(Washington, D.C.): Good riddance. Despite all the eulogizing of Syria’s late despot, Hafez Assad, there should be no mistake: This man was less the “lion” his adopted name means in Arabic than a “monster,” as suggested by his original family name, Wahsh. His departure from this earth should be celebrated, not mourned, by his own people as well as the rest of us.
How Syria Suffered
For their part, the Syrians have endured three decades of brutal, totalitarian repression under Assad. In one of history’s most odious acts of inhumanity, the Syrian dictator in 1982 ordered the mass extermination of perhaps as many as twenty thousand men, women and children in the city of Hama. Hama’s sacking was intended to serve as an object lesson to the Sunni Muslim majority restive under the rule of what they consider to be Assad’s heretical Alawi minority.
In addition to a complete lack of political freedoms and civil liberties under Assad’s police state, the Syrian people have experienced extreme economic hardship. As the Wall Street Journal reported today: “Despite the discovery a decade ago of fossil- and natural-fuel reserves, lush farmland, and a potentially huge tourist industry, per capita income has declined from $1,500 in 1995 to $1,000. Economic growth is flat, according to a U.S. government report, after shrinking in 1997 and 1998.”
Assad’s Malevolent Handiwork Elsewhere in the Region
Syria’s population is not the only one to have suffered at Assad’s hands. Israel was twice subjected to costly military invasions by Syrian forces under his command. While Israel’s ability to attack Damascus with impunity from atop the strategic Golan Heights caused Assad after 1973 to keep the Israeli-Syrian border the most peaceable in the Middle East, he routinely used his sponsorship and protection of Hezbollah guerillas in Lebanon to wage proxy war on Israel when it suited his geostrategic or diplomatic purposes. And, despite Syria’s poverty and, after 1991, the loss of his Soviet sponsor, Assad amassed an arsenal of weapons of mass destruction and delivery systems capable of inflicting incalculable damage on the Jewish State.
Israel is hardly alone among Syria’s neighbors in being victimized by Assad’s ambitions. But for Israeli intervention, Assad might have succeeded in toppling King Hussein of Jordan in 1970. Syria today continues forcefully to occupy Lebanon — eight years after Assad agreed, pursuant to the 1989 Taif Accords, to withdraw his army from that long-suffering nation. (This is but one of several examples contradicting the myth that the Syrian tyrant always lived up to his agreements.)
Assad’s support for terrorism made him a menace to others, as well. He allowed every major terrorist organization on the planet to have headquarters, offices and/or training bases in Syria. For decades, Assad permitted the communist Kurdish Workers Party to use Syrian territory as a safe haven from which to destabilize and fracture neighboring Turkey.
Such behavior has long been understood to pose a threat to the United States, as well. In fact, the State Department has repeatedly listed Syria as among the nations that sponsor international terrorism. But for Washington’s fatuous hope of wooing Assad into playing a constructive role in Mideast peacemaking, Syria would probably still be officially implicated in the odious bombing of Pan Am 103.
In addition, Assad’s Syria utilized its position in Lebanon to grow, process and tranship to the U.S. market copious quantities of heroin and hashish. For this reason, Syria has had the dubious distinction of being featured on State’s other blacklist — that of nations engaged in drug-trafficking.
Watch This Space
If there are few reasons to shed tears at the end of this bloodthirsty despot’s reign of terror, there are certainly grounds for concern about what will happen next in Syria. Notwithstanding the swift steps taken to date to invest power in Hafez Assad’s son, Bashar — a transparent and desperate act of self- preservation by ranking members of Hafez Assad’s Alawi minority — it is far from clear whether this untested ophthalmologist will survive.
If he does so, Bashar may prove to be the man his father was not — politically and economically reform-minded, favorably disposed towards the West and willing to make a genuine peace with Israel. That prospect would be cause indeed for celebrating the old man’s passing. On the other hand, in order to consolidate power, Bashar may have to demonstrate that he can be as despotic as his father, suppres sing fellow Alawis (like his ruthless uncle, Rifat), as well as the rest of the population.
More likely, however, some other strongman will emerge — an individual whose credentials as a military leader do not have to be manufactured, like the newly minted Lieutenant General Bashar Assad; a man whose ability and willingness to do whatever is necessary, no matter how bloody, to keep the Alawis on top is not in doubt. It is entirely possible that such a rival for power may pursue the path of social engineering long favored by ambitious totalitarians: external adventures to shore up domestic authority.
You Can’t Die, I Have to Give You Concessions
Under these circumstances, it is clear just how foolish has been the determination exhibited in recent years by President Clinton, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and their fellow “peace processors” to see Israel surrender the strategic Golan Heights. While Israel today is rightly worried about what will come next in Syria, it would likely be in a complete panic if an as-yet-uncalibrated Syrian leader had that high ground at his disposal and turned out to be willing once again to use violence against the Jewish State to secure his power at home. The Israelis should thank their lucky stars that Hafez Assad was so determined not to make peace with them that he refused their government’s repeated efforts to relinquish the Heights.
Fortunately, the disappearance of Hafez Assad seems likely to put on hold further efforts by Barak and President Clinton to close such a dubious deal. Count that as another reason for toasting, not weeping over, Assad’s death.
The Bottom Line
The same logic, though, would argue for standing down on the so-called “Palestinian track,” too — a track Mr. Clinton hopes to accelerate with meetings this week with PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat and perhaps shortly thereafter in a Camp David-style, three-way negotiation joined by Barak. After all, like Assad, Arafat has been in poor health for years. Like Assad, he has no certain successor. Like Assad’s, Arafat’s policies (versus their rhetoric intended for Western ears) fall far short of an embrace of the principle of peaceful coexistence with Israel. And as in Syria, the next leader of the Palestinian people is likely to feel the need to consolidate his position through force of arms.
In short, just as Israel is well-served by having held onto territory vital to its defense against a threat from Syria, it would be well-advised to refrain from making further territorial concessions at this time to Arafat, concessions that will probably lead to a Palestinian leadership — and state — disposed to use that land to Israel’s severe detriment.