The assassination of Wissam al-Hassan, head of intelligence of Lebanon’s internal security forces, comes at the heart of the subject of this article. The question is: Who assassinated the general? The answer is restricted to two options — either Syrian, or Israeli intelligence.
This is a remarkable thing, and it involves a precedent. Before the current Syrian regime, and before the Lebanese civil war, the assassination charge often went to Israel. In that time, the victims of assassinations were members of Palestinian resistance. But now, with the Lebanese scene at the front, all assassination victims became Lebanese political opponents of the Syrian regime. The truth is, Syria is being charged with the assassinations since the murder of Kamal Jumblatt. But now, since the assassination of Rafik Hariri, Damascus is almost the only suspect. The Syrian regime became more and more prone to accusations than the Israeli government. The regime is not only accused by the Lebanese, who pay the price of assassinations, but by Arabs in general. No one defends the Syrian regime anymore, only its allies, particularly Hezbollah. Here we are in front of a striking political evolution, for which the Syrian regime is responsible, not any other party.
The assassination of the general happened against the backdrop of the Syrian revolution. He exposed the involvement of the former Lebanese minister, and Syria’s ally, Michael Samaha, in transferring explosives to Lebanon in order to create chaos.
The events of political assassinations, since the killing of Rafik Hariri in 2005, have led to the devastation of Saudi-Syrian relations. Riyadh thought it was possible to contain the crisis. It tried to open the door of reconciliation to Damascus during the Kuwait Economic Summit, then with the support of the Doha agreement, and finally by convincing former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri to visit Damascus. But all that did not lead to anything concrete, or to a change in the Syrian approach.
The objective of the Syrian president, and Hezbollah leadership, was to get rid of the International Tribunal for Lebanon. When this didn’t happen, the government of Saad Hariri was overthrown, and a new government was brought to office at gunpoint, dominated by Hezbollah. Following that, the political situation in Lebanon came to a standstill, as did Saudi-Syrian relations. Unfortunately for the Syrian regime, the moment Hariri government was overthrown, the Arab Spring revolutions started in Tunisia, then moved to Egypt, Yemen, Libya and finally Syria. Here, the Saudi-Syrian relations entered a different phase, which ended in a collapse.
It cannot be said that Saudi Arabia supports the idea of revolution, whether in Syria or elsewhere. Yet, at the same time, we cannot say that Saudi Arabia seeks to oppose any revolution. Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy views what is happening in other countries as internal affairs. Thus, if a revolution takes place in any of the Arab countries, Saudi Arabia may try to influence events through its relationship with the regime. However, when a revolution may lead to an overthrow or change of the regime, Saudi Arabia would only have to acknowledge reality and deal with the regime that emerges from the revolution.
In Syria, the situation was exceptional because the regime adopted an ugly security approach toward protests that began as peaceful. The killing of people began on the second day of protests in Daraa. Then the murdering began rampantly with the expansion of the scope of the protests. Saudi Arabia and other countries tried to convince the Syrian regime to absorb the demonstrations and meet some of the protesters’ demands instead of resorting to violence and bloodshed, especially in the early days. But the Syrian regime, it seemed, considered the proposal of conceding to the demands of protesters as an approach that might encourage and escalate the events. Guided by what took place in Hama in 1982, the leadership of the regime had no intention to concede at all.
Why did the Syrian regime choose to proceed in the security solution to the extent that it has, even at the risk of causing destruction to Syria, rather than adopt a waiver option for the people? The answer is linked first to the nature of the regime and its inception, and secondly to the succession process within the regime, and thirdly, to its alliances after 2000. The Syrian regime, which came to power in 1970, is a hereditary regime that belongs to a small sectarian minority and governs a society where the Sunni community represents between 75 and 80 percent of the population. This was natural — or so it seemed— in the early years of the regime, and at the height of the Arab-Israeli conflict. But the idea of inheritance emerged in the 1980s, first in the struggle between President Hafez Assad and his brother, Rifaat. Then it proceeded when Basil, the eldest son of the president, qualified to be the heir. However, intervention occurred in favor of Bashar, who inherited his father’s power. Did inheritance lay a basis for a ruling dynasty in Syria? The belief was that the imposition of inheritance was the split between the generals of the regime.
It was not them who would succeed Hafez Assad, because none of them likely had the ability to achieve any kind of consensus around him. Therefore, the solution was that the president’s son, Bashar, would become the heir. Bashar was outside the circle of conflict and polarization within the regime, did not count or belong to any party, and thus, represented a meeting point between everyone. But this view is not correct when you consider the fact that the idea of inheritance was old. Regardless of what happened, the inheritance deepened the problem of sectarianism in the regime, and enhanced the need for an alliance with Iran. Since it was not possible to take Lebanon to that coalition due to its sectarian composition, “Hezbollah” was the possible third party in that alliance. This was an alliance between two states and the party who had military capabilities equivalent to the capacity of a state. The most important element that combined these three parties is the minority idea:
Iran and Hezbollah belonged to a Muslim minority in the Arab world while the regime in Damascus came under the rule of a Muslim minority in Syria.
This evolution was excreted by the demographic composition of the Levant, where the minority problem in the Arab world is intensified. Saudi foreign policy with regard to this region, specifically with the Syrian regime, is based on a priority for stability. Thus, taking into account the sensitivity of the social and religious structure as well as the sensitivity of the political system is in line with the Arab political tradition. However, with the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, and the preference of the Syrian regime for the principle of a minority alliance which helped the expansion of Iranian influence in the region, Arab political environment changed. This change calls for a review of Saudi politics.
The main objective of the Saudi foreign policy is to achieve stability in the Arab world, and work to install it whenever it is exposed to instability in any of the Arab countries. This goal stems from the view that stability serves the interests of Saudi Arabia just as it serves the interests of other countries. If stability is shaken in any of the Arab countries, especially in states near or surrounding Saudi Arabia, it would eventually affect Saudi Arabia sooner or later. It would cost both politically and financially, and possibly militarily, and it could impose regional changes not bearable by Saudi Arabia. From this point, it was not in the interest of Saudi Arabia that the Syrian stability would be exposed to political instability.
Especially since Saudi Arabia is located in the eye of the storm taking place in the Arab world. It is surrounded by instability from each side: Iraq to the north, Bahrain to the east, Yemen to the south, and Egypt and Syria to the west. Therefore, Arabia recognizes the risk of events in Syria. But her bitter experience with Damascus under Bashar and Baghdad under Saddam Hussein taught her that the system in both capitals always tends to push issues and options toward the brink of the abyss, each for its own reasons. Syria under Bashar chose a closed sectarian coalition with Iran and “Hezbollah.”
This alliance is dictating the regime’s options locally, as evidenced by the government’s handling of the revolution, and is dictating its choices regionally, as evidenced by its relations with Iran. So, it has become clear that this regime is not only unable to maintain stability in Syria, but indeed threatens regional stability in the surroundings. The recent bombing in Beirut is not likely to be the last indicator of it. From here the survival of the Syrian regime is considered as a threat to what is perceived as the strategic goal for Saudi Arabia.
The writer is a columnist the Saudi-based Arab News, where this article was published on Oct. 22, 2012