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 power, and has reemphasized the question whether any peace negotiation can be expected to produce a lasting settlement if the Syrians are not included. Assad is determined to regain the Golan Heights, which were in effect annexed by Israel in 1981. He has recently overseen a significant expansion and reorganization of the Syrian armed forces with this objective in mind. He contends his growing military force makes his diplomacy more persuasive, but the danger of a new Middle East war igniting because of the Golan dispute is becoming increasingly clear.
Though Assad is a man of remarkable political skill, his rise was an unlikely one. He was born in 1930, in the village of Qardahah, seven miles up from the Mediterranean Sea in the scrubby mountains of the Latakia Province, which runs for 90 miles from the Turkish border down the Syrian coast to Lebanon. “The first time I met him, I thought he looked like a proud old French peasant,” a diplomat friend in Damascus told me.
Most Syrians are Sunni Muslims, who inhabit the interior plains where the ancient cities of Damascus, Homs, Hama, and Aleppo are located. The mountainous coastal province is the communal homeland for Alawites, a traditionally underprivileged community that makes up only 13.5 percent of the country’s 10 million people. Also known as Nusayris, Alawites are an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam. Like other Shi’ites they are devoted to the cult of Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed, whose claim to the caliphate was challenged by the Omayyads; but they do not accept the widespread Shi’ite belief in the sequence of the first twelve imams, of which the last, the Mahdi, will ultimately reappear. Beyond that, their beliefs and rites are obscure and are thought to be so unorthodox that other Muslims consider them heretics.
On a visit to Syria in January, I left Damascus for a drive to some of the Alawite villages 150 miles north of the capital. In its isolation and the clannishness of the mountain people, the region made me think of parts of Appalachia. It has only been a few decades since Alawite girls were routinely sent to Hama or Homs, beyond the mountains, to work as servants for wealthy Sunni landowners. The Alawite sect is much better off these days. As a monument to their changed status, Assad built a palace for himself on the steep ridge above Qardahah, where I noticed young women wearing smart city clothes, not the peasant dresses of the Levantine countryside. My driver, who was from Damascus, made a typical Sunni wisecrack: “They used to ride donkeys here. Now they all drive Mercedes.”
After years of feeling neglected in the hills, Alawites took a major part in the 1963 coup d’état staged by the Ba’ath (“Renaissance”) Arab Socialist party, which effectively put an end to Sunni predominance in Syrian politics. Captain Hafez Assad was a leader of the party’s important military committee. Alawites were heavily represented in the Ba’ath; its ideology stressing pan-Arabism and secular socialism had the attraction of helping them overcome their low status. Alawites have also been overrepresented in the Syrian armed forces since the colonial period, when the French administration recruited minorities into the Troupes Speciales du Levant in order to control the majority Sunnis.
General Hafez Assad, after serving as Air Force commander and defense minister seized power in a coup d’état (officially, a “corrective movement”) within the Ba’ath ruling elite. That was in November 1970, coincidentally only a month after Nasser’s fatal heart attack in Cairo. Assad was formally elected president in 1971. In the twenty-four years since Syria became independent in 1946, there had been some twenty changes in leadership in Damascus.
While Assad’s fifteen-year reign has, to the relief of many, brought political stability and substantial economic development, the Syrian people have paid a high price. Assad’s Syria is one of the most ruthless police states in the Middle East, in which the oppressive control of the majority Sunnis by the minority Alawite regime has been increasingly pronounced.
On the surface, Syria is governed by the Ba’ath party, through its twenty-one-member politburo, the Regional Command, and by the government, headed by Prime Minister Abdul Raouf Qasm. But Assad has become the state itself, keeping control largely through an Alawite clique whose members command the armed forces and the numerous branches of the secret police, all referred to under the single name moukhabarat, the “intelligence.” Key posts are held often by Alawites from Qardahah, including a number of Assad’s relatives. The many ranking Sunnis in the government have no power bases of their own.
Amnesty International perennially voices concern about conditions in the country. They do not appear to have changed, a spokesman told me in London recently, since Amnesty’s special 1983 report. It stated; “Syrian security forces have practiced systematic violations of human rights, including torture and political killings, and have been operating with impunity under the country’s emergency laws.” Thousands have been thrown into jail without charge or trials, according to Amnesty, and former detainees have described twenty-three methods of torture and ill-treatment. Torture tools reportedly include a machine for sexual violation and a device for “ripping out fingernails.”
