Assad aims to resolve his country's long-standing dispute with Israel over the Golan Heights and increase Syria's profile in the Arab world (the country has often been at odds with many of its neighbors).
As one of the Arab countries that shares a border with Israel, Syrian forces were involved in both the 1967 and the 1973 Arab-Israeli wars. In 1973, Syria lost control of the Golan Heights, which were officially annexed by Israel in December 1981. Ten years later, Assad's father agreed to engage in a regional peace conference with Israel, in an attempt to recover the Golan Heights. These peace talks have continued on and off over the years, but no agreement has yet been attained. In 2000, just before his death, Assad's father made a final attempt to reach a settlement with Israel, mediated by the United States, but this too was unsuccessful. Assad insists that any final peace agreement be in compliance with all outstanding UN Security Council resolutions, which Israel does not at present recognize. In 2002, Assad backed a Saudi peace initiative that would grant Israel recognition and peace from all of the Arab world in exchange for the return of all land occupied since 1967.
Despite repeated calls for Arab unity, Syria's relations with its neighbors have often been characterized by conflict. Although both the Syrian and the Iraqi regimes subscribe to the Baath ideology (prior to the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003), relations between the two countries were antagonistic for most of the past 20 years. Syrian support for Iran during its war with Iraq caused considerable strain. Despite a reported meeting between the elder Assad and Saddam Hussein of Iraq in April of 1987, relations between the two countries did not improve. Further tension occurred when Syria joined the multinational effort to expel Iraq from Kuwait in 1990.
Syria has long been a major power-broker in Lebanon, which was a part of Syria from the end of World War I until 1926. Syria intervened militarily in Lebanon's civil war in 1976, and since has made repeated attempts to establish a cease-fire among warring factions. Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1982 further escalated hostilities and increased Syria's resolve to exercise its influence in its former territory. In 1989, Michel Aoun, commander-in-chief of the Lebanese army, attempted to drive the Syrian military out of Lebanon. Aoun was defeated by the Syrian army and, in 1990, the Lebanese government implemented the Taif Agreement, which solidified Syria's presence in Lebanon. In 1991, Syria and Lebanon signed a treaty of fraternity and cooperation. Under the terms of the Taif agreement, Syrian troops were to have been withdrawn from Beirut by 1992, but Syria refused to implement this aspect of the accords so long as Israel continued its occupation of southern Lebanon. Following the Israeli pull-out in 2000, it was expected that Syria would comply with the accords, but Syria disputes Israel's claim of having fully removed its forces, a claim officially validated by the United Nations.
Relations with the United States improved when Syria joined the U.S.-led multinational effort to expel Iraq from Kuwait in 1990 and agreed to participate in direct peace talks with Israel in 1991. The warming of relations was short-lived, however. The United States considers Syria a sponsor of international terrorism and Syria has been included on its yearly list of such states since its inception in 1979. Inclusion on the list mandates severe restrictions on access to U.S. markets and trade, particularly access to U.S. military technology.
In response to the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States, President Assad publicly emphasized his country's stance against terrorism. However, he did not offer support for the U.S.-led War on Terror, stating his view that military action is not an effective tactic to use against terrorists. Assad does not consider the militant organizations in Palestine terrorist organizations, and opposes any international efforts to classify them as such.
Syria's official stance toward Iraq had shifted by 2002–03. During the diplomatic crisis leading up to the U.S.-led war in Iraq that began on 19 March 2003, Assad vehemently opposed the use of force to remove Iraqi President Saddam Hussein from power. The only Arab nation sitting on the UN Security Council in 2002–2003, Syria initially opposed Security Council Resolution 1441, which called on Iraq to disarm itself of weapons of mass destruction, to allow for the return of U.N. and International Atomic Energy Agency(I.A.E.A.) weapons inspectors, and to comply with all previous U.N. resolutions regarding the country since the end of the Gulf War in 1991. Syria was then expected to abstain from voting, which would not have stopped the outcome of the vote, but would have indicated disapproval. However, France insisted on language in the resolution that prevented the automatic use of force against Iraq if it were to defy U.N. demands, which caused Syria to vote in favor of the resolution.
As the combat phase of the war was ending in April 2003, the United States accused Syria of producing chemical weapons, possibly seeking to produce biological weapons, harboring terrorists, and offering sanctuary to top Iraqi leaders. It threatened diplomatic, economic, and other sanctions against the "rogue nation." Although U.S. officials stated there were no plans to take military action against Syria, tensions between the two countries were high. However, in early May, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell visited President Assad in an attempt to promote the U.S.backed "road map" for peace between the Israelis and Palestinians, and indicated that they had spoken of all issues of concern. The United States received assurance from Syria that it would close the Damascus offices of Palestinian groups Israel accuses of carrying out terrorist attacks, but no further concrete steps toward ameliorating relations between the United States and Syria were taken. Nonetheless, Powell indicated the United States wanted to "engage" with Syria.