For decades, Syria has played the role of a bad student at school, its leaders thinking that if you don’t cause trouble, no one will pay attention to you. The Syrian regime meddled in Iraq, nurtured Palestinian militants opposed to peace with Israel and dominated its smaller neighbor, Lebanon. Syria’s gambits in a tough part of the world usually paid off: For a country that is not rich in oil and has little economic clout, the Syrian regime derived its power from its strategic position in the Middle East.
But today, Syria is on the verge of turning from a schoolyard bully into a full-fledged rogue state. On September 6 Israeli warplanes attacked a site in the Syrian desert, near the Euphrates River. Since then, the strike has been largely shrouded in secrecy, but Israeli and US intelligence officials have been quoted in news reports suggesting that Syria was in the early stages of developing a nuclear program with help from North Korea. In late October the Institute for Science and International Security–a Washington-based think tank led by former United Nations weapons inspector David Albright–analyzed commercial satellite imagery taken before and after the Israeli strike. It concluded that the Syrians were likely building a small nuclear reactor similar to North Korea’s. The latest satellite images, taken on October 24, show that the Syrians quickly razed the site after the Israeli attack. “Dismantling and removing the building at such a rapid pace dramatically complicates any inspection,” Albright and his colleagues wrote, adding that “Syria may be trying to hide what was there.”
Western officials have known for years that North Korea helped Syria develop ballistic missiles. Syria also possesses chemical and biological weapons; they are the regime’s deterrent against Israel’s large nuclear arsenal. While there is no concrete evidence that Syria is trying to develop an extensive nuclear program, one thing is clear: the US policy of isolating Syria is making its leadership behave in unpredictable and more dangerous ways. Ostracized by the Bush Administration and shunned by some of its old European allies, Damascus is growing closer to Iran and North Korea.
Syria has played the role of a regional spoiler since 1970, when Hafez Assad rose to power in a military coup. He perfected the art of shifting alliances, stirring up trouble in neighboring countries and keeping his enemies mired in costly battles. When Assad died in June 2000, he was succeeded by his son, Bashar, a soft-spoken, British-educated ophthalmologist who had little experience in the hard-knuckled politics of the Middle East. While many dismissed the younger Assad as incapable of balancing his regional cards as masterfully as his father, Bashar has grown into the role of strongman over the past seven years.
After Saddam Hussein’s ouster, the Bush Administration accused Syria of sheltering Iraqi Baathist leaders and allowing Islamic militants to slip into Iraq to fight US forces. In 2004, President George W. Bush imposed economic sanctions against Damascus and tried to isolate it. That policy accelerated after the February 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, in which a United Nations investigation has implicated top Syrian officials.
In response to America’s cold shoulder, Assad’s regime became more dependent on Iran, which helped shore up the Syrian economy with construction investments and cheap oil. Damascus also enhanced its alliance with Hamas, Hezbollah and the renegade Iraqi Shiite cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr. Assad knows the United States cannot find a way out of Iraq without his help. But just to be safe, he keeps his connections to Hamas, Hezbollah and Sadr as potential bargaining chips that can shape events in the Palestinian territories, Lebanon and Iraq.