Assad places risky bet — on Saddam and against U.S.

JERUSALEM — Syrian President Bashar Assad has inherited much of his late father's parochial paranoia, Israeli analysts argue — but little of his astute political judgment.

In the first Persian Gulf War, the wily Hafez Assad lined up on the side of the American-led coalition, the analysts note, while in the second, Bashar Assad seems to be doing all he can to bait the American superpower.

It could end up costing him dearly.

Judging from his public statements, Assad seems convinced that the Bush administration will not stop at Iraq, and that after an American victory in Baghdad he could be next on the regime-change agenda.

Therefore, when Assad vilifies America and openly aids the Iraqi war effort, he believes he is fighting for his life.

In late March, buoyed by what he saw as initial Iraqi success in resisting the American-led invasion, Assad explained the basis of his thinking in a fierce diatribe against Israel and the United States.

The war in Iraq, he told the Lebanese newspaper As-Safir, was an Israeli-American conspiracy "designed to redraw the political map of the Middle East."

Assad continued to criticize the U.S. campaign in Iraq as recently as Wednesday, according to a Reuters report.

In Assad's view, the United States would take Iraq's oil, and Israel would become the dominant regional power.

"After Iraq, it will be the turn of other Arab countries, and I don't rule out the possibility of an American attempt to attack Syria, inspired by Israel," he declared.

When Assad took power in the summer of 2000, analysts pointed to his Western education — he studied ophthalmology in England — as a sign he would be more modern and liberal than his authoritarian father. He would open up Syria's economic and political system, they predicted, and would recognize the benefit of peace with Israel.

But such optimists have been sorely disappointed. An initial political opening has been stifled, and the younger Assad seems even less inclined to contemplate peace with the Jewish state than was his father, who at least entertained negotiations.

Analysts speculate that that's because Hafez Assad had first-hand experience of Israel's military might from the 1967 and 1973 wars. By contrast, his son has witnessed Israel's response to the first intifada in the late 1980s and early '90s. and its flight from southern Lebanon in 2000 — observing a state unwilling to risk its prosperity in military confrontations and willing to retreat in the face even of light casualties.

Assad clearly sees the American war against Iraq and the Arab-Israeli conflict as part of the same apocalyptic struggle: It is, in his view, a zero-sum game that will benefit either Syria or Israel.

As long as Israel exists, he said in the As-Safir interview, Syria is under threat. He would never be able to trust Israel, he added, "because it was treacherous by nature."

But there's more: Since "Israel controlled the United States through its Jewish lobby," Assad presumably can't trust the United States either.

Given that worldview, it's not surprising Assad has decided to gamble on Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. In helping the Iraqi war effort, he apparently was hoping the Americans would be stopped in their tracks and would never reach Baghdad, let alone Damascus.

So Assad kept Syria's border with Iraq open, making Syria the only country to allow volunteers and war materiel through to help Saddam.

By late March, thousands of Arab, mainly Syrian, volunteers were streaming across the open border to the Mosul and Kirkuk regions of northern Iraq. Syria also sent some military equipment — night-vision goggles, according to the Pentagon — to the Iraqi forces.

Before that, in the run-up to war, Syria reportedly purchased tank engines and aircraft for Iraq in Eastern Europe.

Moreover, Assad was thought to be hiding illegal Iraqi weapons that were spirited across the border to Syria before the fighting erupted. In testimony to the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee in late March, the intelligence research chief of the Israel Defense Force, Yossi Kupferwasser, claimed Saddam may have transferred Scud missiles and biological and chemical weapons to Syria before the outbreak of war.

In late March, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld warned the Syrians that the United States would not tolerate much more. He called the Syrian shipment of night-vision goggles a "hostile act" for which the United States would hold Damascus accountable.

A few days later, Secretary of State Colin Powell indicated Syria would have to make a "critical choice" about whose side it is on.

"Syria can continue direct support for terrorist groups and the dying regime of Saddam Hussein, or it can embark on a different and more hopeful course," Powell told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee on Sunday night. "Either way, Syria bears the responsibility for its choices and for the consequences."

Syria is not only proving to be Iraq's closest supporter in the war. It is also on the State Department's list of terrorist states and, according to Israeli intelligence sources, has by far the biggest stockpile of chemical weapons of any Middle Eastern country. It produces chemical warheads as well as the Scud missiles to deliver them.

The terrorist organizations Syria hosts claim to have sent hundreds of suicide bombers to Iraq to attack American troops. Ramadan Shalah, the Damascus-based commander of Islamic Jihad — which claimed responsibility for Sunday's suicide bombing in Netanya — declared that the bombing was his organization's "gift to the Iraqi people," and that hundreds of his followers were already in Iraq to fight "the murderer Bush."

By far the biggest and most potent terrorist organization Syria backs is the Iranian-controlled Hezbollah, which has an estimated 10,000 Katyusha rockets trained on targets in Israel, and which has a proven operational capacity all over the world.

Some U.S. defense analysts see Hezbollah as the foremost terrorist organization in the world, more dangerous even than al-Qaida.

To deal with Syria after the war in Iraq, one idea the Bush administration apparently is contemplating is a U.S.-imposed land, sea and air blockade on Syria until it dismantles its weapons of mass destruction, expels terrorist organizations from Damascus and disarms Hezbollah.

Assad seems to be hoping an American imbroglio in Iraq will save his regime, but he also has taken out some insurance against an America that emerges from the war as the undisputed power broker in the Middle East.

So far, Syria has helped keep Hezbollah in check during the war and has relayed information to American intelligence on the whereabouts of some al-Qaida operatives.

Assad could go further in search of American approval by introducing a degree of democratization. But he seems to fear that step as opening a Pandora's box that he can't control, Israeli analysts say.

Assad's Alawite sect, which rules Syria, constitutes only about 13 percent of the country's population. Exposing Syrian society to the winds of change, he fears, might end up sweeping away his regime.

Assad's father had similar fears. In his day, Syrian dissidents compared Hafez Assad's regime to Romania under Nicolae Ceaucescu, dubbing him "Assadescu.''

Between America's wrath and the risk of liberalization in Syria, Bashar Assad seems to be caught between a rock and a hard place.