New Assad means new U.S. policy

June 13, 2000|By Robert Satloff and Alan Makovsky

WASHINGTON - Few Americans are mourning the death of Syrian President Hafez el Assad.

For most of us, America's most direct encounter with Mr. Assad was a car bomb that killed 241 peace-keeping Americans in Lebanon in 1983. Now, a new Assad is about to assume Syria's presidency, his 35-year-old son Bashar.

He is reputedly made of different stuff than the old man, with a reputation for distaste of corruption, openness to new technologies and an understanding of Western ways. He is known to be short on experience in the cutthroat politics his father raised to a science.

New leadership in Damascus creates opportunities for hopeful change.

Most Syrians chafed politically and suffered economically under the late Mr. Assad. According to the U.S. embassy in Damascus, per capita income in Syria is under $900 - less than the shanty-towns of Gaza and less than Iraq under sanctions.

For Washington, it is important to be clear about our interests in Syria: they are stability, peace abroad and openness at home. Arab-Israeli peace has been a U.S. foreign policy priority for a half-century, and Syria is an important piece of the puzzle. Only a stable Syria can make peace; only a more open Syria can make peace lasting and meaningful.

Conventional wisdom has long held that achieving all three goals was impossible: the type of stability that Hafez el Assad fostered might lead to peace but never the openness - free trade in goods, people, and ideas - that is anathema to a closed regime; conversely, peace might usher in foreign aid, tourism and investment, but that would surely undermine Syria's underlying political fragility. Every attempt to square this circle has been for naught.

With a new Assad at the helm, this trade-off may no longer apply. For now, the key would be to test him with a new U.S. policy, one that encourages Bashar's putative propensities toward economic and perhaps political reform, while raising the stakes for continuing a policy of mischief-making that undercuts U.S. efforts at peace and security elsewhere in the region. The thrust of this policy would be "bigger carrots, bigger sticks."

When she meets Bashar el Assad, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright should outline to the presumptive Syrian president two tests by which the United States will gauge his worthiness of U.S. support of his rule.

First, a final end to Syrian links with terrorism, evidenced by severing all military ties with both secular and Islamic radical groups, including closing bases in Syria and Lebanon's Bekaa Valley.

Second, unqualified Syrian support for stability in southern Lebanon, recently vacated by Israel and now largely controlled by Hezbollah. Proof would come in the form of the deployment of a substantial number of Lebanese army troops to the south and the termination of the transshipment of Iranian arms supplies to Hezbollah. Both of those steps could be taken without any retreat from declared Syrian policies.

If Syria delivers on these issues, then, to paraphrase Margaret Thatcher, Bashar el Assad would be "someone we could do business with." Specifically, Washington should be willing to engage with him (or whoever is really calling the shots in Damascus) on promoting economic reform and commercial investment, including by suspending some of the sanctions that accompany Syria's designation as a state-sponsor of terrorism.

If, however, Bashar el Assad takes another route, then he and his colleagues would face the consequences.

Should he maintain his father's policy of war-by-proxy in Lebanon or terrorism in the Palestinian-Israeli arena - or worse, should he opt for military adventurism, thinking that a lost war will win him the benefits he chose not to get from a negotiated peace - then the United States ought to up its ante against Syria.

A good place to start would be to strengthen security ties with Syria's pro-Western neighbors - Turkey, Jordan and Israel - and to impose sanctions on U.S. firms investing in Syria's oil industry, its main source of foreign income.

The United States should, therefore, take Bashar el Assad at his word - if he wants to build a new Syria, we should assist, but only if he discards the most egregious aspects of the old Syria, too. Otherwise, we should take a page from his father's diary and be patient, waiting instead for the next Syria.

Robert Satloff and Alan Makovsky are executive director and senior fellow, respectively, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

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