The Wisdom of Syria’s Waiting Game

Foreign Policy Under the Assads

October 2013 9781849042864 244pp


Syrian foreign policy, always opaque, has become an even greater puzzle during the Syrian revolt. Irrespective of the regime’s international isolation in the wake of its violent response to domestic protest, it has paid lip-service to international peace plans while unperturbedly crushing the rebellion. The rare televised appearances of President Assad have shown a leader detached from reality. Has he—in his own words—‘gone crazy’? In this book long-time Syria analyst and former diplomat Bente Scheller contends that Bashar Assad’s deadly waiting game is following its own logic: whatever difficulties the Syrian regime has faced, its previous experience has been that it can simply sit out the current crisis.

The difference this time is that Syria faces a double crisis—internal and external. While Hafez Assad, renowned as an astute politician, adapted to new challenges, his son, Bashar, seems to have no alternative plan of action.

Scheller’s timely book analyses Syrian foreign policy after the global upheavals of 1989, which was at the time a glorious new beginning for the regime. She shows how Bashar Assad, by ignoring change both inside Syria and in the region, has sacrificed his father’s focus on national security in favour of a policy of regime survival and offers a candid analysis of the successes and shortcomings of Syrian foreign policy in recent years.


‘An excellent analysis of Syrian foreign policy under Hafez and Bashar al-Assad, and how Assad senior succeeded in making Syria’s foreign policy a bargaining chip in stabilising his rule domestically. Bente Scheller’s book also give us a comprehensive understanding of how the personal character of Syria’s leaders have been reflected in their foreign policy decisions.’ — Radwan Ziadeh, co-founder and executive director of the Syrian Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Washington, D.C. and author of Power and Policy in Syria

‘Bente Scheller has written a timely and sober analysis of Syrian foreign policy. Anyone interested in understanding why the Assads have lasted for over 40 years and why their missteps led to the revolt of 2011 should read this book.’ — Joshua M. Landis, Director, Center for Middle East Studies, University of Oklahoma, and author of

‘An excellent and groundbreaking study, filling an important gap in Syria studies. Scheller’s work provides essential insights into what one can expect of the present Syrian Ba’th regime with regard to its suppression of the Syrian Revolution. It is a very timely account of how the Syrian regime, despite periods of deep crisis and heavy foreign pressures, has managed, for decades, to stay in power. Scheller eloquently explains the complex and shifting relations between Syria, its regional neighbours and the world. This book is a must-read for those seriously interested in Syria.’ — Nikolaos van Dam, author of The Struggle for Power in Syria: Politics and Society under Asad and the Ba’th Party

‘This exquisite volume is remarkable for its lasting value. We are all struggling to keep up with the speed of events in Syria — what an analyst writes one day is obsolete the next. Scheller, by contrast, writes about the authentic rather than the transitory, the original rather than the derivative, and her book will be useful for years. Obligatory for researchers, scholars, and decision makers involved in the future Syria.’ — Wael Sawah, Syrian journalist and writer

‘Identifying the main elements of the Assad regime’s foreign policy rationale over decades is crucial to understanding its current struggle; as Bente Scheller thoroughly demonstrates, the quest was never about ideology and always about longevity. A very timely book providing a wealth of details on key stages with most of the region’s players, and lucid insights on analogies with Assad’s ongoing repression of the massive Syrian uprising.’ — Rime Allaf, Syrian writer and broadcaster

‘A much needed breath of fresh air. Finally, we find a well thought through, well researched and beautifully written book on the nearly three-year Syrian Revolt. Bente Scheller, an A-class Syria expert, has written a volume that is intended to last long after the curtain falls on the Syrian Revolt. In foreign policy she has chosen the most unconventional topic for a country at war, analysing how and why Syria has reached its current state of affairs. Scheller delves deep into domestic factors, too, brilliantly interweaving them with the aspirations, fears, and ambitions of the Damascus government — how they influence foreign policy and are influenced by it. This book is a must for the Middle East library, making Bente Scheller Europe’s finest Syria expert.’ — Sami Moubayed, Syrian historian and visiting scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center (Beirut)

‘…topical and timely… a comprehensive understanding of how the personal character of Syria’s leaders has been reflected in their foreign policy decisions.’ — The Muslim World Book Review

‘The author of this excellent and timely book has good credentials as a Syria expert.… The detailed chapters…contain some well-researched and useful insights into the regime’s approach…This is an important read for anyone trying to get to grips with the complexities of the Syrian conflict.’ — Asian Affairs

‘ … a well-referenced analysis of Syria’s foreign policy from the 1990s [that] pins down the right questions that inform Syria’s foreign policy choices.’ — International Affairs

‘Balanced, well-researched and authored by someone who lived and worked in Syria for years and is now based in Lebanon, Scheller’s book steps back from humanitarian considerations and the endless debate on the dangers of jihadism and asks whether, logically and based on prior experience, any sort of diplomatic effort could actually achieve real gains.’ — Italian Insider

‘… a well-crafted and insightful book that will prove useful in understanding the current Syrian regime and its unique ability to survive in the stormy seas of the present-day Middle East.’ — Dimitar Mihaylov, Bulgarian Ambassador to Israel and former head of Bulgarian Mission in Damascus, The Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs






Bente Scheller is Director of the Beirut based Middle East office of Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, a political foundation close to the German Green Party, and Marshall Memorial Fellow of the German Marshall Fund of the United States. She holds a PhD from Free University of Berlin and specialises in foreign and security policy. Between 2002 and 2004 she was posted at the German Embassy in Damascus.

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