Monday, July 18, 2005 | Changing role of Syria in the world | News for Dallas, Texas | Entertainment: Books:

Syria is usually to be found on the periphery of big events, close enough to cause trouble while rarely being helpful. In recent months, Syria has been a likely culprit in Lebanon's political assassinations, has provocatively tested Scud missiles and has presumably kept building its stockpile of chemical weapons. Syria has also provided American intelligence agencies with useful information about terrorist activities, but on balance it remains a strong contender for President Bush's axis of evil.

"The man more or less in charge of Syria is a 39-year-old physician who did postgraduate work in ophthalmology in Britain. An unlikely political leader, Bashar Assad inherited Syria from his father, the cunning Hafez Assad, five years ago, and it is difficult to determine exactly how much power he really has and what his intentions are.

The senior Assad was always concerned about Syria being marginalized, and so he opposed dealings between other Arab states and Israel. Syria, says Mr. Leverett, was also 'the leading violator of UN sanctions against Saddam Hussein's regime' and sponsored terrorist acts against Israel and others.

Since becoming Syria's president, Bashar Assad has seemed to recognize that the world is changing. While his father's attitude toward globalization, says Mr. Leverett, 'was one of ignorance supplemented by vague suspicion,' Mr. Bashar has tried to build bridges to Turkey, China and Russia. He wants, writes Mr. Leverett, to establish a 'robust bilateral relationship' with the United States that would boost reform and economic growth within Syria.

The Bush administration's response, according to Mr. Leverett, has been to send mixed signals – mostly negative – accusing Syria of aiding Iraqi insurgents and undermining stability in Lebanon. Syria is also a significant barrier to a peaceful Middle East because it supports Hezbollah's attacks that are designed push Israel as far as possible without incurring, says Mr. Leverett, 'an overly punishing Israeli response.'

How much responsibility for this dangerous gamesmanship belongs to Bashar Assad? Despite Mr. Leverett's thorough analysis of available information, Mr. Bashar's role remains unclearly defined. In Mr. Leverett's judgment, Mr. Bashar is 'not an ideological fanatic like' Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar or a violent thug like Saddam Hussein. It may be that he does not have full control over the military, intelligence and administrative bureaucracies that his father built during his 30 years of rule. If that is the case, and Syria's leadership is weakened by diffusion, the country may become even more of a menace within the Middle East and perhaps farther afield."

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