Two colorful propaganda posters, some times faded by the Levantine sun, seem to be everywhere in Syria; you find them pasted in the corridors of state office buildings, outside shops in the Damascus bazaar, and stuck on the rear windows of the buses that routinely transport conscripts of the Syrian Army around the country. One shows the face of President Hafez Assad. The other portrays Assad together with the late Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser, revered by many in the Middle East as the greatest leader of Arab nationalism.
Of course the comparison appears strained; some Arabs consider it sacrilegious. A speech by Assad hardly brings multitudes into the streets of Arab capitals as Nasser’s once did. Few outside Syria seemed much concerned when Assad became critically ill in 1983. Large numbers of Assad’s own countrymen abhor his totalitarian rule. Yet, paradoxically, Assad, the Soviet Union’s most important friend in the Middle East, has taken over, to a larger extent, the central task that Nasser set for himself: serving as the standard-bearer of Arab hostility toward Israel and toward Western (now particularly American) intervention in the region.
The Reagan administration’s Middle East policy is in shambles, thanks largely to Assad’s ability to undermine one American aim after another. Syria poses a bigger threat now to Israel’s security because of Assad’s recent military and political gains. The primary US objective, outlined in President Reagan’s September 1, 1982, peace plan, was to coax Jordan’s King Hussein into an agreement with Israel, a follow-up to the Egyptian-Israeli Camp David accords negotiated by the Carter administration. But Reagan’s chances of arranging a settlement along these lines virtually ended on February 19 when Hussein retreated once more from what is loosely called the “peace process.” Assad’s hard-line opposition has had a great deal to do with the reluctance of moderate Arabs, including Hussein, to follow in Sadat’s footsteps. The “rejectionists,” of whom Assad is now the most prominent, scored an important victory over the “moderates,” led by Hussein, in the intra-Arab struggle to determine the Arab line in dealings with Israel.
Earlier, Assad had decisively defeated Israel and the United States in the war for influence in Lebanon which began with the Israeli Army’s 1982 invasion, “Operation Peace for Galilee.” Israel demolished the autonomous political and military structure the PLO had established under Arafat in Lebanon; but it was compelled to withdraw its occupation troops from the country without realizing any of its other strategic aims, while some thirty thousand Syrian soldiers remained entrenched there. Assad forced the Lebanese to annul the May 17, 1983, peace treaty with Israel, which had been negotiated personally by Secretary of State George Shultz. The US Marines abruptly and ignominiously abandoned their “peace-keeping” mission in Beirut.
Assad has been the ruler of independent postwar Syria for fifteen years, or four times longer than any of his predecessors. He has made his country into a formidable regional …