Is Syria Next?
The Fork in the Road for Bush and Blair
Tuesday 15 April 2003
"I have made it clear, and I repeat, that Syria is not next on the list','' declared Jack Straw, the British foreign secretary, on Monday in a tone that sounded anything but confident. His nervousness was understandable, for Syria seems all too clearly in the American sights, as over the weekend, starting with Donald Rumsfeld and going on to the Secretary of State Colin Powell and finally President Bush himself, one warning after another has been sounded against the Syrian regime for harboring Iraqi leaders and having developed weapons of mass destruction of its own.
It was only by the skin of its teeth and Tony Blair's urgings that Syria escaped being included in President Bush's "Axis of Evil speech'' last year. As the countdown to war with Iraq developed this year, Rumsfeld, the US defense secretary, started openly to bracket Syria as a potential enemy. Told about this by an aide fearful of a widening war, President Bush is supposed to have looked up from his papers and simply said "good''.
That is not a view shared by London, where the accession to power in Syria of Bashar Assad, the British-educated son of President Hafez Assad, had in 2000 given rise to fond hopes of a London-Damascus axis to bring peaceful reform to the Middle East. "But Assad and his wife have only recently had tea with the queen,'' gasped a ruffled TV announcer when Washington's war of words began in the middle of last week.
At this moment, the US is probably not planning to direct its armies to wheel left from Baghdad to march on Damascus. But the sense of threat, and the menacing tone of the references to "regime change'', are far too carefully orchestrated to put down to pique at Syria's vociferous and unrelenting denunciation of the invasion of Iraq or specific concerns about escaping Iraqi bigwigs.
That is certainly what the Syrians believe. From the beginning they have seen the US as aiming to redraw the Middle East map, in which Israel's enemies -- most notably Iraq, Syria and Iran in that order -- would be brought to heel or knocked off one by one, if not by direct military action then by the threat of it.
And there is some justification for this fear, if not for the Zionist conspiracy theories that Syria and much of the rest of the Middle East believe in. Regime change not just in Iraq but in the neighboring countries has been a central plank of the security policy developed by Rumsfeld, his deputy Paul Wolfowitz, Vice President Dick Cheney, security adviser Richard Perle and Richard Garner, America's proposed governor of Iraq, a decade ago.
In this view, the root of the problems of terrorism and insecurity in the Middle East lies in the continuance of a series of undemocratic states, supported in the past by Washington, whose interests lie in stirring up trouble abroad and denying Israel's right to exist in order to divert attention from their tyranny at home. Confront these regimes and force change and the Middle East will develop into a peaceful region of democratic states that will cast aside terrorism, recognize Israel and peacefully pursue a course of economic development at home and neighborliness abroad.
Syria, in this world view, is an archetypal baddy. It is a tyranny run by a one-party Baathist regime headed by a small clique committed to the suppression of political dissent and a command economy inside its borders and a confrontation with the US and Israel outside them. Although it sided with the US in the 1991 Gulf War, its threat to regional order has been immeasurably increased by its military presence in Lebanon and its support of Hezbollah there.
If this is indeed the view held by President Bush's inner circle -- and it is a program that has so far been followed to the letter in the war against Iraq -- then it catches Damascus at a peculiarly vulnerable time. Hafez Assad, the Arab world's most astute political operator, had managed through two decades to carve out for Syria an independent role by playing to Arab public opinion with anti-Israeli rhetoric in public and playing off his enemies and neighbors in practice.
Ruthless in his exercise of power, he was also extremely subtle in politics, never taking a position that he could not retreat from or making an enemy he could not later embrace. Yitzhak Rabin regarded him as the one Arab leader who could deliver on his promises, and, had it not been for Rabin's assassination by a Jewish fanatic, there might have been peace between the two countries. Rabin's successors loathed Assad as the hard rock of Arab resistance.
Bashar is a different figure entirely. Never brought up to succeed -- his elder brother Basil, the chosen heir, was killed in a car accident in 1994 -- Bashar came to power in a country that had been prepared for peace and then stood down for continued confrontation. Although he has managed to attract a constituency of young, more pro-Western reformers, he remains distrusted and still heavily circumscribed by the old guard of military and security chiefs. They have allowed him internal economic liberalization, but not a loosening of internal political controls or a radical departure in foreign policy. Tony Blair learned to his cost, in a peace-seeking mission a year ago, that however cordial your relations with Damascus, on the issue of Israel Bashar still has to play hardball. Indeed, after the election of hard-right governments in Israel and the US, the authorities in Damascus moved to tighten control of political dissent and, over the last two years, to re-establish relations with Saddam Hussein. In doing so, it has undoubtedly added ammunition to America's deep distrust.
Whether Syria is really giving aid and comfort to America's defeated enemy or developing chemical weapons on any scale must be doubtful. Personal relations between the Baathists of the two regimes were always closer at the level of the armed forces than the politicians. Syria's rapprochement with Iraq was largely to do with economics, and the illicit trade in oil. Leading Iraqi figures may have fled across the border, but if they have done so it will be through bribes to a corrupt Syrian hierarchy rather than asylum. Equally, it is hard to see Syria as having weapons of mass destruction. Unlike Iraq, it has learned to be extremely reluctant to face military confrontation given the poor state of its armed forces. In a stand-off with Turkey two years ago, it pulled back its troops within weeks.
