Syria's Assad regime gets little sympathy from neighbors
Bashar al-Assad and his father, Hafez al-Assad, kept Syria stable for 40 years through Machiavellian guile and ruthlessness, while sowing havoc elsewhere in the region.
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In February 1982, Assad deployed a crack Army brigade against the Brotherhood in the city of Hama. The operation razed part of the city to the ground and is thought to have killed at least 20,000 people. The Brotherhood never recovered, and is still banned in Syria, with its leadership in exile. Even today, the memory of the Hama massacre haunts Syrians and it was often cited as a reason why a mass popular uprising was unlikely to take root.Skip to next paragraph
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Assad was ruthless, but he also was a pragmatist. He forged an unlikely alliance with Iran in 1980, tying together the secular Baathists of Syria with the newly established Islamic Republic in what has proved to be a surprisingly durable relationship, lasting three decades. When Israel’s invasion of neighboring Lebanon in 1982 threatened to weaken Syria’s position with its tiny neighbor, Assad fought back, working with his Iranian allies to help create Hezbollah as a Shiite resistance against the Israeli occupiers and tacitly backing the suicide bombing campaign that forced Washington to abandon Lebanon in 1984.
Bashar Assad more rigid, focused on foreign crises
Since inheriting the presidency when his father died in 2000, Bashar al-Assad has also faced a raft of foreign crises. They included the 9/11 attacks in 2001, the 2003 Iraq invasion, and Syria’s forced departure from Lebanon two years later amid suspicion that it had been behind the assassination of former Premier Rafik Hariri. In 2005, Syria had almost no friends in the region, apart from Iran, and was isolated internationally.
Assad appears to lack the pragmatism of his father, relying instead on a dogged inflexibility – refusing to buckle to the West’s dictates, instead biding his time until more favorable circumstances emerged. It seemed to have worked in foreign policy. Damascus managed to reestablish much of its lost influence in Lebanon and once again became an essential address for foreign diplomats visiting the Middle East.
Yet, analysts say, prevailing over foreign challenges perhaps led the younger Assad to overestimate his regime’s strength. Mr. Seale, the Assad biographer, says that both Assads possessed a hint of “self-congratulation ... at having survived all those crises.”
“You have to put yourself slightly into their shoes,” he says. “They have been on their guard, fighting back, trying to form defensible alliances for the last several
decades and facing sanctions, isolation.”
That concentration of effort on foreign crises meant neglecting the domestic front, a fact that Assad must rue now that he is forced to fight for his regime’s survival.
While it is too soon to tell whether the regime can survive this unprecedented challenge, the Syria that emerges from this crisis will not be the same Syria as four months ago when Assad confidently spoke of its immunity from upheaval.