In Damascus, I saw an intriguing display of the supremacy of Assad’s security forces over the governmental apparatus. Thuggish-looking men from the moukhabarat burst into the room of my colleague from The New York Times, Elaine Sciolino, who was staying two floors above me at the Sheraton Hotel. They said she was being taken to the airport and sent out of the country. This occurred only a few hours before she was to interview the foreign minister, Farouk Shara’s, who was powerless to prevent her arrest or at least ensure that her still unexplained expulsion was carried out with some tact.
Assad was reelected, unopposed, in February 1985 to a third seven-year presidential term, receiving, according to the Interior Ministry, 99.97 percent of the vote. Only 376 people cast “no” ballots. No one takes such an election as a valid test of support; but by crushing two serious internal challenges in recent years, Assad has demonstrated a firm grip on Syria and has shown he has the political strength to extend his influence beyond the borders.
In dealing with the most recent of these challenges, Assad exiled his own brother, Colonel Rifaat Assad, for six months in 1984. Rifaat commanded the twenty-thousand-man praetorian guard, the Saraya al Difa an al Thawra, or “Defense Brigades of the Revolution.” He turned this unit, whose men were the best paid and equipped in Syria, into a private militia to advance his own ambitions. When the president suffered a heart attack in November 1983, Rifaat pushed his way into line for succession. Calling him “the chief,” Rifaat’s men put up posters bearing his picture all over Damascus.
The situation came to a head in February 1984 when Rifaat mobilized his armored units in the capital. Two indignant Alawite officers, brothers-in-law of Assad, moved to cut Rifaat down to size. Army General Chefik Fayyad sent his Third Armored Division into the city, getting support from commando units attached to General Ali Haidar’s Special Forces. Their units confronted Rifaat’s, tank against tank. By a miracle, no battles took place, even after rifle shots were heard near the president’s palace.
Assad finally put a stop to his brother’s muscle flexing. Rifaat was quickly sent to Switzerland. The rising tensions in Damascus had posed the possibility that a second Ba’athist “corrective movement” might emerge to sweep the entire Assad clan from power. Rifaat was permitted to return only after the Defense Brigades were incorporated into the Army, renamed the 569th Division, and put under another officer’s command. But Rifaat held on to his post as vice-president for security affairs—he was named as one of the three vice-presidents in an attempt to defuse the power struggle—and his seat on the Regional Command. This seems to be one of Assad’s typically Machiavellian calculations: he kept the family’s choices open. But Rifaat has been replaced as the second most powerful man in Syria by two men: General Ali Duba and General Mohammed Khouli, chiefs of the Army and Air Force intelligence and members of Assad’s Matawirah tribe. Meanwhile, Assad has made a good recovery from his heart attack.
The most serious threat to Assad’s regime comes from the Sunni majority, and particularly Islamic fundamentalists. Among them, the group most dangerous to Assad is the underground Muslim Brotherhood, an offshoot of the Brotherhood organization founded nearly sixty years ago in Egypt, which advocates social and political justice through Islamic principles. In 1977, the Brotherhood, with the support of part of the old Sunni establishment, started a campaign of assassinations, car bombings, and brief uprisings in various parts of Syria. The violence culminated in February 1982 in the town of Hama, where Brotherhood leaders announced a revolt through minaret loudspeakers while their followers started murdering Ba’ath officials in their houses.
With the Brotherhood in temporary control of much of the city, Syria’s Defense Brigades and Special Forces launched a three-week siege, blasting the densely populated Sunni districts with tank and artillery fire. An experienced European diplomat in Damascus told me that at least six to seven thousand people died in the bombardments and the killing that followed. The old quarter, as I saw recently, is now a vast muddy field with a few crumbling buildings on the fringes. Hundreds of houses, badly damaged by the bombardments, were bulldozed away. Also demolished in the fighting was the stone Omayyad Mosque, one of Syria’s treasures of Islamic architecture. A huge modern concrete mosque is going up nearby. The bombardments were far more destructive than necessary for quelling the uprising, in which fewer than one thousand armed men seem to have taken part. Hama was a warning to the Sunnis of Damascus, Homs, and Aleppo.
