America’s China Policy Is Not Working
The Dangers of a Broad Decoupling
On February 22, 1987, President Hafez al-Assad of Syria deployed more than 7,000 Syrian troops into West Beirut. Their immediate aim in the capital of neighboring Lebanon was to stop the furious warfare that had raged for a week between feuding militias. But for Assad the stakes were much higher than the peace of Beirut’s streets. Syria had undergone a rapid succession of setbacks in its relations with the West, deepening economic crisis at home, and humiliations in Lebanon at the hands not only of Assad’s enemies but of his two most powerful allies: Iran and the Soviet Union. Indeed, Lebanon had become a crucible where those relations were constantly tested and often found wanting, and there the potential began to emerge for major changes in Syrian foreign policy.
The question of how Syria’s difficulties with two very different allies have developed, and where those tensions will lead, is tied intimately to the course of the Iran-Iraq war, the Palestinian question, the Arab-Israeli peace process and the fate of American hostages. In a region beset by intractable and interrelated stalemates one looks for variables that might change the equation, and Syria’s alliances have shown more signs of shifting than any other relationships, hostile or friendly, in the Middle East.
Can the West, especially Washington, exploit the situation? Can it hope for a major realignment in Syria’s relations with either Iran or the Soviet Union? In June, as Assad’s problems continued to multiply with the assassination of Lebanon’s pro-Syrian Prime Minister Rashid Karami, then the kidnapping of American journalist Charles Glass just 350 yards from a Syrian checkpoint, Washington seemed to sense an opportunity. It was less than seven months since the United States had withdrawn its ambassador to Damascus, charging Syria with support for international terrorism. President Reagan wrote to Assad personally, and in early July he dispatched U.N. Ambassador Vernon Walters to start talks about improving relations. Walters reportedly concluded the conversation with "feelings of optimism."
There are, indeed, some hopeful public signals from Assad. In an apparent effort to mollify the West, he shut down the Damascus office of the Palestinian Abu Nidal group, and reiterated his own opposition to terrorism. The dramatic reversal of European as well as American efforts to isolate Syria suggests there may have been secret signals as well, possibly including Syrian cooperation in exposing Iranian-backed terrorist networks in France. Assad repeatedly has professed his desire to help free Western hostages in Lebanon, and there are many reasons to suppose he is sincere. If he increases his efforts on this front, tension between Damascus and Tehran is certain to worsen.
At a time when the West is focusing much of its attention on isolating and pressuring Iran, the Syrian link grows still more important, if not pivotal to Western efforts. An open break between Syria and Iran would be the sharpest diplomatic blow to Tehran that the West could hope for. At a time when the Soviets have gained considerable momentum in their regional diplomacy any measure that might wean Syria away from their side would be a setback for Moscow as well. Assad might be persuaded to edge away from his long-standing links to the Soviets—or at least his overwhelming military dependence on them. But Assad’s moves are likely to be cautious. "You must remember this about Hafez Assad," said a Christian Lebanese politician who has negotiated with him often, and warily: "he never completely embraces his allies and never definitely breaks with his enemies. . . . He is a master of suspense; a Hitchcock of policy."
In this plot the key developments are being played out in Lebanon, an area of primary importance to Assad, and it is there one must look first to begin judging the fragility or strength of his major alliances.
Assad understood early on that Lebanon is more than a battleground, it is a weapon. Its corrosive hatreds and factionalism, its chaos and violence cannot be controlled, but they can be manipulated. Once Lebanon engaged Assad’s adversaries, whether Israel or the United States or France, the place worked on them like a chemical agent. With a minimum of overt effort by Syria, those who tried to dominate Beirut without Assad’s assent were driven out or destroyed. But by 1986 the Beirut weapon was turning, slowly, against Assad himself. An American diplomat likened Lebanon to "a cancer in the side of Syria, unraveling its defenses, tearing apart its social fabric."
It is there that Assad has put his ideological hopes for the beginnings of a Greater Syria and the Baath Party dream of a united Arab nation; there that those dreams have been put to the test and there that they have failed most abjectly. When Lebanon became a French mandate after World War I, the French added parts of Syria to Lebanon’s territory, a move which Syrians never accepted. Under Assad, Syria’s goal went beyond regaining lost ground to aspiring to dominion over all of Lebanon, a purpose that is also important to his broader regional ambitions: to rival Israel’s strength, dominate the Palestinians and influence Jordan. The aspirations are interlocking and, for Assad, vital. Thus as his domestic economy has crumbled, with prolonged power outages every day, with exports almost nonexistent and the currency plunging in value, Assad has committed the resources to maintain tens of thousands of Syrian troops in Lebanon year after year. He has invested the prestige of his leadership there, and it is there that his prestige has been challenged most consistently.
