Is Syria Next?

Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld’s recent allegation that Syria is smuggling war materiale into Iraq raised the ominous prospect that Washington’s attention will turn toward Damascus, whenever it is finished with Baghdad.

Rumsfeld’s charge – vehemently denied by Syria – now tops the long list of unresolved issues in Syria’s relations with the United States: its open-ended military intervention in Lebanon; its continued support of Hizbollah there; its alleged involvement in the 1982 suicide attack against the Marines barrack in Beirut resulting in the death of 241 US soldiers; its continued support of various “outlawed” Palestinian groups; and Syria’s allegedly growing stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons.  Indeed, Syria has long been included on the State Department’s list of nations that support terrorism.

For these reasons, Syria risks becoming a potential target for American military adventurism.  Even before the onset of the current hostilities, the possibility was raised by certain members of the Bush Administration (like Richard Perle), and conservative media commentators, all of whom would gladly add Syria to the Axis of Evil.

Recognizing this possibility, the Syrian regime has made clear its opposition to the American war in Iraq, which has been branded by President Assad and other senior officials “a war of aggression”.  Top-level thinking about the risks that Syria runs were recently made clear in an interview that the President gave to a Lebanese newspaper.

President Assad compared the situations in Lebanon and Iraq, insisting that Iraq could achieve what Lebanon had already accomplished two decades before.  Namely, the forced withdrawal by American and British troops in the face of steadfast, bloody Iraqi resistance.  “The US and Britain will not be able to control Iraq,” President Assad asserted.

Declaring that “Arab popular resistance” to the American invasion has spread through the region, referring to the increasing numbers of Arab, including Syrian, “volunteers” that have gone to Iraq to fight alongside the soldiers of Saddam, the President Assad accused the US of wanting “to rearrange the region as it sees fit,” to facilitate control of the region’s oil wealth and accommodate Israeli interests. In response, he called for the enactment of the Arab Mutual Defense Pact.

Recently, the 90-year-old Grand Mufti of Syria, Sheik Ahmad Kiftaro, called on Muslims worldwide to carry out “martyr-operations” against American interests, a call that could not have been made without advance government approval.  It seems that the Syrian regime is painting itself into a dark and dreary corner, a development that could set the grounds for a potential showdown with the US in the not-so-distant future.

This said, however, there is also an unpublicised aspect of Syrian-American relations to consider.  Since September 11th, security cooperation seems to have intensified, with the Syrian intelligence apparatus providing much valuable information on the activities of Muhammad Atta and others suspected of involvement in those attacks and other al-Qaeda activities.  There have even been indications of some Syrian intelligence-sharing with the Americans regarding Iraqi military readiness in the weeks preceding the attacks.

This should not be surprising, for the rulers of Syria over the last thirty years have proven quite skilful at hedging their bets. It is even possible that the regime’s loud anti-American stance might be meant to hide some secret arrangement they have with the Americans, especially regarding the Kurds and the Iraqi opposition members living in Syria.

Nonetheless, if the Americans win in Iraq – which they simply must do in order to maintain their global credibility as a superpower – their relations with their new Syrian neighbours will not be easy. Resolving all outstanding issues is not something that will move quickly.  Additionally, the Syrian view of the Arab-Israeli dispute cannot be glossed over, since Syrian acceptance is necessary for any peaceful settlement.

If the Americans attempt to isolate Syria, they will not have an easy time of it. Damascus maintains good political and economic relations with Russia, China and key EU members, especially France with its continuing paternalistic attitude towards its former colony, and its young president. On the other hand, with Americans controlling Iraq, Syria will find itself surrounded by three unfriendly (if not downright hostile) and allied neighbours: the Americans in the East, and the Turks and Israelis in the north and south, both of which occupy Syrian territories.

Nonetheless, outstanding issues between Syria and the US will be better resolved using smart diplomacy rather than smart bombs. Considering the evidence on display in Iraq, Syrian leaders must be wondering whether the Bush administration is capable of thinking in these terms?  At the same time, will Syria’s new rulers prove capable of striking the kind of Machiavellian bargain for which the late Syrian President, Hafiz Al-Assad, was famous? Well, since the country’s new rulers include many members of the late President’s team, one would think that such a possibility exists. But are the Americans willing to see it?

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