I met many people in Syria, including some government officials, who were certain that the Brotherhood has survived the onslaught. This March an explosion probably set off by the Brotherhood killed dozens of people on a Damascus street. Nevertheless, the opposition has been beaten into submission. Many Brotherhood activists fled to Tripoli in northern Lebanon under the protection of the city’s Sunni fundamentalist leader, Sheikh Said Shaban. Assad felt confident enough in 1985 to begin pardoning members of the opposition. “Nobody here likes Assad,” a man from Hama complained to me as I rode the night bus back to Damascus. “Everybody had at least one member of his family killed in the Army’s attack, and another one is in jail. Some people taken away have never been heard from. Many families have left Syria, to go to Jordan or to Lebanon. The government doesn’t mind if we leave.”
For his own pragmatic reasons Assad has been pursuing the idea of Greater Syria, which was first advanced by Christians living under Ottoman Turkish rule in the nineteenth-century Levant. The idea has gone through various metamorphoses. Greater Syria was advocated by Faisal, the Hashemite, a leader of the Arab revolt who captured Damascus in 1918, and by Antun Sa’adeh, the founder of the Syrian National Party in 1932. “Greater Syria” has generally meant the union of Syrian, Lebanese, Palestinian, and Jordanian Arabs in a single political system on the grounds that they share a common history, destiny, and geography as well as language. Its advocates refer to the ancient Syrian culture that existed in the region, and especially to the glory of the Syrian-based Arab kingdom under the Omayyad dynasty between 661 and 750 AD. Greater Syria would require the dismantling of Israel as a sovereign Jewish state.
Like all pretenders to Arab leadership, Assad uses the slogan that Arabs everywhere must be united. It is one of three tenets of the Ba’ath. (The others are socialism and freedom.) But pan-Arab unity remains elusive, given the sharp differences that have divided Arab rulers since the Middle East emerged from the colonial period. Syria’s own experimental attempts at establishing formal “unions” with Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, and Libya were failures.
In practice, Greater Syria is less a living ideology than an expression of Assad’s ambitions. His regime tries to exercise political domination over the Lebanese and Jordanian states as well as over the affairs of the Palestine Liberation Organization (“the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people,” according to a 1974 Arab League resolution). Assad’s aim of achieving “military parity” and “strategic balance” with Israel, and his position on a Middle East settlement, reflect his Greater Syrian approach. Assad, of course, wants to win back the Golan Heights, a boulder-strewn 444-square-mile plateau (about one third the size of Rhode Island) overlooking the Sea of Galilee, which Israeli forces captured in the Six-Day War in 1967. But Assad also claims he must have a part in determining the final status of the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, inhabited by 1.3 million Palestinians (and 43,000 Israeli settlers). These lands are sought by most Palestinians for an independent homeland or state. But to Assad, Palestine was artfully cut from Syria by the colonial powers after World War I, and Syrians have affirmed the link with the Palestinians by fighting and dying in three wars to recover their lands.
One of Assad’s main aims, therefore, has been to wreck the “step-by-step” process, fundamental to American policy since Nixon’s presidency, by which Israel would make peace with one Arab state after another. The United States, as the self-appointed mediator in the step-by-step process, made it clear that Syria would be the last Arab state to get an invitation to negotiate with Israel. Assad, on his part, has always made it clear that this conception belittles his claims to leadership and stands in the way of his ambitions of fashioning a grander role for Syria.
More to the point, Assad feels the step-by-step scheme amounts to a divide-and-conquer strategy, posing a threat to Syria’s security. Israel has the most powerful military force in the region, Assad argues, so Arab states negotiating separately with Israel are in a weaker bargaining position. Syria’s ability to confront Israel was weakened when Egypt withdrew from the Arab military coalition; Syria would be further isolated if Jordan, Lebanon, or the Palestinians separately went along with the next step in the peace process. In his struggle against the American approach, moreover, Assad benefits from the convergence of Syria’s interests with those of his superpower backer. The United States has pursued a step-by-step settlement largely as a way of keeping the Soviets out of the Middle East. This has certainly been the dominant concern of the Reagan administration.
