assad - AP - June 24 2011
President Assad speaking this week. Even though the uprising in Syria is far from over, it has already changed the balance of power in the Middle East. Photo by AP
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Reuters
Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan Photo by Reuters

Two years ago, a senior representative of a large Western nation visited Damascus in order to discuss warming up relations. At the end of the formal part of the visit, Syria's President Bashar Assad invited the guest for a quiet dinner that included both their spouses. They sat and talked through the night, off the record and with no advisers around. "My problem," Assad confessed then, "is that each year half a million Syrians reach the age of 18. They don't any have hope, or work."

But instead of offering them a future and opportunities, Assad embarked on an international campaign - based largely on the image of his wife, Asma - to market his country as Western and secular. The high point came earlier this year, when Vogue magazine published a profile piece of the Syrian presidential couple. The photograph featured of Assad playing with his children appears, in retrospect, to be a sad joke, given the current reality, in which the number of funerals held for slain enemies of the regime is approaching 1,500 and hundreds of Syrian refugees continue to stream across the border into Turkey. The editors of Vogue, astonished to discover that the loving, charming father is, in fact, a cruel, murderous dictator, have removed the profile piece from their website. Meanwhile, in the presidential palace, Asma Assad's Facebook page, which once provided information on the couple's journeys around the world, has not been updated in a month.

Assad, at this stage, remains in power for three reasons: His opponents have not been able to gather enough force to depose him, and their influence has yet to spread to the major cities; the army remains united and loyal to him; and Russia and Iran continue to provide him diplomatic cover, while the U.S. government has refrained from explicitly calling for his ouster (preferring instead to beat around the bush and talk about "reforms" in Syria ).

Egyptian protestors brought hundreds of thousands of people to Cairo's main square and toppled President Hosni Mubarak. In Syria, the rebellion erupted in provincial towns, which are easy to encircle and isolate from the international media. It is also apparently not very difficult to massacre people under such circumstances. Bashar Assad has learned the strategy from his father, Hafez.

Despite his determination to rule and the brutality of his soldiers, Assad has not been able to quell the uprising. The rebels are aware of their weakness and have therefore chosen a strategy of attrition. Unable to march on Damascus, they demonstrate in many different cities, trying to "dilute" Assad's forces, while demonstrating their presence around the country. The rebels are clearly hoping that if they persist in their efforts, a wave of desertion will engulf the army, and Assad will fall. Unlike their counterparts in Libya, the rebels in Syria cannot rely on America or Europe to bomb Assad's palace on their behalf. In any case, this tactic has yet to yield fruit in the case of Muammar Gadhafi.

Even though the uprising in Syria is far from over, it has already changed the balance of power in the Middle East. Iran is on the retreat, and Israel's influence is rising. The last time things changed as radically in the region was five years ago, in the wake of the Second Lebanon War. The military failures in the standoff with Hezbollah exposed Israel's weaknesses, thereby strengthening Hezbollah's sponsor, Iran. Assad upgraded his military, political and economic bonds with the Iranian leadership. Hezbollah gained power in Lebanon, as Hamas took control in the Gaza Strip. Turkey has veered away from Israel and moved closer to Iran, Syria and Hamas.

From Israel's standpoint, matters have worsened over the past year. The Turkish flotilla incident en route to Gaza last year gave rise to a wide abyss between Jerusalem and Ankara. With Mubarak's departure, Israel has also lost its strategic alliance with Egypt. The alternative devised by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu - an approach to bankrupt Greece - is no substitute for a stable alliance with Ankara and Cairo.

This week it appeared the other way around. Iran, whose leadership is being torn apart by internal squabbling, was trying to save Assad. If Assad is ousted, the Iranians will lose the leverage they need to exert regional influence. Israel has meanwhile seized the opportunity to disseminate reports about Iran's deep involvement in suppressing the demonstrators in Syria.

Turkey did not wait for Assad's departure. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan denounced the massacres in Syria and demanded that Assad institute reforms. The Turks responded with disappointment to Assad's speech on Monday, in which he rebuffed their ultimatum. Tensions between Damascus and Ankara have thickened, putting an end to the policy of "zero conflict with our neighbors," espoused by Turkey's Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu. "Iran and Turkey are now struggling for influence in Syria," concludes an Israeli expert on Middle East politics.

On Monday, Erdogan spoke on the phone with President Barack Obama, a few hours before Assad delivered his speech. According to Turkish sources, their conversation focused on Syria and Libya, and referred to the Mideast peace process as an "important element in regional stability." The two expressed support for "the constitutional demands" made by Syrian protestors, and agreed that Turkey and the United States would "closely monitor" the situation in Syria. The next day, Turkey released the memo sent by Netanyahu to Erdogan, in which he congratulated his counterpart for his decisive electoral victory and proposed that an effort be made to resolve all differences between the two countries.

Talk over war

As his years in office accumulate, Erdogan is emerging as the most seasoned diplomat in the region, if not the world at large. His betrayal of Assad, who was his close friend until recently, is reminiscent of his past behavior toward Israeli leaders.

Through its control of the Bosphorus and other strategic sites, Turkey has a distinctive geographic status. In "The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire," published last year, American researcher Edward Luttwak showed how rulers in Constantinople usually avoided wars and relied on diplomatic contacts and alliances to advance the interests of their empire, which lasted longer than any other empire in history.

Netanyahu also prefers talk to war.

His note to Erdogan shows that Netanyahu wants to renew the alliance with Turkey, Israel's natural ally vis-a-vis the Arab world and Iran. This week, his resolve will be tested by the second Gaza flotilla. Will the Turks have second thoughts and bring an end to the current flotilla effort? And should it embark on its journey, and should Israel's naval commandos move to board the boats, and should flotilla participants once again be killed or injured - how will that affect relations between Ankara and Jerusalem? Will all the preparations, as well as the scars and memories from last year's confrontation, forestall violence this year? Should the flotilla be scrapped, or should it set sail and carry out its mission peaceably, Netanyahu and Erdogan will be able to move ahead and rehabilitate relations damaged last year. But if last year's fiasco repeats itself, Israel's relations with Turkey will be in jeopardy. Salvaging them represents a joint challenge for Netanyahu and Erdogan.

The conventional wisdom in Israel was given voice in a prophesy made this week by Defense Minister Ehud Barak. Assad, Barak predicted, will fall "within half a year." Former Mossad chief Meir Dagan has fantasized about replacing the minority Alawites in Syria's ruling regime with the Sunni majority. Top Mossad and other security officials are now in favor of democratization in the Arab world, and no longer focus solely on the dangers of Islamization and the undermining of regional stability, as they were prone to do in the first six months of the year.

During the high and low points of his tenure, Assad has proven that Syria is a key player in the regional balance of power. Should a Sunni, pro-American regime take hold in Syria, Israel would be able to resolve the dispute over the Golan Heights and develop a "northern arch" alliance with Syria and Turkey as a counterweight in its confrontations with Iran. Such an alliance could serve as a substitute, or supplement, for Israel's damaged bond with Egypt.

It appears that the Egyptians have a grasp of these shifting strategic possibilities. Talk in Cairo of renewing relations with Teheran has fizzled out, and the Egyptians this week hosted Netanyahu's envoy Isaac Molcho. Nobody, it seems, wants to stand alone in the Middle East.