A foreign policy of instability cannot save Syria at home
The tables are turning on the Syrian regime. Several weeks after the praetorian military and security units of President Bashar al Assad, led by his brother Maher, began a fierce campaign of repression, popular protests are expanding. But more worrisome for Syria's leadership, it is finding increasing difficulty in exporting instability to the Middle East as a means of bolstering its domestic authority.
The late president Hafez al Assad was a master at manipulating this interplay between regional instability and regime survival. By exploiting, and more often provoking, insecurity among Syria's neighbours, Mr al Assad was able to bring Arab and western actors to his door to negotiate solutions. In that way, he ensured that Syria could punch well above its weight in the Arab world, which added to his credibility internally, strengthening his rule.
In fact, this was precisely the logic used by his son, Bashar al Assad, in a Wall Street Journal interview last January, before the start of the Syrian upheaval. When asked about the revolts against authoritarian rule in such places as Tunisia and Egypt, the president replied that in Syria things were different because ideology was a stabilising factor, uniting people with the regime. By this Mr al Assad meant that Syrians approved of his foreign policy - defending the option of "resistance", supporting good relations with Iran, Hizbollah and Hamas, opposing Israel and to an extent the United States, and so on.
Compare this to what Mr al Assad's influential cousin Rami Makhlouf told The New York Times some weeks later, this time in the midst of the Syrian revolt: "If there is no stability [in Syria], there's no way there will be stability in Israel." Here was the cynical flip side of Mr al Assad's logic. Where the president had claimed that foreign affairs, or more accurately the ideology sustaining them, was a decisive agent in consolidating his power domestically, Mr Makhlouf, realising this was no longer the case, threatened regional volatility if outside countries turned against Mr al Assad and his family.
Today, the Syrian game is faltering primarily on three fronts - Iraq, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and Lebanon. When it comes to Iraq the regime is tasting its own bitter medicine. After having allowed foreign jihadists to cross over into Iraq for years to conduct attacks and suicide bombings, Mr al Assad lately dispatched his foreign minister, Walid al Muallem, to ask Baghdad to close its border and avoid arms transfers to Syria. The Iraqis responded, as the Syrians once did, that it was a lengthy border to seal, and set as a condition that Damascus returns Iraqi Baathists operating in Syrian territory.
On the Palestinian front, there has been a cooling of relations between Syria and Hamas, in part because the Islamist movement has failed to endorse the Assad regime's crackdown. Damascus, using Hamas, had repeatedly undermined inter-Palestinian reconciliation under Egyptian auspices to prevent a breakthrough on the Palestinian track that might isolate Syria. However, in April Cairo successfully sponsored a Hamas-Fatah pact. While the outcome is unclear, this was a diplomatic blow to Syria that confiscated its Palestinian card.
Syria has also managed to alienate Israel. Once a silent partner in Syrian hegemony over Lebanon, the Israelis always preferred the heavy hand of Damascus to the uncertainties of a weak Lebanese state. Israel's leaders have also been well-intentioned toward the Assads for maintaining a quiet Golan Heights border since 1973. However, Mr Makhlouf's warnings, backed up by two recent border incidents on the Golan and an attack against United Nations forces in Lebanon - widely believed to be a Syrian message - have erased that goodwill. Israeli officials believe Mr al Assad is doomed, and apparently see little latitude in western capitals to bolster his political survival.
Even in Lebanon the mood is changing. While officially the Lebanese authorities and army have supported Mr al Assad, as has Hizbollah's secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, Damascus's allies are starting to discreetly brace for the fall of the Syrian order. For instance, Walid Jumblatt, who reconciled with Syria last year, has few illusions and is taking his distance. He rarely issues a statement these days without expressing the need for Syrian reform.
Even Sheikh Nasrallah was careful not to push for demonstrations last Sunday along the Lebanese frontier with Israel to commemorate the Arab defeat during the war of June 1967. Hizbollah evidently feared Israeli retaliation if things got out of hand, and therefore quietly consented when the Lebanese army sealed off of the border area. This created a highly symbolic moment - violence on the Golan Heights and dead calm in Lebanon. For years the Syrian leadership had done its utmost to profit from the contrary situation.
In some respects Mr al Assad was right that what happens inside Syria and Syrian perceptions of what occurs outside are mutually reinforcing. That he misread his people's mood is a testament to his hubris; but it's also true that if the Assads are unable to gain from stoking conflict in surrounding countries, this shortcoming can only exacerbate Syria's internal contradictions. Once the regime's regional leverage disappears, a harsh lens will reveal just how debilitated are its capacities at home.
For decades the Assads ably surfed the troubled waters of the Arab world. But the Syrian people are reminding them that this is now insufficient. Notions such as welfare, liberty, opportunity, even democracy, cannot forever be postponed by feeding off the travails of others, an approach that can only be defined as vampiric. Dissenting Syrians, to their great credit, aspire to something more elevated.
Michael Young is opinion editor of the Daily Star newspaper in Beirut and author of The Ghosts of Martyrs Square: An Eyewitness Account of Lebanon's Life Struggle
Updated: June 9, 2011 04:00 AM