For Assad, who took power in a military coup almost 17 years ago and has held onto it through the force of guile and guns, to lose face is, potentially, to lose everything. This is partly the reason that he has relied so often on proxies to carry out his policies, especially when violence is involved. If they succeed then the credit may accrue to him; if they fail, then the sting of failure is tempered; and if they carry out acts that might be condemned by international opinion but that Assad finds useful, then the force of retribution can be diverted away from Syria itself.
Over the years, Syria’s links to the various factions in Lebanon, and its ability to use them as proxies, have shifted in sometimes baffling ways as Syria’s president has sought on the one hand to keep Lebanon from fracturing into bitterly feuding cantons, and on the other to assert and certify the right of Damascus to intervene pervasively in Lebanese affairs.
Assad first sent troops into Lebanon in 1976 when the Christians, having started the fighting, were being routed by Druse socialists, some Palestinians, Lebanese Communists and Lebanese Muslims. Within two years, however, Assad had turned against the same Christians he had first intervened to save, and developed ties with some of the forces he had moved to stop. Although Syrian agents are widely believed to have murdered Druse warlord Kamal Jumblatt, his son Walid, who assumed the Druse leadership, eventually formed what seemed a close working relationship with Damascus.
Assad’s troops remained in Beirut, uneasily sharing the burden of maintaining order, until the Israeli invasion of 1982 forced both the Palestinian fighters and Syria’s soldiers out of the capital. In the invasion’s aftermath, the United States, France and Italy sent in "peacekeeping" forces. U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz, after only cursory consultations with Assad, brokered the Israeli-Lebanese accords of May 17, 1983, to pave the way for an Israeli withdrawal and a peace treaty with Lebanon. But a series of suicide bombings, including the October 1983 attack on the U.S. marine barracks that cost 241 American lives, demoralized the Western forces.
Meanwhile the Lebanese army that they had sought to strengthen was shattered by confessional dissension. By 1984 the point men for Assad’s actions in Beirut were the Shi‘ite militias known as Amal under the leadership of Nabih Berri, the Druse forces and a collection of Lebanese Baathis, Communists and the Damascus-backed Syrian Social Nationalist Party. In February 1984 the Lebanese army units in mostly Muslim West Beirut collapsed under pressure from the Syrian-supported militias, and within days, utterly reversing its previous position, the Reagan Administration withdrew its marines. The May 17 accords were abrogated.
Secretary Shultz reacted bitterly, seeming for the most part to lose interest in the Middle East after the incidents of 1983 and 1984. "He is a man who felt these things deeply, personally," said an Administration official who worked with Shultz. "We got badly burned in Lebanon. There was a sense of betrayal." And, particularly in the American press, Assad’s ruthless statecraft was credited with a major setback to American policy.
Perhaps. Assad plays what has been called an "open game," always preserving as many options as possible. If he uses violence to achieve his goals, whether overt force or covert terrorism, there is nothing impetuous about it. Calibration is the characteristic of Assad’s famous ruthlessness. Usually he gives his adversaries, and his allies, room to back away from confrontation, and when he does make a move the risk and the likely response appear calculated with extraordinary care. But some American diplomats view the crushing of the May 17 accords less as a victory for Assad than a defeat that Washington inflicted on itself. He accomplished his ends with minimal exertion or risk. Where Assad has faced adversaries more familiar with the style and substance of Middle Eastern politics—including the uses of terrorism—he has met with less success. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and PLO leader Yasir Arafat are said to be hated by Assad to the point of loathing, yet they have survived his intrigues. The Christian president of Lebanon, Amin Gemayel, openly defied Assad by refusing to endorse Syria’s tripartite peace proposal in January 1986.
In fact, throughout 1986 there were signs that Assad’s grip might be weakening, and that pressures on him were mounting. Washington’s campaign against state-sponsored terrorism, which culminated in the April 1986 bombing of Libya, was focused on the activities of the Abu Nidal group, which had an office in Damascus. Syrian links to the teams that carried out the bloody attacks in the Rome and Vienna airports, and bombed a Berlin nightclub full of American servicemen, were at least as well established as those of Libya. With the conviction in a London court of a Jordanian who attempted to blow up an Israeli airliner—and who made an extensive confession of direct ties to Syrian intelligence—there finally was proof of Syria’s direct backing for terrorism. The case precipitated a break in diplomatic relations between London and Damascus. The United States supported the British move by pulling its ambassador out of Syria. The European community also curtailed its economic and diplomatic ties to the regime. It was just at this point of obvious vulnerability for Assad that his allies showed themselves to be increasingly dangerous adversaries.