The dilemma over Syria is the same as in other parts of the Middle East in the post-Sept. 11 world -- to confront or engage. Washington's neo-conservatives can point to the experience of Iraq and say that the people of Syria, and Lebanon for that matter, no less than the Iraqis wish a change that can only be brought about from the outside. The engagers, led by Britain but including most of Europe, can point to a Syrian society that is far more open to foreign contact and economic liberalism than ever Iraq was, and a country that has kept largely to its own outside of Lebanon, where internal divisions have sucked it in to keep the peace. The Baathist regime may not be popular but it has largely kept the country out of trouble for the last 20 years and given the Arabs some pride in its refusal to compromise with Israel. Without the Alawite regime, its delicate balance of competing ethnic groups -- Sunnis, Druzes, Kurds and Christians -- may well descend to the chaos we saw in Lebanon and are witnessing in Iraq.
Engage with Damascus and you can hope for change with some stability. Pull it down and you may threaten to reap the whirlwind. That is the dilemma facing London as it reacts to the chorus of threatening voices coming from Washington. It's a dilemma, however, that seems to trouble Tony Blair far more than President Bush.
American Warnings to Syria Get Serious Attention in the Region
Tuesday 15 April 2003
RIYADH, Saudi Arabia -- Mideast powers, some of them friends of the United States, are taking seriously the possibility of U.S. action against Syria after warnings that Damascus not shelter members of Saddam Hussein's ousted regime or sponsor terrorism.
Iran quickly came to Syria's defense, saying it will employ all nonmilitary means to prevent a U.S. attack on its ally. And Saudi Arabia is hosting a meeting of Iraq's neighbors this week that is expected to discuss the U.S. warnings.
In Damascus, few Syrians understand why President Bush is coming after them. Their country, they feel, has cooperated in the war against terrorism, and gave Arab cover to U.N. Resolution 1441 demanding Saddam disarm or face the consequences.
"They are extremely disappointed," said Maggie Mitchell at the Washington-based Middle East Institute, who recently met with officials in the Syrian capital. "They helped in the fight against al-Qaida and they went against Syrian and Arab public opinion to back a resolution that the United States used to go to war against Iraq."
U.S. officials in the past two days have accused Syria of sheltering Iraqi fugitives, possessing chemical weapons and supporting terrorism.
Secretary of State Colin Powell, while emphasizing that the United States has no plans to go to war with Syria, had this warning: "They should review their actions and their behavior, not only with respect to who gets haven in Syria and weapons of mass destruction, but especially the support of terrorist activity ... We will examine possible measures of a diplomatic, economic or other nature as we move forward."
The Syrians have flatly denied the allegations as misinformation inspired by its archenemy Israel.
"Even the Israelis will pay the price for it in the future if they don't tell their friends in Washington to stop it," Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa said. "They (Americans) shouldn't encourage them ... They are encouraging a very sinister game."
Relations between Syria and the United States have always been uneasy, complicated by Syria's close ties to the Soviet Union during the Cold War era and its hard-line stance on the Mideast peace process.
But despite its outwardly inflexible attitude to the United States, Syria has always been careful to keep the thin diplomatic ties from snapping.
In the 1991 Gulf War, Syria quietly sent troops to join the U.S.-led campaign to oust Iraq from Kuwait. It has shed most of the closed, socialist image that characterized it when it was a Soviet ally.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, Syrian President Bashar Assad sent a warm letter of condolences to Bush, and there was intelligence cooperation on terrorism. Syria has for years been watching the extremist Muslim groups that it had fought in the 1980s.
In November, Syria stunned the Arab world by voting for the U.N. resolution against Iraq.
Complicating matters is that Assad is surrounded by an old guard who helped bring him to power after the death of his father, Hafez Assad, in June 2000. The father took over in a bloodless coup in 1970 and maintained a vast army of secret police and informers. He was accused of jailing thousands of political prisoners without trial.
For the old guard, steeped in the Cold War, close ties with the United States violate core principles of the ruling Baath party and go against the image Syria has cultivated for decades as the champion of Arab rights.
They also aren't giving Assad, an eye doctor who came to power with little political experience, the chance to introduce limited reforms, especially in the economic and financial sectors.
Now, Syria finds itself squeezed from almost all sides: from Washington, the presence of U.S. troops next door in Iraq, Israel to the south and Turkey, with whom Syria has water problems, in the north. Syrian human rights activists say the best way out is toward democracy.
"The government needs to open up to the people and end its policy of repression and subjugation," said Haitham Maleh, a Syrian lawyer and human rights activist.
Turki al-Hamad, a prominent Saudi political analyst, said the United States is likely to hit Syria with a long list of demands, including making peace with Israel, dissolving the ruling Baath party, expelling militant Palestinian groups, ending support for the militant group Hezbollah, and liberalizing the economy.
Those are a series of steps that Syria, hailed by many Arabs as the last bastion of Arab nationalism, may find difficult to follow. "In light of the gross imbalance of powers and the pathetic state of the Arab world, there may not be any other choice," Jadallah Jbaii, a Syrian political analyst, said.
Syria a Friend, Not War Target: Spain
ABC News Australia
Tuedsay 15 April 2003
Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar says Syria, facing stepped-up US pressure, is a friend of his country and will not be the target of any military campaign.
Mr Aznar's comments follow US accusations that Syria is harbouring fugitive Iraqi leaders, developing chemical weapons and supporting terrorism.
"Syria has been and will be a friend of Spain. It will not be the target of any war actions," said Mr Aznar, one of the staunchest supporters of the US-led war in Iraq.
"I am convinced that the conflict will not spread to other countries in the region," he said in Warsaw after meeting Polish Prime Minister Leszek Miller, another staunch US ally.
He says he will talk with Syrian leaders later today or tomorrow.
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