Another of the reasons for Israeli and American antagonism toward Assad is that, of Israel’s immediate neighbors, only Syria vociferously continues to challenge Israel’s legitimacy. I found no signs that the Syrians had softened their contentiousness during my recent visits to Damascus. On a day last July, for example, one of Assad’s chief advisers, who keeps dogeared volumes of Henry Kissinger’s memoirs close to hand on a bookshelf in his office at the presidential compound, gave me a short lecture whose themes were the evils of Zionism and the betrayal of the Arabs. (Our interview was not “official,” so I was asked not to publish his name.)
In the Syrian view, he said, Britain and France betrayed the pledge of independence for the Arabs by establishing their colonial mandates following the defeat of the Ottoman Empire. Then the Western powers helped Zionists to establish a Jewish state in Palestine. Both developments hindered the dream of a united Arab nation, and particularly of a great Syrian Arab nation. “The most important thing that is always neglected,” Assad’s adviser said, “is Israel had no right to be there in the first place.” He said that Israel is nothing more than a “settler country” and drew a comparison to the Christian Crusaders between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries—a comparison repeatedly made by other Syrian officials. He suggested it was inevitable, and certainly desirable, that the Israelis would eventually disappear like the Crusaders, who “thought they could destroy Arab strength.” “How long did they last?” he boasted. “One hundred years?”
Despite this enmity, and though the endorsement was partly tactical, Syria in effect acknowledged Israel’s existence in 1973 when it approved United Nations Resolution 338. This occurred after the Yom Kippur war, when the surprise attack by Syrian and Egyptian forces failed to dislodge Israel from occupied Arab territories. Resolution 338 calls for direct negotiations between the Arab states and Israel on the basis of Resolution 242, which was adopted in 1967 after the Six-Day War. It requires the “withdrawal of Israeli armed forces from territories of recent conflict” and “termination of all claims or states of belligerency and respect for and acknowledgement of the sovereignty, territorial integrity, and political independence of every state in the area and their right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force.”
More than twelve years later, Syrian propaganda continues to insist on an international peace conference of all directly concerned parties including Israel and its Arab neighbors, the US, and the USSR. One question asked by some European diplomats in Damascus is why the US and Israel do not call Syria’s bluff and organize such a conference, instead of excluding Syria from any part in peace negotiations and consultations in which some accommodation with Syria’s interests would be discussed. The precedents are not encouraging, but they also show that the possibilities of a conference have never really been explored. The first such conference was convened in Geneva in December 1973, just after the Yom Kippur war, in accordance with Resolution 338. It met for only a day, and Assad refused to send a delegate. Syria’s failure to take part did not become a central issue because Secretary of State Kissinger quickly maneuvered the antagonists away from the conference and into the “step-by-step” process, which eventually achieved a disengagement of troops along Egyptian and Syrian borders. In 1977 the Carter administration concluded that the step-by-step process had run its course, and made considerable efforts to reconvene the Geneva conference. These plans were preempted when Sadat dramatically opened a direct dialogue with Israel in 1977, allowing Egypt to regain the Sinai Peninsula through the Camp David accords two years later. In 1982, Reagan’s peace proposals did not call for negotiations on the Golan Heights, which had in effect been annexed by Israel less than a year before.
Two developments worked to Assad’s advantage. Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel removed the most powerful and populous Arab state from its traditional position of leadership in the Arab confrontation with Israel. The other contender for that position, Iraq, became mired in a costly war after attacking Iran in 1980. Syria’s biggest asset, however, is its alliance with the Soviet Union, which has supplied Assad’s regime with more than $2.5 billion in military equipment since 1982. Syria is the main instrument of Soviet policy in the Arab-Israeli conflict, although Assad maintains considerable freedom to maneuver on his own. Assad signed a twenty-year Friendship and Cooperation Treaty in 1980 when Syria’s power was in decline. Then, following Syria’s huge losses in the fighting with Israeli invasion forces in Lebanon, the Soviet Union did much to help Assad carry out his program of expanding his armed forces to the point where Syria would have “military parity” with Israel.
Since the United States can be expected to maintain Israel’s military superiority, the Syrian buildup inevitably makes the existing Middle East arms race all the more dangerous. Syria now wants to delay a return to an international peace conference until a “strategic balance” achieved through the arms buildup can put Syria on an equal footing in negotiations with Israel.
The military balance still remains in Israel’s favor. The 1982 conflict with Syria demonstrated the importance of Israel’s edge both in the number of well-trained troops and in technological knowhow. Syrian tank crews and pilots fought well, but a turning point came when Israeli air force jets, using an ingenious tactic, apparently fired antiradar and television-guided missiles, and wiped out Syria’s SA-6 antiaircraft missile batteries in Lebanon’s Bekáa Valley.
Syria’s standing armed forces are much larger than Israel’s—402,500 men compared to Israel’s 142,000—but the figures are misleading. Syria’s apparent superiority is blunted because 150,000 of its forces are occupied with maintaining internal security. Israel maintains a numerical and qualitative edge in air attack and ground attack equipment. It has 684 combat aircraft (two thirds of them high-quality) to Syria’s 500 (one third of high quality). Israel’s larger armored force—11,600 tanks and other armored vehicles compared to Syria’s 7,200—means that its troops could move to the front lines faster than the Syrians, and in greater numbers.
Nevertheless, Assad’s expansion and reorganization of the Syrian armed forces since 1982 raise the possibility that Syria could launch an attack to recover the Golan Heights. The army has been enlarged from six divisions to eight, with all divisions increased from three brigades to four. The Soviets, for their part, have gone beyond merely replacing equipment lost in the 1982 conflict. The analysts I talked with in both Damascus and Jerusalem estimate that Syria has received 150 new combat aircraft, mostly advanced MIGs, a net increase of fifty. More are likely on order. Despite the Israelis’ advantage, Syrian armored divisions have never been more powerful. Obsolete Russian tanks and armored personnel carriers have been replaced by two advanced Soviet models, the T-72 tank and the BMP-1 APC.
During 1983 and 1984, moreover, two Soviet-made missile systems were installed in Syria, the SA-5 and SS-21. With a 250-kilometer range, the SA-5 ground-to-air defense system is designed to shoot down Israeli early-warning and communications planes like the Hawkeye, which have been a feature of Israel’s superiority in the past. In the event of a Syrian surprise attack, the SS-21 ground-to-ground system, with a range of 120 kilometers, could seriously impede mobilization at Israeli army and air force bases. It is also a strategic weapon; it could deter any Israeli first strike with the threat of swift and accurate retaliation against Israeli cities.
The Syrian-Israeli front on the Golan Heights has been remarkably quiet since Kissinger’s 1974 disengagement accord. But a possibility widely discussed in military circles is that Syria will use its growing military strength to repeat the strategy tried in the Yom Kippur war: seize as much of the Golan as possible while the Soviets promote efforts for a cease-fire that would leave Syria holding on to the territory. Unless Egypt were to join in a simultaneous pincer attack on Israel, such a Syrian move would involve an immense risk. My impression was that it is still a tempting thought for the Syrians. If he were even moderately successful, Assad would stand to become an Arab hero, at last rivaling Nasser in reputation. Through such an attack, too, he might hope to deal a psychological blow that could have repercussions for Israel’s hold on the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Another possibility for war that cannot be dismissed is that Israel would launch a preemptive attack on Syria to thwart its military buildup. This would have repercussions for Western relations with Russia because of the presence of more than three thousand Soviet advisers and technicians at Syrian military bases.
Henry Kissinger admired Assad’s instincts for Realpolitik and Assad has used them cunningly to build Syrian power. He is the only Arab leader in the region to have supported Iran in the Persian Gulf war against their mutual enemy, Saddam Hussein of Iraq. This has paid off in several ways. Iran, grateful that it is not completely isolated by the Arabs, has supplied Syria with billions of dollars in cut-rate oil. Close ties to Ayatollah Khomeini defuse to some extent the Islamic fundamentalist threat to Assad within Syria. Envoys from Arab oil-producing states in the Gulf, such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, far more concerned with Iran than Israel, scurry to Damascus hoping Assad can use his influence with Khomeini so that the war does not spread to their kingdoms. They, too, pay Assad hefty retainers.
