After thirty-five years of grim relations, Damascus and Washington are suddenly agreeing on a few things. Syrian and American troops stood together in the deserts of Arabia, facing down Saddam Hussein and calling themselves allies. Then the Syrian media toned down their habitually vicious anti-American rhetoric, and diplomatic contacts increased steadily. In July President Hafez al-Assad agreed, apparently without preconditions, to participate in an American-sponsored peace conference.
These changes, some of them quite abrupt, raise several questions: Do they signal a fundamental shift in Syrian politics or are they merely prudential? Has Assad undergone a change of heart regarding Israel or is he making tactical adjustments? Should the U.S. government build on this quasi alliance or distance itself from a brutal tyrant?
To answer, we begin with an analysis of Assad's character and an examination of recent developments that have affected Syria. Next we scrutinize Syria's key bilateral relationship-the one with Israel. Within this context, finally, we focus on American policy.
Like any one-man dictatorship Syria is dominated by its ruler. President Assad unilaterally issues the country's laws and makes most of the life-and-death decisions affecting the twelve million Syrians he rules. Understanding Syrian politics, therefore, means beginning with Assad.
One way to understand Assad's character is to compare him with Saddam Hussein. They are about the same age (Saddam was born in 1937, Assad in 1930); they come from impoverished rural areas; they represent minority groups in their countries; and they have effectively ruled since about the same year (1972 for Saddam, 1969 for Assad). In personality they share vaulting ambitions, a passion for secrecy and a Manichaean outlook that divides the world into agents and enemies. Both tend toward brinkmanship and are more interested in building their militaries than their countries. Each has imposed extreme centralization to create a stable order where turmoil had previously prevailed. Their political systems rely on Baath Party control, the pervasive use of informants and brutality. (Middle East Watch found torture in Iraq to be "used
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