Mitchell Bard 
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© Mitchell Bard 2016

Don’t Believe Anyone On Syria

The death of Syrian President Hafez Assad has given commentators, experts and kibitzers the opportunity to pontificate on the future of the Middle East. The one thing that virtually all these gasbags have in common is that they don’t know what they’re talking about. The truth is no one outside Syria knows beans about Bashar Assad or his intentions, and suggesting otherwise is just baloney.

During the Cold War, Sovietologists and Kremlinologists usually to regularly appear on television and comment in newspapers on what Soviet leaders were thinking and going to do. It became comical after awhile because they were so completely wrong so often. They had no access to the decision-makers and no way to know what they were thinking or planning.

The same has long been true of Syria. Does anyone remember Hafez’s nickname? It was “the Sphinx.” He was the proverbial mystery wrapped in an enigma. American secretaries of state would visit him, have the inevitable four-hour frank discussion, and come out praising him as a man of peace and then spend months or years watching him obstruct the peace process until deciding to meet with him again.

Before Assad died, two competing theories were floated for how Syria would make peace with Israel. One was that Hafez was laying the groundwork for his people to accept peace with Israel by engaging in negotiations and talking about the possibility of coexisting beside the Jewish State, but that he was too set in his rejection of Israel to make the deal himself and would leave it to his son. The other notion was that Hafez was afraid that his son would not be strong enough to make peace on his own and that he would have to do it so that his son, and the Syrian people, would inherit a fait accompli.

Neither theory can be proven totally wrong, but the fact is Hafez did not make peace and, if anything, it looked as though he never would. Did he lay the groundwork for Bashar to do so? Maybe. The Syrian public has heard for the last several years that negotiations were taking place, they know the outline of a deal has been struck and that Jordan, Egypt and the Palestinians have all made their peace with Israel and derived at least some economic benefits from doing so. It is conceivable at least, then, that if Bashar were to cross the Rubicon – or the Golan — the decision would not provoke any upheaval.

What do we know about Bashar Assad? Does he have the courage and vision to move Syria forward and to make the psychological leap to peace with Israel? Nobody has a clue. All we know is Bashar is relatively young, western-educated, technologically savvy and knows about the human eye (he’s an ophthalmologist). Israel was prepared to give his father virtually everything he asked, but Hafez wouldn’t take “yes” for an answer. Will Bashar? Can Bashar?

Perhaps the most critical question is whether Bashar is in control of the country and can stay there. Publicly, we’ve heard nothing but praise for Bashar and support for his ascension as the leader of the Baath Party and the nation. The lone dissent has come from Hafez’s exiled brother, Rifaat, who openly challenged the legitimacy of Bashar to lead. For now, however, Rifaat is far away in Spain. Closer to home, the power brokers are in the Syrian military. Remember, Syria has a long history of coups and Hafez, who was a former air force commander and defense minister, seized power in the aftermath of Syria’s failed intervention in Jordan in 1970 when the leaders then in power were accused of a variety of mistakes that benefitted Israel. If Bashar makes peace with Israel, he could provoke a military coup, a popular uprising or an Islamic revolution. Rather than improve, the Syrian posture toward Israel could actually get worse.

Sitting here in Chevy Chase, it’s easy to see that Syrians should see the chance for a fresh start with a new, energetic, modern leader. Obviously, peace with Israel would bring great benefits to Syria. The country will regain the Golan Heights, end its international isolation and probably be showered with economic aid from the United States and other nations to stimulate its moribund economy. Sure, Bashar can’t act too fast. He’s got to solidify his power, mollify the old guard and let a respectful amount of time pass after his father’s death before doing anything dramatic, but, ultimately, he’ll take positive action and end the conflict with Israel and move the region one step closer to the messianic age.

It’s all wishful Western thinking. It could happen, but don’t believe anyone who says it will.