Finally, terror is a particularly useful weapon for Assad. He has gained potent leverage in Middle East politics through his support—sometimes freely acknowledged but often covert—of terrorist groups, guerrilla organizations, and Lebanese militias. He has closer relations than any other Arab leader with both Libya and Iran, two of the main sponsors of terrorism. Particularly in the present state of no war, no peace, an assassin’s bullet may swing events one way rather than another. Most Middle East experts believe that Syria was behind the assassination of Bashir Gemayel, which did much to cripple the prospects of the Maronites in Lebanon, and that it has directed terror attacks against both Jordanian officials and Palestinians who have been inclined to accommodation with Israel.
Still, early in 1982 the outlook for Assad’s ambitions appeared bleak. The uprising in Hama was disturbing. Assad had sent his army into Lebanon to quell the civil war in 1976, partly fearing that the chaos would invite Israeli intervention. The presence of his troops gave Assad some influence in Lebanon, which Syrians insist is vital to their security. But Assad had growing competition from the PLO, which ruled a state-within-a-state, and from Israel, which had developed close ties to the country’s powerful Maronite Catholic community.
Ironically, the failure of Israel’s “Operation Peace for Galilee” later in 1983 opened the way for Assad to improve his position in Lebanon and take some large steps toward realizing his ambitions as an Arab leader. Israel sought to break the power of the PLO, install a pro-Israeli government, and drive the Syrian Army out of Lebanon. When Israel failed to accomplish the last of these aims, the continuing presence of the Syrian Army in eastern and southern Lebanon enabled Assad to exert much greater influence throughout Lebanon, including Beirut. The assassination of Israel’s protégé, President-elect Bashir Gemayel, soon followed.
Assad then took on the Reagan administration itself, which had sent marines to Beirut on a loosely conceived mission to prop up the government dominated by the Phalange party. On May 17, 1983, Reagan brought off his one apparent success in the Middle East, a peace treaty between Israel and the new president, Bashir’s older brother Amin. In response, Assad showed himself able to coordinate the military and political campaigns of the various Muslim opposition forces in Lebanon. Their uprising in February 1984 broke Gemayel’s army, and badly weakened his authority. The Reagan administration bitterly blamed Syria and Iran for involvement in the 1983 suicide bombings that destroyed the US embassy and the Marine Battalion Landing Team headquarters, killing 258 Americans.
The marines hastily withdrew, but the Israeli Army chose to maintain its occupation of southern Lebanon, a third of the country, until some suitable substitute for the abrogated May 17 agreement could be found. Assad encouraged the mounting guerrilla campaigns against it. Lebanese militants from two secular pro-Syrian parties joined Iranian-backed fundamentalist Shi’ites in staging suicide attacks against the Israeli forces. After more than six hundred Israeli soldiers died in Lebanon, the Israeli Cabinet voted in January 1985 to withdraw unilaterally the fifteen thousand troops remaining of the ninety thousand originally sent across the border.
Assad will not have as easy a time consolidating his control over Lebanon as some have predicted. He seemed close to success when he persuaded a key pro-Israeli Maronite leader, Elie Hobeika, chief of the powerful Lebanese Forces militia, to join two Muslim militia chiefs in signing the Damascus Agreement on December 28, 1985. But Maronites loyal to Gemayel, who remains as president, quickly forced Hobeika into exile after an uprising in the Lebanese Forces militia in Which several hundred people were killed. Assad’s plan to be Lebanon’s peacemaker by co-opting the Christians was foiled.
The rise in Shi’ite fundamentalism in Lebanon presents another challenge. Pro-Iranian fundamentalists belonging to Hizbollah, or the “Party of God,” helped Assad drive out the Israelis and the Americans. The Islamic Jihad terrorist group, which claims responsibility for the spectacular suicide bombings and kidnappings in Beirut, is believed to have links both with Hizbollah and Iran. But these groups seem increasingly to defy Assad’s control; they have become a source of irritation in his relations with Iran. Assad threw his weight behind Hizbollah’s rival, Nabih Berri, leader of the comparatively moderate Amal Movement, evidently hoping to contain the forces of Shi’ite extremism. Whether he can do so is still an open question.
