Ten years on, Syrian leader keeps his options open | World| Breakings news and perspectives from around the globe | DW | 17.07.2010
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Ten years on, Syrian leader keeps his options open

Ten years ago, Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad was named to replace his deceased father. What role has his leadership played in the troubled search for peace in the Middle East?

Poster of Bashar Al Assad in a candy shop in Damascus

Propagandistic iconography featuring Al Assad is the norm in Damascus

Generations of Middle East experts have asked themselves the same question: Is Syria the key to peace in the Middle East, or is it a stumbling block? Both possibilities are closely linked.

Through its relations with Iran, the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon, and radical Hamas in Gaza, the regime in Damascus has enormous potential to influence the situation there - both for the positive and for the negative.

Anti-Israel, but open to the West

President Bashar Al-Assad shows a similar flexibility as his father, whose job he inherited on July 17, 2000. Under his reign the Syrian state media is on a strictly anti-Israeli course: The disliked neighbor is portrayed as an ever-agressive, propoganda-crazy "Zionist entity."

In the streets of Damascus, endless numbers of propaganda posters show Al-Assad side by side with Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah, or Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. And the leadership of Hamas lives in the Syrian metropolis - along with a few other radical Palestinian organizations.

At the same time, Al-Assad has repeatedly sent signals that show an interest in peace in the region, and on improved relations with Western countries. In that way, he is different from his partners in Iran, Hamas or Hezbollah, which loudly agitate for the destruction of Israel.

Attempts at indirect peace talks

When Al-Assad criticizes Israel, he tends to do so from the standpoint of a peace-loving politician who, sadly, doesn't find the same attitude in his opponent.

Speaking to the BBC in mid-June after the Israeli Marine's deadly attack on the Gaza flotilla, Al-Assad said: "The attack destroyed any chance for peace in the near future. Very simply, mainly because it proved that this government is another pyromaniac government. You cannot achieve peace with such a government."

Poster in the old city of Damascus

Hafiz Al Assad, left, was pictured on election posters with his son.

Al-Assad himself has tried it, though. Like his father before him, he agreed to indirect peace talks with Israel. Turkey mediated at first, but they have been on hold since the Gaza war in 2008. Another round seems unlikely in the near future - especially in light of the currently poor relations between Turkey and Israel. Critics say there is more likely to be new war in the region than peace anytime soon.

Dealing with the Golan question

Many European observers believe that Syria has no interest in a new escalation in the region. While the country was considered part of the "Axis of Evil" by former US President George W. Bush, today, Syria's leader is essentially courted by Western politicians.

Indeed, Syria has a number of interests that speak in favor of taking the path of peace and working together with Western leaders. Syria wants to reform its ailing economy and needs to shed itself of American sanctions in order to do it. Above all, Syria wants to get back the Golan Heights, which it lost to Israel in 1967, and which Israel later annexed. For the government, the return of the Golan is a question of prestige.

"No Syrian politician can give up on the Golan. The Golan is part of Syria," explains Samir Al-Aita, editor-in-chief of the Arabic edition of Le Monde Diplomatique.

Delicate balance of influences

German Middle-East expert Volker Perthes believes it is possible to remove Syria from its tight connections to Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah. The director of the German Institute for International Policy and Security at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP), says Syria and Hezbollah are allies out of necessity: Syria needs Hezbollah to keep up the credibility of its threats to Israel, and Hezbollah is using Syria for financial and material support - including arms deliveries.

"That would all change if Syria really signed a peace deal with Israel and regained its occupied territory. That is clear. And Beirut and the Hezbollah know it. The relationship of Syria to Hezbollah would change because they would no longer have the same strategic interests."

But can Al-Assad take the risk - both in terms of domestic and foreign policy - of renouncing its allegiance to Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran, in order to reclaim the Golan and have better relations to the West?

Failed peace attempts thus far

Attempts to make that happen have failed up to the present. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton became aware of that last February, when she openly asked Al-Assad to reconsider his tight strategic links to Iran. He replied that Syria knew its own history, and said the Middle East could take care of its own business, thank you.

At the end of the day, the question of whether Syria is a key to peace or a stumbling block on the road there, is an open one. And Bashar Al-Assad seems bent on keeping it that way.

Author: Rainer Sollich (jen)
Editor: Michael Knigge

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