The text of a lecture given at the Woodrow Wilson Center during my first ever visit to Washington, D.C. which also marked my first venture back to the U.S. since I left in September of 1994.
The Syrian Shadow Government and the Possibilities of Change
Syrian-American relations have always been much too complex, despite the fact that they have always been rather minimal. There was hardly a time when the relations between the two countries could be described as warm or cordial, not to mention strong. As such, the current observable lack of good will, to put it mildly, between the two sides is not exactly a new phenomenon or a peculiar development. Rather, there are many outstanding issues in Syrian-American relations that remain unresolved and that have not, in fact, been seriously addressed yet.
Issues such as:
- Syria’s military intervention in Lebanon and 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, usually described as terrorist organizations by the Americans and the Israelis;
- The failure of the Syrian-Israeli peace track, with some blaming the late Syrian President Hafiz Al-Assad for that; and
- The country’s allegedly growing stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons coupled with its potential ability to deliver them by means of short-range missiles (thus posing a potential threat to the security of the state of Israel, as some observers would contend). Still, the facts in this regard are murky to say the least.
As such, and with the US now firmly established in neighboring Iraq, and despite the continuing security headaches it is facing on a daily basis, these issues are bound to be revisited in the near future, perhaps as soon as the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Act is debated for the third or forth time by the US Congress. Or when more fiery anti-US statements are made by some Syrian official, just as the Syrian Foreign Minister did in late July when he described the current US Administration as being “the most violent and foolish” of all previous American administrations.
Due to the apparent inability of the two sides to show the flexibility necessary for reaching workable compromises, the two countries seem to be hurrying along the path towards confrontation. The mini-crisis that was instigated by the Syrian regime’s stands and pronouncements in the early phase of the Iraq invasion, therefore, came more like a prelude or an opening salvo in an ongoing diplomatic showdown that still has, despite the various attempts at tempering off the situation, all the possibilities of leading to an actual military confrontation. Indeed, to some US observers, it seems, the issue is seen in terms of whether Syria’s turn is going to before or after that of Iran.
But, before we delve into an analysis of the nature of the Syrian stances vis-à-vis the US, let us quickly review the events leading to this unequal showdown.
The Iraq Invasion and Aftermath
The immediate causes involved in setting this situation seem to be related to an initial, and admittedly foolish, miscalculation by the Syrian regime. Indeed, it seems that Syria’s rulers have been duped by Iraqi propaganda, not to mention their own wishful thinking, into believing that the war in Iraq could turn into a rather prolonged affair with popular resistance to the “invaders” having the potential of sealing their fate, just as had happened in Lebanon in 1982. No less a figure than the Syrian President, Bashar Al-Assad, himself came out expressing such hopes in the early days of the war, during an interview with the Lebanese newspaper Al-Safir, an interview in which he actually compared the contemporary situation in Iraq with that in Lebanon in 1982, and categorically stated that the US and Britain “will not be able to control Iraq.”
Such sentiments could go a long way in explaining why the Syrian regime was so willing to take the step of allowing Arab fighters, including scores of Syrian volunteers, to go to Iraq via Syria to fight alongside Saddam’s troops, and why Syria’s 90-year-old Grand Mufti, sheik Ahmad Kiftaro, was allowed, at the outset of the war, to issue a call upon the Muslims of the world urging them to carry out “martyr-operations” against American interests.
There was also the allegations that Syria was involved in arms-smuggling to Iraq even as the war unfolded, not to mention the months and years preceding it, and that it might be helping the Iraqi regime hide its stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons, and might even be harboring some high-ranking Iraqi officials, all of which are allegations that Syria vehemently denied at the time. Although, we would later know that Syria did indeed harbor Qusay and Uday for a while, among other Iraqi officials, before sending them back to Iraq under increasing US pressure. Still, and because of these stands and allegations, the Syrian regime would found itself in a very unenviable situation as the war in Iraq drew to a close.
On the other hand, one cannot discount the predisposition of many members in the Bush Administration, including Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and his Deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, and their coterie of advisors, such as Richard Perle, Douglas Feith, and other neocons, to assume a hostile stance vis-à-vis the Syrian regime, as many articles, studies and statements made long before Operation Iraqi Freedom had been launched, reveal. Indeed, Syria had already been included by some as an ‘honorary” member of sorts in the Axis of Evil.
