Global Policy Forum

America Knocks at Syria's Nervous Door


By David Hirst *

Daily Star
July 6, 2005

"The Americans won't control their side of the border, accept our offers of collaboration, or allow us the surveillance equipment we need. Then they accuse us of aiding a resistance which, they know, is basically Iraqi, even if some foreign fighters do get across our frontiers, which - they also know - are impossible to seal without an investment of resources way beyond our means."

The hilltop outpost at which an anonymous Syrian commander made this lament was only a few meters high, but it was located in a desert landscape so flat and featureless that, from it, you could look deep into Iraq, across some of the obstacles - berms, barbed wire, concrete blocks in vehicle-friendly wadis, hundreds of observation posts manned by 7,000 soldiers - which Syria has put up along the most desolate, uninhabited, central stretch of its 600-kilometer eastern border. This wasn't proof that Syria is doing its utmost to stop the passage of foreign jihadists into Iraq; the best places for infiltration are the inhabited regions to the north; but it surely meant it was doing something. However, among the diplomats agreeing to go on an unprecedented public relations tour of the border area, the Americans were conspicuously absent. And that, for Syria's Baathist regime, was yet another instance of Washington's "not wanting to know."

The United States may say, as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice did recently, that all it wants is a change in Syrian behavior. A senior Syrian official responds to this: "We have concluded in recent months that they really want to bring us down." European diplomats tend to agree that the apparently systematic refusal to engage the Syrian regime at any level reflects the influence of the Bush administration's neoconservative hawks, for whom the regime of President Bashar Assad is a prime candidate in a grand design for regime change throughout the Middle East. Even if President George W. Bush himself isn't ready to openly embark on such a policy, the neocons are strong enough to block any inclination in the opposite direction. Very few people expect that Syria will be a new Iraq. Rather, it is, to use a Washington adage, "low-hanging fruit" harvestable by political means. For the Syrian leadership, the U.S., already in a mess in Iraq, wouldn't be mad enough to engage in an adventure against them. But American pressure can take many forms, Syrians believe, sufficient to put an already decrepit and discredited regime's survival at stake.

Until recently, the U.S. treated Syria as a strategic adversary, but one, nonetheless with which it could still do business in a give-and-take process whose end, if successful, would have presumably restored the Baathists' "right to exist" - a la Libya - in any new American-sponsored Middle East order. But now Washington spurns the strategic dialogue Assad proffers, and is bent, it would appear, on stripping the Syrian president of all his regional cards. When he concedes (thereby proving, as American commentators put it, that "pressure works"), it leads to yet more demands, with nothing offered in return. When, Syria's armed forces withdrew from Lebanon in April, the U.S. remained insistent that Assad continued to play a disruptive role there, while doing little or nothing to seal the jihadist trail into Iraq. Whatever the truth, the U.S. is clearly accumulating ammunition for new assaults in a diplomatic war of attrition against Syria whose end, says a European diplomat, is to "bring Bashar naked to the negotiating table." Weakening Syria externally weakens it at home. For a despotic regime, regional influence was always a vital adjunct of internal repression. "And now," says a Syrian dissident, "the U.S. is becoming the internal as well as the external player in our affairs which, before the debacle in Lebanon, it couldn't be." Faced with this double assault, what does Assad do? Does he cede ground internally, as he already has externally, in the hope (one that has proven unsuccessful so far) of appeasing both the U.S. and a still-weak, but steadily growing domestic opposition? Whatever choice he does make will, for the first time, be very much his own, for he has just wrought greater changes inside his ruling apparatus than any since his father, Hafiz Assad, consolidated his personal power in the 1970s.

Reform, cries Syria's opposition, and we shall rally to you against the U.S. The opposition mistrusts Washington perhaps more than the Syrian regime itself does. Not that it belittles the impetus which American actions, even the otherwise abhorrent invasion of Iraq, has given to their cause. But the Syrians' yearning for change is deeply tempered by fear of the way it might come about. That is why the opposition's dominant orthodoxy is gradualism. As opposition figures see it, they must reach out to reformists within the system and, as both gain depth and cohesion, reassure the ultimate, maleficent power-holders and their increasingly frightened entourage that their eventual departure will not be the terrible reckoning, for years of misrule, that it would otherwise have been. "If the Americans muscle in," says a Syrian human rights activist, "the shock will disrupt this process, delicate enough as it is, unleash the latent forces of chaos, of sectarian, ethnic and class conflict in our society, even create another Iraq without invading it. We must handle this on our own."

Set against the initial high expectations, the results of the recent, supposedly make-or-break Baathist congress were puny. Still, a sort of Syrian glasnost is underway. There is little doubt that Assad encourages it. Little doubt, too, that, fearing loss of control, he is simultaneously being pulled in the opposition direction. The congress that promised change was also a classical show of strength and solidarity, Soviet-style, of the single-party state. Directed at the U.S. and the opposition, it said: "The Baath is here to stay." As a Baath reformist put it: "Bashar's new new guard might actually have to be tougher than the old." If rigidity and repression do win the day, some in the opposition will be inclined to forsake the gradualist, Syrian-only orthodoxy. Of the opposition's three still very separate components - the secular intelligentsia, the Islamists and the Kurdish minority of the northeast - only the Kurds have emerged, after decades of obscure, unequal struggle against Arabization and ethnic discrimination, as a key internal player, due to their own suddenly revealed intrinsic strength and the example of their brethren's achievements in northern Iraq. "So long as the regime gives nothing," says a Kurdish politician, "it's our right to profit from international conditions. If America knocks on our door, we'll open it."

The fear in Damascus is that the U.S., in desperation, might do something military across the Syrian border, such as creating a "security zone,"as Israel did in the South Lebanon border area during the 1980s and 1990s. It wouldn't work, experts insist, and would merely add local, tribally-linked Syrian resistance to the Iraqi one. On the other hand, it could have a profoundly destabilizing impact on Syria as a whole, exacerbating those Kurdish-led centrifugal forces whose original impetus, and disastrous potentialities, stem, as in Iraq, from decades of Baathist despotism.

About the Author: David Hirst was for a long time Middle East correspondent for London's The Guardian. He wrote this commentary for The Daily Star.

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