Bashar's Trial by Fire

By Flynt Leverett

Brookings. 286 pp. $27.95

In the 1970s, when the Lebanese civil war forced me to move The Washington Post's Middle East bureau out of Beirut, the Syrians invited me to set up shop in Damascus. No restrictions, they said. No wiretaps. Write what you want.

Yeah, right. The Syria of President Hafez Assad was a country where visiting journalists waited until after they had left to file their stories -- and sometimes kept their bylines off the articles to protect themselves and their sources. It was repressive, backward and opaque. Today, almost 30 years later, Syria under the rule of Hafez Assad's son Bashar is still repressive and backward. But it has been rendered considerably less opaque thanks to Inheriting Syria, a succinct but masterful dissection by Flynt Leverett.

Hafez Assad ruled Syria with an iron hand for three decades, beginning in 1970. He was crafty, brutal and relentless in promoting what he perceived as Syria's interests. Under his rule, the previously fractious and coup-prone country became, in Leverett's words, "a veritable model of authoritarian stability."

Assad groomed his eldest son, Basil, to succeed him, but Basil died in an automobile accident in 1994. The elder Assad then designated another son -- Bashar, a British-trained ophthalmologist -- to carry on the family's rule. Leverett argues that the aging dictator spent the last six years of his life tutoring a reluctant Bashar in the skills he would need and the policies he should follow upon becoming president. Since taking over after his father's death in 2000, Bashar has essentially followed a script written by his more skillful father -- trying to manage Syria's noxious domestic politics and its stagnant economy, the violence and unpredictability of the Middle East, and Damascus's troubled relations with the great powers, especially the United States. If it sometimes seems that Bashar's policies are contradictory or detrimental to Syrian interests, Leverett writes, it is because he is not a free agent. His hands, ultimately, are tied by the legacy of his father.

Syria has been making headlines recently, but the timing of Leverett's book is unfortunate. Between the time that bound galleys were distributed to reviewers and the book's release, Leverett was able to make changes to account for the worldwide outrage that followed the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri, for which many Lebanese blamed Syria. But Leverett, now a Brookings Institution fellow, did not have time to evaluate the withdrawal from Lebanon of Syria's armed forces -- a step Bashar was virtually forced to take even though it deviated fundamentally from his father's script.

Inheriting Syria also won't make good beach reading. Leverett's prose is at best workmanlike and at times convoluted, and reading it requires high tolerance for the use of the word "behavior" in the plural. But his book is nevertheless essential for understanding a complicated country and the politics of the entire Middle East.

Leverett offers an incisive analysis of how Hafez Assad operated and what motives underlay his endless maneuvering and calculation. Aside from staying in power, Assad's overriding goal was to prevent Syria from being marginalized. Syria would be inconsequential in international and perhaps even regional politics were it not a neighbor of Israel, and Leverett brilliantly explains how Assad used this accident of geography to force the world to take him and his country seriously. It is unfortunate that Warren Christopher, secretary of state during President Clinton's first term, did not have access to Leverett's insights during his numerous futile pilgrimages to Damascus in search of a Syria-Israel peace agreement; if he had, he would have known he was wasting his time.

On the other hand, President George W. Bush and his foreign policy advisers did have access to Leverett's insights but, according to the author, failed to respond to them. As senior director for Middle East affairs on the National Security Council staff, Leverett notes, he had "the best seat in the house" as Bush made critical decisions about the region, but he ultimately "disagreed with enough of those decisions to leave the administration." He argues that in the "with us or against us" atmosphere after the Sept. 11 attacks, the Bush administration forfeited opportunities to moderate Syria's behavior and end its support for terrorist groups such as Hezbollah by refusing to engage with a country that Washington has long designated a state supporter of terrorism.

Yet Leverett's dissatisfaction with current U.S. policy toward Syria leads him into -- or possibly arises from -- the one major flaw in this otherwise very useful book: He is much too lenient toward Bashar, giving him the benefit of the doubt even when his policies appear obtuse or counterproductive. Leverett refers to Bashar's "relative newness to the presidency," yet in July he will have been in office five years. And he writes that Bashar has been obliged to defer on some issues to "old guard" insiders from his father's day, even though they are "strategically autistic" and incapable of recognizing "how the world changed on September 11, 2001, in ways significant for Syria." Other analysts of Syrian affairs have concluded that it is Bashar himself who has been "strategically autistic" about the impact of Sept. 11 on American thinking about Arab rogue states. The old games of thrust and parry, maneuver and dissemble that he learned from his father are over, as far as Washington is concerned. If Bashar Assad wants to go on supporting Hezbollah, sheltering Palestinian extremists and playing Baathist footsie with Sunni insurgents in Iraq, the desire for improved relations with the United States that Leverett attributes to Syria's young leader is doomed. *

Thomas W. Lippman, a former Middle East correspondent for The Washington Post, is an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute.

Syrian President Bashar Assad stands in front of a picture of him and his father, Hafez.