However, not all American officials seem to have been so willing to pick a fight with Syria at that stage, a stance more related perhaps to the existence of a lesser publicized side of Syrian-American relations, rather than some hypothetical deference to international public opinion. We are referring here to the ongoing security co-operation between the two countries, an activity that seems to have intensified in the aftermath of the September 11 Attack, and which seem to continue to this very day. Indeed, the Syrian security apparatus has provided much valuable information to American investigators regarding the activities of Muhammad Atta and others suspected of involvement in plotting the attack and organizing other al-Qaeda activities. Paradoxically enough, there are even indications that some members in the Syrian security apparatus have actually shared intelligence reports regarding Iraq’s military readiness and capabilities with their American counterparts over the weeks preceding the Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Considering this, it should not be surprising that the “soft” faction, with regard to Syrian-US relations, in the Bush Administration seems to include such figures as Secretary of State, Colin Powell, his Deputy, Richard Armitage, and, for a while at least, Bush’s National Security Advisor, Condoleeza Rice, all of whom represent elements in the Bush Administration who have developed much greater affinity with the Syrian political scene over the last two to three years than their counterparts in the Rumsfeld faction.
This division in the Bush Administration with regard to Syria seems to have its parallel in Syria itself, where certain army and intelligence officers are rumored to have developed quite pro-American views in the last few years. Still, if true, this development is better seen more as a reflection of the ongoing power-struggle taking place within the ranks of the country’s shadow government, rather than a sign of political open-mindedness and a desire to embrace some long-awaited liberal reforms.
As the situation unfolded, and following various visits made by American officials to Syria, including a visit by Secretary Powell, and another by a group of American Congressmen, it seems that the Syrian regime remained unable to fathom the situation and unable to take actual real steps towards meeting US demands, which included: halting the activities of radical Palestinian groups in Syria, muzzling Hizbollah, more de-engagement with regard to the Situation in Lebanon, and, to a lesser extent, undertaking certain internal liberal reforms.
The Syrian regime, it seems, was simply unable to accommodate any of these demands, despite the fact that the pressures on it to do so are real and continuous, and despite the fact that many high-ranking Syrian officials seem to understand that the American threat of intervention is real. On the contrary, the Syrian regime, no matter how unbelievable this might sound, seems to be falling back once again on the wishful thought that continuing Iraqi resistance coupled with growing potential for a civil war in Iraq, and the various nightmare scenarios that this would entail for coalition forces, would somehow replicate the ’82 American Lebanese experience. Contrary to what happened with Operation Iraqi Freedom, when every passing day belied this expectation on part of the Syrian regime, currently, every day that passes, and America’s continuing bewilderment in Iraq, seems to justify this new old attitude adopted by the Syrians.
On July 27, the Syrian Foreign Minister, Farouq Al-Sharaa, and in a special meeting with Syrian journalists held on their anniversary, articulated the Syrian regime’s stand in very frank, even offensive, terms.
- With regard to the peace process, Minister Al-Sharaa complained that the US and “for the first time” since the launching of the process, is “laying out conditions” on Syria’s entry into it, which, to him, meant that Washington “does not want Syria in the process,” and that it wants to “liquidate the Palestinian cause.” As for the Road Map, the Minister noted that it does not refer clearly to either Syria or Lebanon, and asserted that Syria does not accept being “marginalized.”
- On Lebanon, the Minister said that the US is seeking to “organically separate the two countries,” and that the “dismantling of Hizbollah” would open the doors once again for Israeli intervention in Lebanon leading to a reawakening of sectarian instincts and a return to civil war.
- The Minister then noted that his country is undergoing tough international pressures not seen since the “16th Century.” Nonetheless, the Minister was referring here to the aborted intervention by Deputy Secretary of State, John Bolton, on alleged Syrian WMD capacities, and the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Act. The very name of this Act, gives the impression that congressional laws are “heavenly” decrees and should be acknowledged even at the expense of international legitimacy.
- As for the Bush Administration, the Minister described it, s we have noted earlier, as “the most violent and foolish” of all previous US administrations, and that there is no difference between the hawks and the doves except in “the degree of violence” they are willing to espouse. “The Americans only like those who bow to them,” the Minister said. “If you do not bow to them, they’ll cross out your name.”