The Soviet Union and Iran top a very short list of Syria’s international allies. Both have cost Assad dearly in his relations with more conservative Arab states, and each is antagonistic toward the other. The Syrian leader seems to collect allies who are each others’ enemies, perhaps believing that they are thus less inclined to join forces against him.
Assad has a strong and evident sense of his own vulnerability. As he looks to his borders, he sees not a single friend and, in Iraq and Israel, two powerful enemies. Even within Syria Assad rarely ventures outside his capital, and then most often to his home province near Latakia. Assad is a leader very much alone, surrounded in effect by concentric circles of hostility. He is a member of the small and despised Alawite sect in a nation traditionally dominated by its Sunni Muslim majority. Assad has surrounded himself with as many as half a dozen security and intelligence services and through much of his rule allowed his brother, Rifaat, to run a vast personal army as well, each group helping to check the power of the others while maintaining Assad on top. But after his 1983 heart attack Assad seemed to lose the endurance necessary to keep all these forces in line. Civil war between his brother and his other commanders was only barely averted and Rifaat was, to all intents and purposes, forced into exile.
Another source of pressure on Assad’s rule is the state of the Syrian economy; in recent years it has seemed completely beyond his control and everywhere are signs of gross mismanagement. Domestic oil discoveries and one million tons a year of free petroleum from Iran have lightened the burden some, but grumbling about shortages of goods has become a constant undertone in Syria’s streets. Such basic commodities as sugar and salt are absent from the shelves for months at a time. And luxuries once common in Damascus, such as Lebanese wine, have become coveted contraband. Despite considerable agricultural potential, Syria is a net importer of food. In 1987 cash reserves plunged to less than $40 million, the severest shortage in 16 years. Exchange controls are in chaos and the authorities are desperate. At one point there were five official rates in effect for the Syrian pound, ranging from 3.9 to 20 to the dollar, and the prison sentences decreed for currency smuggling mounted to decades. The country is deeply in debt not only to the Soviet Union and Iran, but also to Western creditors and the World Bank, which this year banned further disbursements until Syria resumes debt repayments.
But the greatest challenges to Hafez Assad’s power during his 17 years of rule have come from groups that believed they had God on their side. His own faith and the core of his support is the Alawite sect, traditionally regarded as heretical by the two principal currents of Islam, the Sunni and the Shia. Sunnis represent more than 70 percent of Syria’s population, particularly the urban middle class. Alawites make up perhaps 15 percent: a rural, peasant class, a servant caste—but in modern Syrian history a military caste as well, and the core of the Baath Party’s leadership.
Since the Baath first took power in Syria 24 years ago it has been dominated by minorities, and the country’s Sunnis have challenged its legitimacy, despised its secularism. In April 1964, when Colonel Hafez Assad was already a member of the Syrian Baath’s dominant Regional Command, Sunnis revolted in Hama. The city’s Sunni religious leaders spoke out bitterly against the Baath and some reportedly put on shrouds to signal the advent of jihad, a holy war, against the Baath regime. The army responded by shelling the Sultan Mosque, killing dozens of protesters and crushing the rebellion. In May 1967 widespread demonstrations were triggered by an atheistic article in the Syrian army’s weekly magazine. In early 1973 rebellions broke out against Assad’s government when it omitted the standard reference to Islam as the state religion in the text of a new constitution. An underground war developed against the regime, led by the fundamentalist Muslim Brothers. In June 1979, 32 cadets at the artillery school in Aleppo, most of them Alawites, were massacred by Assad’s opponents. Members of the government were assassinated, Soviet personnel in Damascus were killed, car bombs became a bloody commonplace. In February 1982, again in Hama, there was open rebellion. This time it was suppressed with stunning violence as Assad’s soldiers, many under the direct command of his brother, razed much of the city and killed tens of thousands of its people. There was a pause in the terror waged by the faithful, but it did not end. In 1986 more people were killed in Syria by terrorist attacks against Assad’s regime than in the much-publicized massacres in Paris, at the Karachi airport and the Istanbul synagogue, combined.
These challenges within Syria, aimed directly at Assad, his party and his army, had come mostly from the Sunnis. The history of Assad’s relations with the Shi‘ites is quite different. Excluding the schismatic Alawites, the Shi‘ites are less than one percent of the population. In 1973, when Assad desperately needed to gain some religious respectability, or at least put aside the millstone of heresy, he found an ally in an Iranian cleric who had taken up residence in Lebanon and built a powerful following there among that country’s traditionally downtrodden and neglected Shi‘ites. The "Imam" Musa Sadr, as this cleric was called, issued a religious edict, or fatwa, declaring the Alawites a "community of Shia Islam." As political historian Martin Kramer put it, "the regime of Hafez al-Assad needed quick religious legitimacy; the Shi‘ites of Lebanon, Musa al-Sadr had decided, needed a powerful patron. Interests busily converged from every direction."