Yet Syria undeniably won an important strategic victory by driving Israeli and American influence from Lebanon. So long as Syria remains the dominant influence there, fractured Lebanon may do more to hurt Israel than Syria itself. Since the Israeli withdrawal in June 1985, PLO guerrillas have infiltrated back into Southern Lebanon as far as the port of Tyre. In the atmosphere of instability, they and Lebanese Shi’ite guerrillas, who are also armed by Syria, have more leeway to attack Israel’s northern frontier. And while the Israeli invasion crushed the PLO’s state-within-a-state in Lebanon, it had a boomerang effect by giving Assad a much larger degree of control over the Palestinian movement, one of his long-sought goals. Among other things, Assad used this leverage over the PLO to help wreck the Reagan administration’s initiative for a Middle East settlement.
The 1982 American plan invited Jordan to negotiate a peace treaty with Israel. Reagan proposed that Israel return the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip so that a self-governing homeland could be established there, one that would still be within king Hussein’s realm. In Reagan’s solution to the Palestinian problem, there would be no direct role for the PLO. Hussein would have to come forward to negotiate on behalf of the Palestinians living in the occupied territories.
The Likud government immediately rejected the Reagan plan, refusing to surrender the West Bank. This was to be expected. Reagan’s strategy evidently was first to see if the United States could persuade Hussein to participate, and then to put pressure on the Israelis to meet with the Jordanians. Hussein’s interest was never in doubt. He has long said he would like to conclude an agreement with Israel that would preserve the Hashemite monarchy established by his grandfather Abdullah under the British Mandate. In view of his own Palestinian constituency, and the vulnerability of his tiny kingdom, however, Hussein quite reasonably felt a strong need to obtain broad backing, especially from Palestinian political leaders.
The King’s three-year effort to enlist the support of other Arab leaders, particularly Arafat, was systematically undermined by a campaign of political maneuvering, intimidation, and terrorism waged by Syria and its various radical Palestinian allies. After six months of consultations starting in October 1982, Arafat was reportedly ready to give his blessing to Hussein’s participation in peace negotiations sponsored by Reagan. Suddenly, under intense Syrian pressure, the PLO’s ruling executive committee vetoed Arafat’s decision. Hussein then retreated from the peace discussions on April 10, 1983, declaring, “We in Jordan leave it to the PLO and the Palestinians to choose the ways and means for salvation of themselves and their land.”
Assad then tried to overthrow Arafat in order to bring the PLO under firm Syrian control. The Syrian president incited a rebellion within Arafat’s Fatah guerrilla group, by far the largest of eight in the PLO, led by Colonel Said Musa, known as Abu Musa. With the help of Syrian troops, Abu Musa’s men attacked Arafat loyalists at the PLO bases that had remained in eastern and northern Lebanon after the Israeli invasion in 1982. By the end of 1983, Arafat and his men were driven from the country in battles culminating in a bloody siege at Tripoli.
Assad failed to oust Arafat, but Abu Musa’s rebellion split the PLO in half. A number of the more radical Palestinian groups have formed the Palestinian Salvation Front under Syrian auspices as a rival to Arafat’s wing of the PLO. Having no military base near Israel now, Arafat had no choice but to explore what might be gained from the peace process. After reopening discussions with King Hussein, Arafat signed the Amman Agreement on February 11, 1985, in which he made an apparent concession: he plainly offered to enter peace talks with Israel, in partnership with Hussein, on the basis of the “land for peace” formula embodied in Resolution 242. (His one reservation was to insist on the Palestinian right to “self-determination,” not mentioned in 242.)
Syrian intimidation was swift in coming. Even as Arafat and Hussein were drafting their text, gunmen in Amman assassinated Fahd Qawasme, a close ally of Arafat’s who had recently been elected to the PLO’s executive committee. Jordanian diplomats also became the targets of assassins in Europe and Asia, and some were killed. Several of the assassinations are believed to have been carried out by the non-PLO terrorist group headed by Sabri Banna, better known as Abu Nidal, who has been blamed for the airport massacres in Rome and Vienna. Abu Nidal moved some of his offices to Damascus in 1983 after relations with Iraqi leaders became sour and he was asked to leave Baghdad. His group has training camps in the Bekáa Valley in Lebanon and in Beirut, and has recently applied to become a member of the Palestinian Salvation Front.
