Syria, under Bashar al-Asad who assumed the Presidency in 2000 with the death of his father, Hafiz al-Asad, faces severe problems including rampant corruption, the influx of nearly a million refugees from Lebanon and Iraq, and a stagnant state economy. Its close ties to Iran and militant Palestinian groups and its implication in the murder of the former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq al-Hairir in 2005 isolate it from the West.
A history of repression and autocratic rule during the two decades Hafiz al-Asad held power appears to be continuing under his son as evidenced by the 2006 mass arrests of human rights activists and opposition figures. The government continues to be highly centralized and authoritarian, held up by a large domestic security force. Bashar al-Asad’s power base appears to be shrinking following Syria’s forced withdrawal from Lebanon in 2005.
Syria’s future is dependant on the type of regime its young president creates and the influence of other countries in the region. Hopes for reform that were raised early in his regime have been dashed by his increasingly repressive reactions.
While Asad states his willingness to settle with Israel, he cannot compromise on the key issues of the Golan Heights and the rights of the Palestinians without loosing his people’s support. The U.S. continues to pressure Syria on matters concerning Syria’s assistance to Iraqi insurgents. While Syria has recently re-established diplomatic relations with Iraq, it appears to be strengthening its alliances with Iran and the anti-U.S. factions of the Middle East.
The hopes for an end to Syrian domination with the forced withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon in 2005 were destroyed during Lebanon’s disastrous war with Israel in summer 2006. Hizballah supporters demonstrated against the anti-Syrian cabinet and Syria appeared to be intent on restoring its power over Lebanon. Following the assassination of Lebanon’s Prime Minister in 2005, the new anti-Syrian government failed to provide an independent course for Lebanon. Opposition by Hizballah and the Free Patriotic Movement of Michel Aoun, and intimidation against anti-Syrian figures destabilized the anti-Syrian March 14th Movement.
With Syria and Hizballah combining to restore domination in Lebanon and the presence of Aoun’s movement, the outlook for Lebanon is not good. Hope for Lebanon is dependent on its ability to break from past sectarianism and create a sense of nationalism, something Lebanon has been unable to do since its independence in 1943. Lebanon’s future is dependent on its relations with Israel, pressures from Iran, and the creation of a sense of Labanese nationalism to replace the destabilizing effect of sectarianism.
The Middle East. 11th. Washington: CQ Press, 2007.