By George E. Irani (for Safe Democracy)

Dr. George E. Irani believes that Bashar Assad‘s Syrian regime is in the eye of the storm due to three factors: pressures from the Bush Administration, the UN investigation into the Hariri murder, and regional powers. Dr. Irani does mention the success Assad had in Arab solidarity against the US Congress-sponsored sanctions against Syria. However, Dr. Irani adds that Assad failed to achieve a consensus on both the Lebanon and Palestine arenas. Dr. Irani states that the regime is manipulating the remaining leverage it holds on Lebanon, and it hopes to continue using the Palestinian faction as a means to maintain Syrian intervention: Syria can always play for time and use US diplomatic blunders as a means to enhance and maintain some kind of respect.

Dr. George E. Irani is the Lebanese-born Director of the Africa and Middle East program at the Centro Internacional de Toledo para la Paz (CITpax) based in Madrid. He is the author of several books and papers on the Middle East.

THE SYRIAN REGIME OF BASHAR ASSAD IS IN THE EYE OF THE STORM. Since the assassination of Lebanon’s Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, a year ago, the Syrian regime has been on the defensive. Assad has had to confront a multi-pronged set of pressures from the Bush Administration, the United Nations’ investigation of the Hariri murder and other assassinations in Lebanon, as well as regional powers, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Assad also has had to contend with his former Vice President, Abdel Halim Khaddam, who is now in exile in Paris.

At the recently held and failed Arab summit in Khartoum (Sudan), Assad tried to revamp some of the old lustre in his hounded regime. He succeeded in attaining the final statement on Arab solidarity against the US Congress- sponsored sanctions against Syria and some kind of an implicit acknowledgment of Syria’s role in Lebanon and Palestine.

However what Assad failed to achieve was to obtain a consensus on both the Lebanon and Palestine arenas. Following the forced withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon a year ago, Syria is desperately trying to manipulate some of its leverage in order to maintain its presence on the Lebanese political scene.

First, Assad is still relying on his friend Emile Lahoud, the discredited and isolated president of Lebanon. Lahoud and Hizballah are the last two cards Syria still holds in Lebanon. Hariri’s assassination is in part due to the Lebanese leader’s concern and aim to maintain a compromise between Lebanon’s independence as well as respect for Syrian interests. According to several reports, the last meeting between Hariri and Assad was very tense and uneasy.

The Syrian leader tried to force the Lebanese prime minister to accept the renewal of the Lahoud presidential mandate even if it went against Lebanon’s Constitution. Assad used threats against Hariri in order to bow to Damascus’s will. Moreover, Assad resented Hariri’s efforts to obtain a UN resolution, which called for the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon and an end to Hizballah as the last operating militia in the Land of Cedars.

Assad believes that with the US preoccupation with the disaster in Iraq and focus on the Iranian nuclear program, Syria has more of a free hand in the region. In Khartoum, the Syrian president also met with the Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. Reports from Sudan describe the meeting between the two as tense and unfriendly. Assad hopes to continue using the Palestinian factions that currently reside in Damascus (Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, PFLP-GC, Hamas, and other radical groups) to maintain Syrian intervention in Palestinian internal politics.

The Syrian regime is still under close scrutiny by the international community. In April, another UN report on Hariri’s assassination will come out. Reports from Beirut speak of a direct and explicit indictment of the Syrian regime in the assassination of Hariri and his companions. Lastly, one cannot exclude that despite the Damascus-Teheran axis, Iran could opt to enhance its secret negotiations with the Bush Administration and consolidate its role as a major power in Iraq’s future. This kind of development would totally isolate the Syrian regime, despite Israeli, Egyptian, Saudi and Turkish concerns of a possible destabilization of the Assad regime.

Assad can always play for time and use US diplomatic blunders in the Middle East as a means to enhance and maintain some kind of respect for the shrews in the Omayyad capital!