With the Amman Agreement faltering, Hussein and Arafat tried to rally prominent Arab leaders, hoping to encourage the Reagan administration to make some new move to break the deadlock. But the summit meeting of the Arab nations in Casablanca last August was an embarrassment. Syria led a boycott, and only a few of the top leaders showed up. Even the crowned rulers of Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, whom Hussein and Arafat counted as friends, stayed home and sent representatives. “It was incredible,” a Palestinian journalist close to Arafat told me at the time. “Syria boycotted the summit, but it was still there. I mean, Syria was casting a dark shadow, all the way from Damascus.”
The Amman Agreement had little future after that. The hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise ship off the Egyptian coast raised questions about Arafat’s part in encouraging blatant terrorism at a delicate stage in the peace discussions. The strain continued after Arafat went to Amman in late October to patch things up with Hussein. One of Hussein’s ministers told me that Jordan found it necessary to deport quietly one of the group accompanying Arafat, Mahmoud Natour, head of the PLO’s Force 17 security squad, on the grounds that he may have been involved in terrorism.
In December, though Israeli prime minister Shimon Peres was showing much interest in negotiating with Hussein, the King sent a clear signal of his own hesitancy by suddenly ending the five-year hiatus in his relations with Assad. Because Hussein did so with a display of pride swallowing remarkable for a head of state, the Jordanian–Syrian rapprochement seemed at least a tentative acknowledgement of Assad’s ascendancy in Arab politics. Not only did the King make a pilgrimage to Assad’s capital, rather than the other way around, he arrived after making an extraordinary public confession. Hussein admitted to a charge that the Syrians had been making for many years: that Syrian Muslim fundamentalists used Jordan for operations against Assad’s regime. Hussein’s security forces then rounded up hundreds of Muslim Brotherhood activists who had been living in Jordan.
Hussein finally announced this February that he was breaking off his partnership with Arafat for the second time. He revealed that Arafat had refused to accept a US concession which had been secretly communicated in January: that the PLO would be invited to a peace conference if Arafat first endorsed UN resolutions 242 and 338—such an endorsement being the American test of whether the PLO recognized Israel’s right to exist.
The US had indeed made a significant gesture, but whatever its prospects would have been even under the most favorable of circumstances, it came late, and at a particularly inauspicious moment; at the same time Hussein’s own resoluteness about taking part in peace negotiations appeared to be weakening. The Reagan administration had not seemed strongly committed to a peace conference. Arafat cared more about preserving his own tenuous position in the PLO, and even within his own guerrilla group, than he did for the possibilities suggested by Reagan’s diplomats. Though supported by the Arab states, Resolution 242 has always been opposed as a matter of principle by all PLO leaders because it fails to guarantee the establishment of a Palestinian state. If he had ever been inclined to endorse Resolution 242 and then to bargain for an independent state during negotiations with Israel, as Hussein was convinced he was, Arafat now balked as he looked over his shoulder to Damascus.
This time, Hussein’s announcement hinted he might no longer respect the 1974 Arab League resolution designating the PLO as the Palestinians’ sole representative. He argued that the Arabs’ main efforts should now be on recovering the occupied territories. But if this was meant as a tentative appeal to Palestinians living under Israeli occupation to circumvent the PLO and join him in the peace process, it was annulled eleven days later by another assassination. The victim was Zafar Masri, the mayor of Nablus, a committed Palestinian nationalist who had nevertheless recently come to symbolize the possibility of an understanding between Jordan and Israel. He was the brother of the deputy speaker of the Jordanian Assembly’s upper house and the uncle of Hussein’s foreign minister. In November the Israelis trusted him enough to appoint him mayor of the largest city on the West Bank. When three bullets were fired into his back on March 2, a Palestinian group in Syria, supported by Assad, claimed to be responsible. Once again the forces in Damascus had demonstrated their power over events. “The murder,” the spokesman for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine later told the London Observer’s correspondent in Damascus, “has served its aim.”
—April 10, 1986
May 8, 1986