Global Policy Forum

Threatened by the US and by Internal Opposition


By Paul-Marie de La Gorce*

Le Monde diplomatique
July 2004

Ever since the United States invaded Iraq, Syria has been convinced that one of the main aims of the war was the complete encirclement of Syria-Lebanon-Palestine, a process that started when Turkey and Israel concluded a strategic partnership under the aegis of the US. More than a year later the authorities in Damascus are just as convinced they have been surrounded. This explains the policy adopted by President Bashar al-Assad and his government, the decisions they have taken to prevent the risk of an imminent trial of strength and the importance they attach to defending positions essential to Syria's independence.

Even before the war was over, the US started clarifying its threats. On 28 March 2003 the Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, accused Syria and Iran of helping the Iraqi army. A few days later President George Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, repeated the same accusations and warnings, but focused exclusively on Syria. On 3 May the Secretary of State, Colin Powell, visited Damascus to make the US case quite clear.

This episode forced Syria's leaders to accept the possibility of a decisive confrontation with the US. That eventuality now underpins their analysis of the region's future and the risks facing Syria. However careful they may be about what they actually say, they make no secret of the fact that, in their opinion, the US administration could provoke a stand-off designed to overthrow the present regime. The aim would be to replace it with political leaders committed to long-term collaboration with the US.

To justify their conclusions Damascus points out that immediately after the 9/11 attacks Washington lumped together states suspected of helping, sheltering or tolerating international terrorist organisations with countries already equipped with weapons of mass destruction and those producing or in the process of acquiring them. The State Department still has Syria on its list of states suspected of supporting terrorist activities and regularly criticises its weapons programme. Syria consequently assessed the risks to which it was exposed and implemented a mitigation policy.

When fighting ended last year in Iraq, Syria's leaders started wondering whether the US administration would, for whatever reason, turn its forces against Syria as a follow-up to the campaign in Iraq. The warnings issued by Rumsfeld and Rice lent credence to this and the rapid US victory over Iraq encouraged observers in Damascus and elsewhere to think the US army was invincible.

However, it soon became clear that, because of their limited numbers, the forces in Iraq would have to concentrate all their attention on occupying and administering the country and enforcing law and order. They soon had to cope with the first attacks by insurgents. Meanwhile Washington repeated its threat of sanctions if Syria did not change its ways. This marked the start of considerable pressure on Syria, with the prospect of escalation into a crisis. Syria's leaders did nevertheless have time to adapt their policies.

US demands focused mainly on four points. The Syrian government was being too lax with Damascus-based Palestinian organisations classified as terrorists by the US. The US accused Syria of assisting the Lebanese Hizbullah, also labelled as a terrorist organisation and suspected of harbouring plans to harass Israel again, if circumstances required. Syria was also being over-hospitable to former members of the Ba'athist regime in Iraq seeking refuge, who might well be tempted to resume the fight against US occupation. The US reiterated its accusation that Syria was trying to acquire WMDs, either by developing them in its arms factories or by purchase from other countries.

The first three complaints related to the overall situation in the Middle East and the Syrian government concluded that it had some room for manoeuvre. The last point, however, concerned Syria's sovereign right to decide and act as it chose and its ability to defend itself. It therefore concluded that here was a red line not to be crossed, something the US would have to accept.

The decisions that followed obeyed the same rationale. The authorities instructed Palestinian organisations in Damascus to move out or restrict their public activities. Similarly they asked Iraqi notables seeking asylum in Syria and their entourages to leave. The military decided to substantially reduce its forces in Lebanon, pulling them back to the Bekaa valley, preventing involvement in any resumption of Hizbullah attacks in the south and averting any accusation of meddling in Lebanese affairs.

Assad also made it known that he would neither oppose, criticise nor otherwise intervene in decisions by the Palestinian Authority in its negotiations with Israel.

Washington soon reacted to this change of tack. The most significant result came in Congress. Initially it was announced that on 15 July 2003 the undersecretary of state, John Bolton, would be presenting a tough report on the Syrian issue containing threats towards Damascus. Then publication of the report was postponed. The State Department, determined to keep options open for negotiation, had decided it went too far.

However on 22 July the New York Times published leaked information on possible Syrian development of chemical and biological weapons and Bolton finally presented his report to Congress without it being clear how much he had toned it down. He accused Syria of failing to provide a satisfactory response to US demands. It consequently represented a potential source of assistance for international terrorism, a threat to the independence of Lebanon and a danger for the whole region if it continued its WMD programmes.

