These days, Syrian President Bashir Assad probably wishes he'd passed on the family dictatorship and kept his opthamology practice in London. As you may recall, the younger Assad was an eye surgeon in London before returning to Damascus to succeed his late father, Hafez al-Assad, the former Air Force general who ruled Syria with an iron fist for nearly 30 years.
Sure, it was hard to pass on a chance to be El Supremo For Life. There are obvious perks (unlimited access to the national treasury; palatial accomodations, and the power to kill anyone who gets in your way). But there's also the danger that comes with any dictatorship, i.e. you tend to rub people the wrong way, and eventually, they want your scalp.
At last check, Mr. Assad's scalp was still intact, but his grip on power doesn't seem as certain as it once was. In recent days, both the U.S. and Israel have put Damascus on notice, for its role in the recent homicide bombing in Tel Aviv. Syria is in no position to challenge Israel militarily, and now finds its other major adversary (the U.S.) firmly ensconsed in neighboring Syria. Making matters worse, Syria is also next door to Turkey, another powerful country with little use for the Assad regime. Turkey almost went to war with Syria in the late 1990s, and maintains a strong military relationship with both the U.S. and Israel.
So what's a dictator to do? Well, for starters, Damascus has suddenly arrested Saddam's step-brother and more than two dozen other members of the former Iraqi regime, who had set up shop in Syria, and were (reportedly) playing a major role in supporting the insurgency in Iraq. In a police state like Syria, the presence of Saddam's henchmen was well known to intelligence and security officials, who allowed them to operate freely--until now. Why the change? Well, facing a possible visit from the Israeli Air Force (in response to the recent terrorist strike) and growing U.S. ire, the younger Assad decided it was in his interest to round up the Iraqi thugs. Eliminating a major source of funding and support is certainly bad news for the Iraqi insurgency, and Assad's own foreign policy, which is focused on reducing U.S. influence in the Middle East. But, in view of the "alternatives," Bashir was willing to weaken his own hand, and avoid possible military consequences.
Mr. Assad is also making nice in Lebanon, which has been under the Syrian thumb for almost 30 years. Damascus's recent assassination of a former Lebanese Prime Minister has produced an outpouring of anti-Syriun sentiment, unprecedented in that country's recent history. Thousands of Lebanese have taken to the streets, demanding that Syria remove the 15,000 troops that still occupy their nation. In response, Assad has promised that his soliders will leave "in a matter of months."
Will Damascus make good on its promises? Only time will tell. But Mr. Assad is back-pedaling furiously, in an effort to keep his regime out of harm's way. Surrounded by powerful neighbors, and buffeted by demands for democracy, Syria is operating from a position of weakness, rather than strength. The U.S. would be well-advised to keep the pressure on President Assad in the months to come; holding him accountable is the most viable strategy for dealing with that rogue regime and minimizing Syrian mischief in the Middle East.