At the same time that he was battling the Sunni Muslim Brothers, Assad’s differences with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, also a Baath, were growing. The Baath parties of Iraq and Syria have long competed bitterly for dominance of the movement, but relations between Assad and Saddam Hussein were infected with a peculiarly intense hatred. Assad accused Iraq of aiding and arming the Sunni rebels, and less than a month after the 1982 Hama uprising Assad moved publicly to align himself with Iran in its war against Iraq by cutting off the Iraqi pipeline to the Mediterranean that was then vital to Iraqi petroleum exports.
For the would-be leader of the Arab world to support the forces of Persia against the forces of another Arab nation, for the secular Assad government to back the regime of revolutionary mullahs, seemed a fantastic twist even in the cynical politics of the Middle East. But at the time the potential threat of Shi‘ite radicalism seemed less of a menace to Assad than the reality of Iraqi-backed Sunni rebellion. Within the borders of Syria, the alliance made sense. For Syria’s interests in Lebanon, however, it has proved to be a different matter.
The essence of the alliance between Assad and the Ayatollah Khomeini is their common hatred of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. But the mechanics of the alliance are much more complex than the old truism of Middle Eastern politics that "the enemy of my enemy is my friend." Syria has exploited the alliance for economic sustenance and Iran has tried to use it for political expansion, and it is this last point that has caused most of the problems: the place where Iran wants to expand is Lebanon. Soon after the Syrian-Iranian alliance was established the situation there was blown wide open by Israel’s invasion. In Lebanon, where at least 40 percent of the population is Shi‘ite, the enemy of Assad’s enemy became his enemy as well.
As early as June 1981 Tehran radio announced Iran’s intention to send Revolutionary Guards to Lebanon to "struggle against the imperialist aggression of the United States." But it was not until a year later, after the Israeli invasion, that Iranian forces were reported to be in the Bekaa Valley. Their presence there was portrayed as a matter of "Islamic responsibility" to fight alongside Iran’s "Arab brothers." But there is no record of the Iranians themselves ever engaging the Israelis, much less the United States. And some of the Revolutionary Guards were quoted at the time as saying their main objective was to spread the word of Khomeini: "We have no other goal except the Islamization of the area." Three hundred Revolutionary Guards arrived in 1982, then another 1,500 in March 1983, after the PLO and Syrian army had been forced out of Beirut by the Israeli siege, and after the Israelis had begun a partial pull-back from Beirut and environs. The central plaza in Baalbek became "Khomeini Square," and the soccer stadium "Khomeini Athletic City."
After Assad pulled out of Beirut he wanted to continue influencing events there and in southern Lebanon by remote control, through his various proxies, and the Iranians seemed at first to fit in well with the scheme. They provided funding, moral support and training for the militias of such fanatical groups as Islamic Amal and Hezbollah, from which they drew followers with a suicidal commitment to the cause of fighting Israel and, by extension, the American and French forces that had become embroiled in Lebanon since the invasion. The suicide drivers of car and truck bombs struck again and again with devastating effect. The increasingly demoralized Israelis withdrew slowly toward their border in the face of this onslaught.
The region had never seen such a thing. The prestige of defeating the Israeli war machine—actually driving it back, step by step—was incalculable in an Arab world so accustomed to humiliations at Israeli hands that it had taken to calling anything short of a rout a victory. But, precisely over the question of how this glory might be shared, friction between Assad and his Iranian allies in Lebanon soon became apparent. The bombings and other attacks were being claimed again and again in the name of Islamic Jihad and other mysterious organizations that linked them to the power of fundamentalist faith, and often directly to the Iranian revolution. Assad was being cut out, almost ignored.
Then suddenly, in the spring of 1985, as the Israelis began their staged pullout to the security zone along their border, a new wave of suicide attacks began against them. This time the bombers left video-taped "wills" that identified them as nationalists loyal to Assad and to the political parties he dominates in Lebanon, never mentioning Khomeini, Iran or jihad. The single strongest element binding Iran and Syria in Lebanon was militant opposition to Israel, but even that had become an evident source of friction.