On the other hand, and with regard to internal reforms, the Syrian government has made several interesting pronouncements: including one on July 8 to the effect that the Baath Party will not interfere in the daily management of the country, and that its role is mainly to set the overall guidelines for governance. Coupled with a decision to cancel the military uniform that school kids had to wear for the last thirty-some years replacing it with a civil one, and the pronouncement by the President that a new government will be formed soon, some observers of Syrian politics hinted at the possibility of serious internal reforms being underway, and that the potential of a coup from the top should not be ruled out.
Nothing could be farther from the truth. For as any serious observer of Syrian politics knows, it is not the civilian government that matters in Syria. In fact, not even the Baath Party matters in Syria, except as an instrument of control. What really matters is the shadow government itself. Unless there is a change in the mentality and not simply the ranks of this government, nothing could ever change. The members of the Shadow Government set the tone for everything in Syria, and it is indeed, their corruption and their clinging to power that undermine any possibility of reform and liberalization.
But, what does all this mean? What is one to make of this situation?
The Shadow Government and its Constituents
At one point, and in one of the various international conferences on regional security that get held often these days, I advocated the use of what I described as diplomatic rather military surgical strikes for dealing with the Syria regime, an approach that called for the creation of manageable diplomatic crisis-situations that can be sued to obtain various concessions from the Syrian regime gradually driving it in the direction most suitable for American interests in the region.
The reasoning behind this approach was based on the following points:
- The fact that many European leaders, including Tony Blair seem to have been horrified by the prospects that the US might actually invade Syria.
- The existence of certain factions within the current US Administration that oppose a military intervention in Syria.
- The continuing security cooperation between the two countries with regard to the war on terrorism.
- The potential higher cost of such an intervention, both materially and in terms of human costs, seeing that Syria is not under any sort of embargo these days, and that its army would not prove as helpless as the Iraqi army had proven,
- The real potential for WMD use in this case.
- The possibility of dragging Israel in, not to mention Lebanon and Turkey.
- The possibility of a direct Iranian involvement here, because they are bound to realize that they will be next.
The idea for a diplomatic surgical strikes was also based on the key assumption, belied by subsequent developments, that the Syrian regime will prove more pragmatic and flexible than the Iraqi regime had been, and as such, will prove willing and capable of making the necessary concessions and compromises demanded of it by the Americans and by current international and regional realities. This approach was then meant to help the regime survive through change, a change that it could not have adopted or envisioned if left solely to its own devices. This also would have helped the Syrian people as well, because US involvement into guiding this change would have been, hopefully, translated into more political and economic openness.
Be that as it may, the recent pronouncements by the Syrian Foreign Minister, quoted above, and which seem to reflect the Syrian Government attitude so far, make it quite clear that this is not the case. This regime, it seems, has become too hardened and set in its ways to show the necessary flexibility for survival in the contemporary world, not to mention the post-American intervention ME.
But, before we deal with the consequences of this position, which may not be as clear as some might think, it might of use to ask ourselves the important question of why? Why has the Syrian regime become so inflexible? What is exactly involved here: ideology? Stupidity? Principle? Or what?
I believe the following factors are involved in this situation:
With regard to Lebanon, the Syrian shadow government and dependent clique have too many interests, economical and otherwise, in the country to be simply ordered out.
As for Hizbollah, it seems that after the passing of Hafiz Al-Assad, there has occurred a policy-shift in Syria, a policy-shift advocated, it seems, by Minister Al-Sharaa and Syrian Vice-President, Abdulhaleem Khaddam, and wholeheartedly adopted by the new Syrian President. This policy-shift changed the status of Hizbollah from being a simple bargaining chip in any potential talks with Israel, into Syria’s major line of defense against the Jewish State. This is why arms supply to Hizbollah increased so drastically in the months following President Bashar accession to power, and Hizbollah became more of a partner of the Syrian regime than a tool wielded by it.
This being the case, Syria’s relations with Hizbollah became a mater of national security, and the Syrian regime cannot be simply asked to sever ties with it. The importance of the sectarian dimension involved in this matter, namely: the fact that most members of the Syrian Shadow Government and Hizbollah belong to the same Islamic current, that is, the Shia current, should not be underestimated.
The issue of the Palestinian groups, on the other hand, is related to the fact that these groups still constitute important bargaining chips for Syria in its relations with Israel. Moreover, their existence helps pacify Syria’s Palestinian refugees.
On the internal front, the status quo beneficiaries in Syria seem to be firmly in control of the situation at this stage and have ample reasons not to seek any major internal changes. Indeed, Syria has long been a cash cow for these people, and the system that has been elaborated over the preceding years and decades seems to be still functioning perfectly well as far as they are concerned.
