No matter what the small pro-regime crowds in the Syrian capital say, being forced to pull Syrian troops out of Lebanon comes as a humiliation for Bashar al-Assad. The 39-year-old Syrian President might have arranged a more dignified exit had he heeded last year's U.N. resolution calling for Syria to end its three decades-old occupation. Now he finds himself in a predicament. "He is walking a tightrope between the Americans, the Syrian opposition, and the regime hard-liners," says Nadim Shehadi, acting head of the Middle East program at London's Royal Institute of International Affairs.
These days the view from Damascus is disconcerting. American troops are camped across the border on Assad's eastern frontier. Iraqi politicians are furious over what they say is Syrian support for the bloody insurgency. Assad's position in Lebanon, which he hoped to use as a bargaining chip in eventual negotiations with Israel on the Golan Heights, is in doubt. Further south, the Palestinians are once again talking to the Israelis with Washington's sponsorship -- leaving Syria out in the cold.
So are Assad's days in power numbered? Although Mideast autocrats are not easily toppled, U.S. pressure has emboldened his domestic critics. After decades of repression, the open opposition remains small. But it is increasingly forthright in saying that Assad has done far too little to open up Syria's political system and economy since succeeding his father in 2000. Syria's leaders "have shown themselves to be incompetent," says Ammar Abdulhamid, a Damascus dissident.
Assad has even more to worry about from the underground, fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood. It draws on the Sunni Muslim majority's resentment of rule by Assad's minority Alawite sect. Assad also has to keep his eye on military and intelligence chiefs, who hold the keys to power. If these men, many of them Alawites, think the President is endangering the regime, they won't hesitate to bid him bye-bye.
To bolster his position, Assad recently installed his brother-in-law, Assif Showkat, as military intelligence chief. And Assad has made goodwill gestures to the U.S. Syria recently fingered Saddam's half-brother, Sabawi Ibrahim, and has made efforts to tighten its borders. Bashar has proposed unconditional talks with Israel and shared intelligence on al Qaeda suspects.
But none of these moves has eased the squeeze from Washington, which seized on the anti-Syrian protests in Lebanon after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri as a chance to turn the screws on Syria. "Washington and Damascus are on a collision course, and if the U.S. keeps up the pressure this could bring down Bashar," says Eyal Zisser, a Syria specialist at Tel Aviv University in Israel.
For the Bush Administration, which wants to parlay its overthrow of Saddam into a Pax Americana in the Middle East, Assad's troubles look like a blessing. But events are moving so quickly that U.S. policy hasn't been set beyond the aim of getting Syria out of Lebanon. "We haven't figured out a way to deal with Bashar," notes an Administration official. Even though Syria might be a better place without Assad and his Baath Party, the transition could be rough. Want an example of what Syria could be like without the Baath? Look at the violence in Iraq.
By Stanley Reed in London, with Neal Sandler in Jerusalem and Stan Crock in Washington
Edited by Rose Brady