Increasingly, the Iranians and their Lebanese clients began to assert their power independently of Assad. With encouragement from Tehran, they started pushing for the transformation of Lebanon into an Islamic Republic. As early as December 1983, Iranian Speaker of the Parliament Hashemi Rafsanjani declared that "the export of the Islamic revolution they talk about is exactly what is taking place in Lebanon." Two years later, Iranian President Ali Khamenei met with a delegation from Hezbollah and Islamic Amal visiting Tehran and called upon the Muslims of Lebanon to "form an Islamic government to safeguard the Islamic nature of Lebanon."
Before the arrival of the Iranians Assad had depended on the Amal militias, headed since Musa Sadr’s 1978 disappearance by Nabih Berri, as his link to the Shi‘ites and the main source of his power among them. But by 1985 it was clear that Amal was heavily infiltrated and undermined by the Iranian-backed groups. The Syrian-Iranian friction in Lebanon was beginning to surface frequently, publicly and often to Assad’s embarrassment. And it became ever more linked to the issue of hostages.
Kidnapping is endemic to the chaos of Lebanon. Criminal and political extortion often overlap. One human rights group counted more than 200 disappearances and abductions in 1982 alone. Christians, Muslims and the various Palestinian groups frequently seize their opponents or their adversaries’ relatives, and the Syrians played that game as well. In many instances the kidnappings appeared to be reciprocal. Christians would seize Muslims and Muslims would then seize Christians to win their brothers’ freedom, or vice versa. The Iranians and their disciples, however, brought a new twist to this pattern. When their people were seized or imprisoned, they tended to retaliate against the Great Satan (the United States), and increasingly they operated on an international scale.
The wave of kidnappings directed at Westerners in Lebanon began as a direct result of events in Kuwait. On December 12, 1983, a coordinated series of suicide bomb attacks was staged against several installations there, including the American and French embassies. Not all the bombs exploded, but those that did killed six people and wounded 86. Terrorist attacks in the Middle East often are used to send political messages of warning or intimidation, but this was something more: an apparent attempt to shake Kuwait’s monarchy to its foundations and, if possible, to bring it down. Kuwait’s rulers tracked down the surviving plotters and convicted 17, including three who were sentenced to death. The ideological links to Iran’s revolution were evident and, as it turned out, the organizations involved were well known to Syrian intelligence. The release of these 17 became the central and repeated demand by terrorists in subsequent attacks and abductions.
Khomeini’s zealots served a useful function for the Syrians when Iran first became active in Lebanon. One particularly useful group, based in Baalbek in the Bekaa and headed by a former schoolteacher named Hussein Mousavi, calls itself Islamic Amal. It is a breakaway from the original Amal group founded by Musa Sadr, which Mousavi deemed too moderate. Mousavi first came to attention outside Lebanon in connection with the 1982 kidnapping of David Dodge, then acting president of the American University in Beirut. Three Iranian officials had just disappeared in East Beirut, kidnapped by the Christian Lebanese Forces. During that period the United States was rapidly expanding its profile in Lebanon in close coordination with Christian and Israeli forces, so the abduction of an American may have been intended as a quid pro quo. Dodge was held for over a year, first in the Shi‘ite-dominated southern suburbs of Beirut, then in the Bekaa Valley and finally in Iran, before he was released—apparently through the good offices of the Syrians. Dodge thanked them publicly and profusely, and refused to say anything more about the case. The Reagan Administration, too, was generous with its thanks.
This was a pattern—the kidnapping, captivity in the suburbs and the valley, the clandestine trip to Iran, the release at Assad’s insistence, the American gratitude—that would be repeated again and again in coming years. Initially the freeing of hostages, if not the taking of them, seemed to serve Syria’s interests. When Amal militias closely tied to Syria took control of West Beirut in February 1984 they acted several times to rescue foreigners apparently kidnapped by other groups. In early 1985 Syria claimed credit for the liberation of American television correspondent Jeremy Levin (who claimed he had escaped) after a year’s captivity in the Bekaa; again the United States thanked Syria publicly.
But the pace of abductions was quickening. Soon it appeared to be out of Syrian control. By mid-June 1985 one group of Iranian-backed kidnappers, calling itself Islamic Jihad and linked to the Mousavi clan, had accumulated six American hostages, including a newsman, a hospital director, an academic, two priests and the CIA station chief William Buckley who, by then, was dying. There were also two French diplomats and two French journalists in Jihad’s hands. Assad was proffering his good offices, but to no avail. Then on June 14 a related group of Iranian-backed Shi‘ites hijacked TWA Flight 847 and 40 new American hostages were flown to Beirut. One was murdered.
Assad maneuvered. His ally, Nabih Berri, intervened and all but four of the Americans were put in the custody of Amal. But it was just at this point that Assad’s impotence began to be evident. The four Americans in the hands of the radicals effectively gave them leverage over all the others. Assad negotiated and cajoled, and his spokesman announced that all would be freed. Then, to his considerable embarrassment, the radicals said no, new conditions had to be met. Another day went by before the TWA hostages finally were freed, but the six Americans and four French previously abducted were not.