Besides, most decision makers involved (and this is a very important point that is often neglected by regional and international experts on Syrian affairs) have neither the vision, nor the skills, nor the know-how to invent a new system or function in a more open one, a fact of which they seem to be quite aware. For most of these people come from very traditional, even rural background, and they were mostly educated, if at all, in military academies, not exactly the kind of institutions that can give birth to creative minds and visionaries in the current context of ME politics.
Furthermore, most of these people lack serious exposure to western culture and values. This is a handicap that they seem to successfully pass on to their children, who constitute the major pool for selecting the future leaders of the country. It is for this reason that Bashar Al-Assad should not be compared to the new Jordanian, Moroccan or Bahraini leaders. He has a completely different background.
If the last three years prove anything it is that the majority of Syria’s decision makers seem to be convinced that a far reaching reform process could seriously jeopardize their hold on power (i.e. the political and economic reins of the country). As such, the very “survival instincts” of Syria’s rulers seem to dissuade them from embarking on a major reform process. Even the so-called reformers seem to be mostly comprised of younger officials who simply want a greater share of the pie, and whose own tactics often make it virtually impossible for serious and sincere reformers to effect any significant changes. Change from within in these circumstances seem highly unlikely, an observation that holds true as well to certain foreign policy issues, especially with regard to Syrian-Israeli relations and the Arab-Israeli Conflict in general, where the maintenance of a “populist” stand remains a major, if not the only, source of legitimacy for the rulers.
Another important consideration with regard to the internal front is the sectarian situation in the country. There is indeed a genuine fear on part of the ruling establishment that any attempt at “liberalizing” the system could bring with it a whole set of accountability issues regarding past misdeeds, including the 82 Hama Massacres, and could offset the fragile sectarian balance in the country. The people who would be more hurt by this are the members of the Alawite sect, who control the army and, thus, the political process of the country, this despite the fact that the Alawites in Syria represent less than 8% of the population, while the Sunnis represent more than 70%.
This is not then like the situation in Lebanon where there is only a few percentage points separating one major sect from the other. Unlike the political situation in Lebanon, the issue of sectarianism in Syria as never been publicly discussed before. There has never been any formal political agreement that can justify the existing situation in the country. The Alawites took over the Baath Party then took over the reigns of power in Syria, and they held on to their position. Although there is a lot of blame to go around for this situation, the reality remains that the Alawites will be singled out for blame by the majority of the Syrians, when blame is due. And the Alawites know it, especially the Alawite member of the Shadow Government.
And yet another point to consider here is the current diffusion of the decision-making process within the ranks of the Shadow Government. Each member of the group sees himself as an equal to all others, including the new President, and does not, consequently, hold himself accountable to any of them. Each person, therefore, takes care of business independently from the others without any mechanism for consultation or solving disputes. Creating a new consensus in these conditions has so far proven impossible, which is why the Syrian regime keeps lapsing back on old positions and rhetoric.
Finally, the role of ideology in this situation cannot be completely set aside. Official Socialism and Arab Nationalism, mixed together in the form of Baathism, and increasingly laced throughout the 1990s with a major dosage of Syrian Nationalism, will always make it difficult for the Syrian leadership to accommodate America’s demands.
Taking all this into account, we are forced to conclude that increasing pressures on the Syrian regime at this stage will only lead to an all out confrontation. If the US is not ready to face this eventuality, that is, if it is not ready to launch Operation Syrian Freedom, then it would better halt its current diplomatic campaign against Syria.
On the other hand, trying to coax the Syrian regime into accommodating demands by providing some sort of a carrot, as some might suggest, will also fail to work. After all, wolves, or lions as the case may be, do not eat carrots. In other words, greed will not work when people feel that their very survival is at stake.
The Syrian regime at this stage could only behave like the Iraqi regime had done in the past, that is, when pressured, they will bunker down, attempt to take the blow, and try to raise national resistance.
The question is: Is the United States willing to deal with such a situation? Are there alternative ways for dealing with the Syrian regime at this stage?
Ammar Abdulhamid, Project Coordinator, DarEmar, a small publishing house that also serves as an unofficial NGO seeking to raise awareness with regard to issues such as civil society, minority rights and democratization.
These remarks were prepared by Ammar Abdulhamid; the opinions in no way represent the views or opinions of the Woodrow Wilson International Center.