Assad After the War: Fighting to Avoid Change

What is nice about Bashar Assad is the effort he makes not to surprise anyone. Those who read his speech of November 2005 - or his interviews to the Arab press in previous years - could paste together last night's speech, making the necessary adjustments in view of the war. It had all the ingredients: full support for Hezbollah, and scorn and condemnation for "the May 17th gang" (the date Lebanon signed a peace agreement with Israel in 1984) - his name for the members of Al-Mustaqbal, the movement of Sa'ad Hariri, son of assassinated Lebanese leader, Rafik Hariri. There was contempt for the policies of Israel and the U.S., and of course a strong Syrian stance against anyone threatening it.

Not only was his speech not surprising, but neither is his lack of action. During his six years in power he has done nothing of significance: no economic or political reforms, only a few new appointments, nothing revolutionary - the introduction of ATMs, the relaxation of some foreign currency restrictions, and some flutter about "holding unconditional negotiations with Israel from the point they were left off." This time, Assad flexed a little muscle and said Syria could get back the Golan Heights through arms.

The content may not be important, but the timing is. Immediately following the cessation of fighting in Lebanon, Assad rushed to make known how he sees the future of Lebanon: Not only is he supporting Hezbollah, but he will continue to oppose the "new order" established there following the Hariri murder and the election results of May-June 2005.

As far as Assad is concerned, the "new order" is threatening. It has already led to two negative developments: the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon, and the international inquiry commission that is probing Syria's role in Hariri's murder. Assad fears that the next step may be separate peace talks between Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Siniora and Israel, cutting off Damascus and its axis of resistance from yet another Arab country.

This is not a realistic assessment at this stage, but Assad does not trust anyone in the Lebanese government except the minority that has remained Syria's friends. In his speech Assad made clear to Lebanon that Hezbollah can continue relying on Damascus for support, and that Syria will not hesitate to pressure Lebanon, either regarding its own interests or Hezbollah's. Pressure can come in the form of economic isolation - blocking Lebanese goods and citizens from reaching other Arab countries - and a lack of cooperation regarding Shaba Farms. Walid Mualem, Syria's foreign minister, said yesterday that Damascus would be willing to discuss the status of Shaba Farms only after the Golan Heights are liberated.