Washington and Paris were losing confidence in Assad’s ability to deliver, and as they did so they turned more and more to direct—if secret—negotiations with Iran. The arms-for-hostages deals cut by the Reagan Administration with Tehran eventually sidestepped Assad even as a token participant, and the Iranians moved to squeeze him out of the picture altogether. Meanwhile their militias treated both Syria’s professional soldiers and its proxies with growing contempt. Firefights broke out in Baalbek between Syrian troops and Hezbollah militiamen in May 1986. The next month two members of the Damascus-backed Syrian Social Nationalist Party were kidnapped by Shi‘ites associated with Hezbollah; their bullet-riddled bodies were found two days later. Five days of fighting followed around the Bekaa Valley town of Mashgara. In October, when the Syrians arrested two members of the militias in Mashgara, the Shi‘ite radicals responded by kidnapping four Syrian soldiers. Not until the Syrian army freed its prisoners were the soldiers returned.
Adding to the chaos was the factionalism of the fundamentalists themselves, both in Lebanon and Iran. Mehdi Hashemi and several other Iranians especially committed to exporting their revolution began operating in defiance of sectors of the Iranian government. Syrians got caught up in this feud and in October 1986 Syria’s chargé d’affaires in Tehran—said by diplomats there to have an extensive intelligence background—was abducted and beaten by Hashemi partisans. Hashemi himself was arrested soon afterward, but the stain of the affront endured.
Throughout this period Western diplomats in the region commonly argued that Assad could release the Western hostages if he cared to. His security services were bound to know where many of the hostages were being held and who was holding them. But if some were freed by force, others were likely to be killed. Assad would get little credit for corpses and considerable blame from the West, and meanwhile would have poisoned his already delicate relations with Tehran. He had less room to maneuver than many realized. The hostages were essentially an emotional problem for the United States and France. But for Assad their continued captivity was a direct affront, a constant test of his influence, which he seemed unable to meet.
By November 1986 Assad needed a gesture, a symbol of his strength as well as his goodwill, that would increase his political capital. Syrian intelligence services had been implicated in terrorist attempts in Europe; Britain, the United States and Europe took actions of protest. Perhaps worse from Assad’s point of view, he was seen as a man of waning capabilities; news reports often raised the question of his health.
At just that moment came a breakthrough in the hostage situation, resulting, as we now know, from the secret arms shipments from Washington to Tehran: Islamic Jihad released American University Hospital administrator David Jacobsen. Here was an opportunity for Assad to recoup. But instead of sending him out through Damascus—the route other hostages had gone—Jihad arranged his liberation in such a way that Syria could take no credit. Far from the profuse thanks to which he was accustomed, Assad was all but ignored.
The affronts to Assad are not always so subtle. In the summer of 1986 Syria deployed about 300 uniformed "advisers" and hundreds more plainclothes agents in West Beirut to help impose a "security plan." But they were barred from entering the city’s teeming southern suburbs, where Hezbollah holds sway and is believed to hold most of its Western captives. Meanwhile a new wave of kidnappings began, led by a group calling itself the Revolutionary Justice Organization. With much the same techniques as Islamic Jihad, the new group was picking up new hostages, it seemed, whenever old ones were about to be released.
Hostility between the Hezbollah militiamen and the Syrian advisers continued to mount: in February 1987, in a ludicrous but humiliating confrontation, Syrian soldiers and Lebanese police patrolling West Beirut were surrounded by Hezbollah militiamen, disarmed, beaten and their heads shaved.
It was less than two weeks later that Assad began a full-scale deployment of 7,000 troops in Beirut. On the night of February 24, 1987, his soldiers entered the Basta neighborhood and approached the Fathallah barracks. Most of the Hezbollah fighters headquartered there had pulled out after burning tires inside the building to cover any signs of the prisoners they had held there—among them, almost certainly, American and European hostages. Scattered shots were heard, and when the Syrians were finished, 23 men and women said to have been partisans of Hezbollah lay dead. By morning, the writing on the walls of the barracks that praised the glories of Islam and "Imam" Khomeini was painted over. Now the writing on the wall praised Syria. The strike at Iran was quick and violent, but fell short of full-scale confrontation. Still Assad did not send his forces into the southern suburbs.
