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The Syrian factor

Ali Shukri
16 April 2003

Since the start of the war on Iraq, Syria has been a mere sideshow. But in its immediate aftermath, the Syrian factor has been addressed by senior officials of the Bush administration.

On 28 March, US secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld sent a stern warning to Syria, accusing it of shipping Russian-made military hardware to Iraq. On 6 April, his deputy Paul Wolfowitz stated that Syria must change and warned it to stop using terror as part of its national policy. US military sources indicated that the hardware that Syria is alleged to have supplied Iraq included night goggles and sophisticated Kornet anti-tank laser guided missiles. These missiles are deadly weapons if used against the coalition forces.

Syria and terrorism

What to do about Syria has thus become a burning question for both America and Britain. Syria maintains very strong relations with the Islamic Republic of Iran and has done so for the last twenty-four years. In the eyes of the Americans, Syria is strongly affiliated with the ‘axis of evil’ while Iran continues to be the main pillar of support for the Hizbollah organisation in south Lebanon, which was founded to fight Israel through a mutual agreement between Syria and Iran. Military hardware is shipped to Hizbollah from Iran through Syria. Hizbollah is considered a terrorist organisation by the US administration. Syria is thus considered as a state which sponsors terror. These are very serious accusations.

The late Syrian president, Hafiz al-Assad, considered Hizbollah to be a strong card. He used this small and predominantly Shi’a organization to wage a guerrilla-type war against Israel in southern Lebanon and later, after the 1991 Gulf war, to apply pressure on Israel while peace negotiations were in progress. He never thought that this card would turn from a valuable asset into a heavy liability. But this is precisely what happened in the aftermath of 9/11.

The US administration believes that Hizbollah is a serious threat to the security of Israel and in the long run to its own. It believes that it is only a matter of time before Hizbollah would start to carry out transnational operations. In October 1983 US Marines lost 242 soldiers in a suicide attack in Lebanon carried out by a Hizbollah member. This attack ushered the new era of suicide attacks in the Middle East.

Syria also continues to provide a safe haven to Islamic Jihad which is likewise considered a terrorist organisation by the US administration. This radical Islamic group is responsible for many suicide attacks against Israeli civilians. It firmly denies Israel’s right to exist and rejects any negotiations or compromise with the Jewish state.

Moreover, Syria provides a home for the radical secular factions of the PLO. Six Palestinian organisations, all belonging to the ‘rejectionist’ front against Israel, operate out of Damascus. Yasser Arafat continuously complains about them to Arab leaders, and his complaints are echoed in Washington. The presence of these groups is one of the main reasons why Arafat failed to reach an agreement with Ehud Barak, then prime minister of Israel, at the Camp David summit in July 2000.

The political leadership of Hamas, the Islamic resistance movement continues to operate freely between Damascus and Tehran after it was thrown out of Jordan in 2001. But the really serious accusations came when Syria was accused of providing a ‘safe haven’ to the Iraqi leadership who fled the country during the war of March-April 2003. Syria denies this.

The pressure now is on Syria to sever its links with all these organisations and disengage itself from any terrorist group operating in the region. The US may ask the Syrian government to hand over all Iraqis who appear on its ‘most wanted’ list. This would put the young president, Bashar al-Assad, in a severe quandary.

Bashar’s predicament is that he wants to move away from the legacy of his father, to carry out reforms, and to modernise Syria. But the institutions and personalities of the old regime are still in place, hindering this process.

The US and Syria: high expectations

The US has high expectations of Syria. The list of American demands on Syria is long and heavy. The latter is expected to play a positive role in the new Middle East. It has to revive the peace negotiations with Israel and bring them to a successful conclusion. It has to start a democratisation process which moves the country away from a one-party system. Its economy has to be totally restructured away from the current model of state control. Its 40,000-strong army has to get out of Lebanon. Syria should improve its relations with Turkey and show no animosity towards the new Iraqi regime. It should abandon its spoiling role in any Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. It should abandon any programmes to produce chemical or biological weapons.

Syria is now in a difficult position – indeed, practically boxed in. The US military is present in the entire Gulf region, in Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Iraq, and Israel; control over Syria and Lebanon would complete its military dominance in the Middle East. After 11 September 2001, the US policy of pre-emption dictates that military power should be used immediately to avoid another catastrophe on the American homeland or another deadly attack on US interests worldwide.

These, then, are testing times for Bashar al-Assad. Much as he would like to, he has not succeeded yet in freeing himself from the shackles of the old guard that he inherited from his father. He needs all the help he can get to begin a process of positive change in Syria; I personally know that this is at the top of his agenda.

Bashar’s meeting in Britain with Tony Blair (and Queen Elizabeth of the United Kingdom) was a good beginning. Britain’s approach has been a fairly soft one, designed to help Bashar effect a change that will be in the best interest of the Syrian population and the region as a whole. America’s approach, by contrast, is rather heavy-handed. It relies solely on threats of military reprisals and it offers no encouragement to the Syrian president.

US officials might, instead, be well advised to follow Theodore Roosevelt’s motto: “speak softly but carry a big stick”. The approach of the current administration seems rather to be “stick or no stick”, with no carrots in sight.

Syria, in its own right, has to embark on a quick and serious reform programme before it becomes the next US target in the region. But equally, an intelligent American policy would be to consult Britain for advice on how best to deal with Syria before serious mistakes lead to escalating conflict in the region. The allies have made many new enemies in the region as a result of their invasion of Iraq. They should avoid making more enemies than is strictly necessary.

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