that they are part of a Western/US-led conspiracy?

Shehadi: The regime is trying to discredit the Mehlis report and portray it as an instrument of US policy aimed at Syria and part of a broader scheme to redraw the map of the whole region. It seems that external pressure may be rallying support for the regime, largely in fear of the uncertainty of what may follow and the spectre of an Iraq-type chaos and civil war developing in case of regime collapse.

In my view, the regime seems strong, there is no sign of any unrest developing internally and life in Damascus continues almost as normal. Sanctions, which are not on the cards for the moment, could change this. But sanctions have also been proven to be ineffective; also they make the population suffer without much affecting the regime as in the case of Iraq and Libya. But such a regime, like Ceaucescu's in Romania, will always seems strong until it collapses.

What do you say concerning the allegations that Syria supports, sponsors Jihadi terrorists at the Syrian-Iraqi border?

Shehadi: In Iraq, if the Syrians have been facilitating or turning a blind eye to the insurgents, it is because they would only make a step when there is a 'quid pro quo'. Help create a problem in order to resolve it and get something in return.

In short, the Syrians are interested in making a deal and preserving the regime. This deal would offer help in Iraq in return for concessions over Lebanon. Hence they are not likely to offer more help that is necessary without making sure there is a response on the US side. Helping things get worse from time to time also serves as a means of pressure.

Will the opposition in Syria be able to exploit the current weakness of the regime? Is there even an opposition?

Shehadi: The opposition in Syria seems weak, disorganized and willing to work with the regime for gradual change rather than risk an Iraq-style collapse with all the uncertainties this entails. Syria's economy is weak and instability could have disastrous consequences. The recent Damascus Declaration is rallying support for radical constitutional reform but it is not clear yet if it is effective. It is difficult to conceive of an effective opposition under the present laws in Syria which prohibit the formation of any political movements outside the ruling Baath Party.

Which direction will France's diplomatic alignment take? In what way can/should Europe as a political actor take influence?

Shehadi: France is wary of regime change and is more interested in keeping Syria out of Lebanon and restoring the latter country's sovereignty. Europe as a political actor has several instruments like the Association Agreement under the Euro-Mediterranean partnership, i.e. the Barcelona Process, as well as the Action Plan under the European New Neighbourhood Policy that can help with reform assuming that the regime is reformable. Such policies are slow to give results and are not suited for situations of pressure like this one.

I do not think there is an international consensus on how to deal with Syria or a vision of what a post-Assad era would look like. Such uncertainty and the fear it generates is the regime's most important asset.

Interview: Lewis Gropp

© Nadim Shehadi/ 2005

Nadim Shehadi is Associate Fellow of the Middle East Programme at the Royal Institute for International Affairs, London.

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