Throughout his involvement in Lebanon’s civil war, ever since he first deployed his troops there in 1976 in defiance of Soviet advice, Assad has pursued policies markedly independent of Moscow’s line. Through much of this period he was Moscow’s only real avenue into the region. Soviet relations with Israel were nonexistent, Egypt had expelled the Russian advisers in 1972 and communists were anathema to the region’s monarchies. Through the period of Leonid Brezhnev and his immediate successors, this pattern hardened. Even though Assad depended on Moscow for billions of dollars worth of arms, to a large extent he could dictate the direction of Soviet policy in the area.
The government of Mikhail Gorbachev, however, has set about forging ties in the Middle East that often contradict Assad’s policies. The Soviets have reached out to the conservative monarchies of the Persian Gulf and to Egypt. In Lebanon, Moscow has opened direct channels with the Christians and maintained its ties with the Druse, Communists and Palestinians, including Arafat’s Fatah organization—which Assad has tried for years to subdue, divide or destroy.
The Palestine Liberation Organization’s military forces were driven from Beirut by the Israelis in 1982. Assad drove them from Tripoli, Lebanon, as well in 1983 by serving as patron for Palestinian commanders rebelling against Arafat’s authority, and by providing extensive military support for attacks on his forces. Yet over the following two years the PLO worked relentlessly to reestablish its fighters on Lebanese soil. And by late 1986 it clearly was succeeding. Assad had tried to stop Arafat’s resurgence by backing bloody Amal militia sieges of the Palestinian refugee camps in 1985 and again in 1986. But the policy backfired badly. As Palestinian men, women and children in the camps found themselves cut off from food and under brutal bombardment, Arafat’s forces there were joined by the breakaway groups earlier allied with Assad. In the fetid streets of the shell-shocked camps, Assad’s attacks were building unity, not destroying it. Outside the camps, Arafat succeeded in cobbling together a curious but effective triangle of tactical alliances with the Christians on one hand and Hezbollah on the other, in open defiance of Assad.
But the Palestinian leader’s greatest ally in his challenge to the Syrians turned out to be Gorbachev. For the first time in years the Soviets not only were espousing the cause of Arab unity, they were working actively to promote it. A first and indispensable step in that direction was to pull together once again the PLO that Assad has worked so hard to pull apart.
As the war of the camps reached a climax in February 1987, with tales spreading of starvation and passions mounting in Beirut’s streets, the Lebanese Communist Party and the Druse, whose initial alliance with the Palestinians had helped bring on the civil war in 1975, met for a party congress in the Shouf Mountains. Among those in attendance was Karen Brutents, a member of the Soviet Union’s Central Committee. A few days later the Druse and the Communists descended on the Amal militias to break their hold on West Beirut and their siege of the Palestinian camps. It is not certain that they were given the nod by the Soviets, but the coincidence of the timing was widely remarked on in Lebanon’s diplomatic community. And if Syria had not intervened when it did, most observers believe that Amal, Assad’s most reliable proxy, would have been crushed.
Six weeks later, Assad was in Moscow and the visit could hardly have been pleasant, despite Soviet promises to heighten still further Syria’s "defense potential" and warm rhetoric about mutual cooperation. The Soviets were putting conspicuous public pressure on him. Even as the Syrian president was meeting with Gorbachev, the Palestine National Council had convened in Algiers against Syria’s strong objections. Some of the dissidents Assad had supported for years returned to Arafat’s side, despite Assad’s efforts to keep them away. Among them were the Damascus-based Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine. The Soviets had been strong supporters of the conference, and Assad was expected to endorse the process. The Soviet news agency reported him agreeing with Gorbachev on "the need to restore the unity of the Palestinian resistance." But unity under Arafat’s leadership could not have been what Assad had in mind. Adding insult to injury, the Soviets also made overtures to Israel while he was in Moscow. Assad, whose relations with Israel remain frozen in hostility, implicitly deplored the Soviet overtures by denouncing Israel.
What appears the most remarkable twist in Assad’s maneuvering occurred a few hours after he left the Soviet Union. On April 27, 1987, at a remote air base in Jordan, Assad met with his most bitter rival, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
In his elaborate network of antagonistic allies and enemies who stand as potential friends, Assad often has reined in one by playing up to the other. The most obvious example occurred in the summer of 1986, when Iran threatened to curtail its substantial gifts of oil to Syria because Damascus had not got around to paying for some past shipments. Suddenly Assad let it be known that he might open a dialogue with Iraq. Jordan’s King Hussein, acting as intermediary, was so confident a meeting would occur that he announced it in an interview with The Washington Post. But Iran then decided it would continue supplying oil to Syria, and only hours before the Syrian and Iraqi foreign ministers were scheduled to meet the talks were canceled.
