Syria has long presented a solemn problem for the region, US foreign policy and Israel. Its mix of competing religious and ethnic groups, radical ideologies and political repression makes it a 72,000-square-mile time bomb waiting to explode.
This reality has become increasingly self-evident since Bashar Assad took over for his father Hafez in 2000. In his latest book, The Truth about Syria, Barry Rubin, director of the Global Research in International Affairs Center, dissects some of the volatile and enigmatic issues we confront when dealing with Syria.
Of late, after an alleged IAF attack on Syria, the northern border is heating up as Assad looks for an excuse to open an active front against Israel. The aftermath of the attack could help rally support for Assad, including the popular vote he desperately needs.
Rubin's essential point is that Syria is not radical as a result of mistreatment by the West or Israel, but because the regime needs radicalism to endure.
Syria is governed by a small, Alawite minority dictatorship that restricts its approximately 19 million citizens' freedoms and opportunities for advancement. Demagoguery is essential to the regime's survival as it justifies the scapegoating of America and Israel, the abuse of Lebanon and a destabilized Iraq. All these elements boost the Syrian ego and morale.
Assad today is one of the biggest supporters of Islamism in the region, even as he heads a secular Arab regime. Furthermore, Assad uses his support of Islamism to mobilize and bolster animosity toward America and Israel, thus diverting attention from Syria's internal problems of corruption, a crumbling economy and a lack of civil rights. Despite Syria's woeful performance, this has been a splendid strategy.
Understanding this is key to realizing that Bashar's talk and intentions for peace are worthless, and therefore, we have to be careful not to fall into his trap - he is an Islamist.
Moreover, since Bashar was not his father's chosen heir one might think that he would have been less devoted to the cause. But after his elder brother's death in 1994, Bashar, an ophthalmologist, was called back from London to report for duty and was put on a fast-track dictatorship tutorial.
Nonetheless, Rubin explains how Bashar's inexperience and brashness come to life in his governing style as well as his belief that he can do whatever he pleases without any consequences.
Unlike Bashar, Rubin writes, Hafez Assad did not need to prove anything to anyone: "He was a career military officer, a pilot, a real military commander, a political conspirator who outmaneuvered dangerous rivals to seize total power." Bashar does not even come close to his father's governing let alone the fear he engendered throughout the country.
Bashar was Hafez's only son educated outside of Syria. Despite his Western influence, however, he hasn't taken the country in that direction. Unlike his peer, King Abdullah II of Jordan, he has put pan-Arabism before economic vitality through strengthened ties with the US and Israel.
Rubin illustrates how Syria's Achilles' heel is its military weakness; though there has been much talk about the possibility of renewed Russian aircraft and missile sales, Syria's military is badly outdated. Furthermore, Syria has no superpower as an ally and it cannot depend on a single Arab government. Most of the regime's threats and its use of terrorism, however, act as a smoke screen to distract from this reality.
As for Syria's objectives in the Golan Heights, the real issue is whether or not there would be lasting peace if Syria were to get control of the territory, and if so, would Syria be able to justify its military leadership and failing economy? It is these and other questions that Rubin examines in his book, revealing the regime's true intentions.
Rubin clearly shows that Bashar views the world from a pan-Arabist lens that calls for Israel's destruction. In Bashar's version of history, he writes, three generations of Arabs fought Israel and lost but - though Westerners might expect that the desire to fight would decrease due to repeated failure and high cost - now Bashar proudly proclaims that a fourth generation is eager for more battle, and the desire for struggle is in fact increasing over time.
This battle cry was bolstered after the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri cost Bashar the support of his Arab brothers as well as France. To regain approval in the Arab world and boost his regime at home, Bashar is counting on a war with Israel. Or more precisely, he believes that the threat of a war will force Israel to beg the US to facilitate peace negotiations.
Such negotiations will inevitably raise the demand to legitimize the Syrian presence in Lebanon, stop investigation of the Hariri murder and grant other concessions. And like the past peace talks they will likely lead to another dead end.
So Bashar is caught in a gamble; he hopes that defiance of Washington will strengthen his position at home in conjunction with his ties with Iran, Hizbullah and al-Qaida - and that when President George W. Bush leaves office, US policy toward Syria will soften.
In this vein, Syria under Bashar Assad is even more dangerous than it was under his father because he is so unpredictable and lacks the support of his father's old guard.
There is no doubt that Syria is a wild card in the region. To better understand it, one should read Rubin's book, a guide to the country's complexities and nuances. His vast knowledge and experience of the Middle East have produced a much needed examination of a significant state.
The writer is an associate fellow at the Middle East Forum and manager of Israel and Middle East affairs for the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia.