President Assad Wants a Cold War
Unfortunately, the Syrian leader is likely to be disappointed.
August 25, 2008 - 12:00 am
The guns have barely fallen silent in the conflict between Georgia and Russia. The two sides are still squabbling over the implementation of the ceasefire agreement. Yet that didn’t stop President Bashar Al Assad of Syria from becoming the first head of state to visit Russia, where he declared his unyielding support for Moscow’s position regarding Georgia. “We understand Russia’s stance regarding the breakaway regions and understand that it came in retaliation to Georgian provocation,” he said.
Even more interesting was his follow-up statement: “We oppose any attempt to harm Russia’s position.” He even went as far as to generously offer to host Russian ground-to-ground missiles in his country.
Assad could see that Western demands for Russia to withdraw its forces from South Ossetia — and the recent agreement between Poland and the U.S. to place an anti -missile shield on Polish territory — are worrying Russia. Russia is concerned that the West, especially the U.S., is using every opportunity to undermine its position. Some Russians have gone as far as to view Georgia’s provocative decision to send its forces into South Ossetia as a Western-sponsored trap, meant to lure Russia into a conflict. The West would then use Russia’s response as justification for the expansion of NATO in the Caucasus, as well as in Eastern Europe, especially Ukraine. Both are very sensitive points for Moscow.
By throwing in his lot completely with Russia, Assad obviously hoped that he could use the current anti-Western sentiment in Moscow as capital to finance Russia’s support — both militarily and politically — for Syria and its position.
The purpose of his visit and supporting statement was clear. He was basically insinuating to the Russians:
Like it or not, the West has declared a new Cold War against you, and you must respond. I am willing to help you, if you are willing to reciprocate, by giving me the weapons I need, and by using your presence in the Middle East to scare the Americans and the Israelis who are undermining my position.
The motivations of his strategy are understandable. Unlike his father, when Bashar became president he did not have the support of the Soviet superpower. This made the job of purchasing sophisticated weaponry to counter that of Israel much more difficult. The loss of the Soviet Union as a backer also meant that Damascus lost a powerful ally on the international stage, especially in the UN. Although Syria consolidated power in the Middle East through its alliance with Hezbollah and Iran, on a global scale the country remains isolated, with no prospect of the U.S. or the EU giving their support as the USSR once did. Furthermore, the country’s present economic situation under Bashar is far worse than when his father was in charge. Back then, Syria was earning 80% of its income from oil. Now, due to dwindling resources, this figure is down to 20%. The same goes for water resources. There are reports from Damascus that repeated, lengthy cuts in water supply are making life for its citizens extremely difficult, especially in the summer heat.