A year later, a meeting finally did take place between Assad and Saddam Hussein, according to Jordan’s prime minister, Zeid Rifai. But only sketchy and largely unconfirmed details have leaked out. The Kuwaiti newspaper Al-Qabas reported that the two leaders agreed on an eight-point program including a gradual halt to covert operations and hostile propaganda against each other, ministerial meetings, and a public reunion at an Arab summit conference to be held in Riyadh. Additional contacts at lower levels have been reported, but there appears to be little further progress toward reconciliation. The timing of the Assad-Hussein meeting, only hours after Assad completed his visit to the Soviet Union, suggests that it took place under pressure from Moscow.
The Syrian president had made his visit at a time when he had begun to appear less the leading figure than the leading obstruction to Soviet policy in the region, putting pressure on Soviet-Arab unity with his intrigue against Arafat and defying it with his alliance with Iran against Iraq—which is also a major recipient of Soviet arms. Moscow appears to have demanded a series of gestures from Assad, and he was obliged to comply. But the meeting with Saddam Hussein, which sent a message in itself, served Syria in several ways. It helped to mollify the Soviets and several Arab states, including Jordan and Saudi Arabia, which have worked diligently to promote Syrian-Iraqi rapprochement. It also sent a message to Iran, once again, that Assad could not be pushed too far on other fronts. And ultimately, behind its multiple veils of secrecy, the meeting need not effect any irrevocable changes in Syria’s stand.
Given the increasing bitterness of his relations with Tehran and the discomfiting changes in his alliance with the Soviet Union, Assad’s new ploys may be serious indeed. But what, realistically, can the West expect to come from them?
With regard to Moscow, it seems unlikely that Assad wants to do more than buy himself back a little breathing room and assert once more, quite clearly, his independence. Perhaps with this in mind the Syrians have let it be known to the French and others that they are interested in diversifying their sources of supply for arms, moving away from their now almost total dependence on Soviet weaponry. Even without prodding from Moscow, Assad may well have figured that he was moving too far out of the Arab orbit with his pressure on the Palestinians and his alliance with Iran. In January he had made a point of attending the Islamic summit in Kuwait that Iran had made a point of boycotting.
For the moment, the Palestinian issue seems to have been defused. With Israel’s government in disarray, the prospects are slim for an international peace conference on the Middle East in the immediate future, and thus there is no pressing need to define Arab representation there. In Lebanon, since the deployment, Assad’s troops directly oversee the Palestinian camps, and so the threat of a large-scale PLO military buildup can be slowed down more subtly than when Amal conducted its clumsy sieges. Thus the immediate points of confrontation with Moscow are blurred, and cosmetic improvements in Soviet-Syrian relations returned to the fore. A Syrian pilot has joined the ranks of Soviet cosmonauts in space. More materially, there are reports that the Soviets finally have delivered advanced MiG-29 jet fighters to Assad’s air force.
With Iran, however, there have been few such cosmetic gestures. A visit there in July by Syrian Prime Minister Farouk al-Shara resulted only in perfunctory reassertions of amity. The built-in tensions in the relationship continue to grow. With such gestures as his attendance at the Islamic summit, his meeting with Saddam Hussein and his increasingly strong statements decrying the occupation of Arab—that is, Iraqi—land by Iranian forces, Assad has taken more than a few steps down the road toward a rupture. His efforts to finesse these difficulties by presenting Syria as a mediator in the Gulf conflict have been neither convincing nor successful. The economic incentive for his ties to Tehran, meanwhile, has weakened as Syria’s own oil production has increased, and it appears likely that the Saudis and Kuwaitis will make up whatever income Assad might lose from Iran.
It is Tehran’s apparent success on the war front, however, that must give Assad pause when he thinks of changing sides. Like many of the region’s countries, Syria’s interests are in seeing the war continue with neither victor nor vanquished. An Iranian victory and the momentum it would foster for fundamentalist revolutions throughout the region is a danger of which Syria must be aware. But an Iranian victory after a break with Syria, and despite it, would be more dangerous still for Assad. For the moment, no one—not the Western powers, nor the Soviets, nor Iraq and its other Arab allies—can offer Assad any convincing assurance that Iran will not win the war. Without that assurance there is little help the West can offer Syria that might bring about a fundamental change in its stand.
But over the long run, the threat of Iranian zealots spreading their revolution in a country Assad regards as part of Greater Syria is more than a tactical problem, it is a strategic one and it begs for action on Syria’s part. If Khomeini’s disciples continue to gain strength in Lebanon, a time could come when neither Assad nor his proxies could move against them with success. Along the borders of Beirut’s southern suburbs, suspense can be sustained only so long before it is taken for impotence. Eventually Syria must act, and in the process end at last its uneasy alliance with Iran.