Sanctions against Syria were therefore considered to be justified. On 11 November Congress passed the Syria Accountability Act authorising the US president to issue, when he saw fit, sanctions on a par with the danger that Syria represented according to Washington.

The Syrian authorities concluded that the US administration was divided into two factions, neither of which had prevailed. One group thought a crisis should be provoked at the earliest opportunity to create difficulties for the Ba'athist regime, with drastic sanctions or even military pressure, ultimately causing its downfall. The other, probably more influential, group, advocated isolating Syria and preventing it from influencing Middle Eastern affairs, and by extension any political settlements elsewhere in the area.

On the whole Syria's leaders concluded that they had achieved their aims. There was no immediate military threat to their country, the sanctions authorised by Congress had not yet been adopted and Damascus still enjoyed the sovereign right to decide its own policy and means of defence. A brief period of optimism followed.

The US, embroiled in Iraq with an increasingly active resistance movement, seemed unlikely to add to its problems by embarking on any other adventures.

Washington postponed its sanctions twice. The first time was after the assassination of the Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmad Yassin, on 22 March 2004, which threatened to trigger serious disturbances all over the Middle East. The second time coincided with a sudden deterioration in the position of US forces in Iraq caused by the crisis in Falluja, raising fears of a widespread uprising. The further delay ignored public claims by the army spokesperson on the spot that Iraqi insurgents were receiving assistance from across the Syrian border.

All this led the authorities in Damascus to suppose that the less hostile faction had gained the upper hand in Washington and that it might even be possible to stabilise relations.

What happened next contradicted this assumption. In March there were serious disturbances in the Kurdish area bordering Iraq. The causes were apparently local, but given the traditional role played by Kurds in Syria's economic and political life and the violence of the demonstrations, during which the Syrian flag was burned, the authorities attributed the unrest to underground activity by the Kurdish parties in Iraq allied to the US or directly to US clandestine operations.

On 11 May President Bush finally issued the threatened sanctions. Those affecting air transport are largely theoretical as no Syrian aircraft ever lands in the US. But other measures may have serious consequences. They could block many imports, including products from third states containing more than 10% US components; ban currency transactions (the Commercial Bank of Syria is accused of laundering terrorist funds); and freeze assets belonging to top members of the regime, especially in Lebanon, with unforeseen consequences for Lebanese banks. Sanctions may also affect the large Syrian community in North America.

However, US treatment of the projected partnership agreement between Syria and the European Union was much more aggressive. Or so we must assume. No one in Damascus is in any doubt that the US was behind the moves by Britain and the Netherlands, then Germany, and ultimately, on 25 May, all 25 EU members, demanding that the agreement should be subject to the condition that Syria drop all its WMD programmes. There has never been any mention of such a clause in any previous agreement between the EU and other states. The Syrian government saw it as a clear attack on its interests, but also proof of the effectiveness of US pressure on the EU, assisted by governments traditionally or occasionally aligned with Washington.

Since then Syria has taken the possibility of open confrontation seriously. The most likely, but also perhaps the worst-case scenario, starts with the shock to all Shia communities in the Middle East, above all in Iran, caused by the attacks by US forces on Kerbala and Najaf and a possible resumption of hostilities between them and the Shia resistance in Iraq. In this case the Lebanese Hizbullah, either acting on its own initiative or on instructions from the Iranian government, might retaliate with more direct assistance to the Palestinian resistance.

There can be no doubt as to how the Israeli government would react. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has already warned that he would hold Syria responsible for anything that Hizbullah did. The response by the Israeli military would target Syrian forces in Lebanon directly, perhaps even military or industrial facilities in Syria itself. This seems the most likely danger facing Syria.

It was the Iraqi resistance that did most to discourage the US from launching any large-scale attacks on neighbouring countries. Syria's leaders are the first to acknowledge this. Their decisions also helped to avoid any risk of immediate confrontation. But they know they are walking along a ridge with an abyss on either side.

If they will not accept limits to their political and military autonomy, refusing to shelve their weapons programme, however limited it may be (while Israel goes on developing its nuclear weapons), they run the risk of being subjected to even greater pressure and bearing the brunt of further US initiatives. But if they give in, it would undermine the position the regime has held for decades. The authority it enjoys at home and abroad is based on uncompromising nationalism and the determination to remain independent.

About the Author: M. Paul-Marie de La Gorce is a journalist and author of Le Dernier Empire: Le XXIe sií¨cle sera-t-il américain? (Grasset, Paris, 1996)

More Information on Empire?
More Information on US Military Expansion and Intervention


FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.