The Bush Administration’s pointed warnings to Syria alarmed many in the Arab world who feared the United States was looking to build a case for pre-emptive military action against Syria. President Bush accused Syria of possessing chemical weapons, and other top U.S. officials pointed to ties between Syria and terrorism.
Martha Kessler, a retired CIA analyst currently on the board of the Middle East Policy Council, says there are two reasons behind the Bush Administration’s escalated warnings.
“I think there was some considerable concern on the part of the Administration that Syria allowed fighters to move through its country and across the border and into Iraq,” she says. “However, I think the motivation precedes the war. There has been a group of individuals in the foreign policy establishment, many of whom now have positions in our government, who have felt that Syria needed to be treated more harshly than had been the case in previous administrations, and see it as a threat to Israel and see it as defiant of some of the principles we’d like to see operating in the region, and took the opportunity on the heels of our victory in Iraq to start the drumbeat against Syria.”
One group in Washington clearly wants to see tougher action taken against Syria. In a speech before the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, Newt Gingrich, an influential Republican, attacked the President’s decision to send Secretary of State Colin Powell to Syria.
“The concept of the American Secretary of State going to Damascus to meet with a terrorist supporting, secret police wielding dictator is ludicrous,” said Mr. Gingrich. “The United States military has created an opportunity to apply genuine economic, diplomatic and political pressure on Syria.”
However, many observers think threatening Syria would be counterproductive. Ms. Kessler says Syria’s interest in self-preservation may lead it to cooperate more closely with the United States.
“Syria sees Israel as its primary threat, and it believes that only the United States can control Israel,” Ms. Kessler says. “And so the United States has been important to Syrian security policy for some time. I would say since the late 1980s, we’ve seen a gradual change on the part of the Syrian government toward the United States not being totally accommodating, that’s for sure. There are some very serious differences between that country and ours.”
Syria, in fact, has been cooperating with the United States in areas where their interests coincide; for example, fighting drug-traffickers and Islamic terrorist groups like Al Qaida, which Syria – a secular regime – views as a serious threat.
Despite its cooperation in tracking down Al Qaida, Syria is on the State Department’s list of countries that sponsor terrorism. Although Syria has not been implicated directly in any act of terrorism since 1986, it does provide safe haven and logistics support to a number of groups, including Hezbollah and Hamas, that are labeled terrorist by the United States.
Glenn Robinson, a senior political scientist at the Rand Corporation, says what Washington defines as terrorism, Damascus sees as legitimate resistance to Israel.
“Syria’s point of view is that Hezbollah is a legal political party with representation in the parliament in Lebanon. It’s also a movement of national liberation that forced Israel out of occupied South Lebanon. So it’s a perfectly legitimate group, and it’s perfectly fine for it to have offices in Damascus,” he says. “Same thing with Hamas. Damascus views Hamas as, again, a movement of national liberation on the Palestinian front.”
Syria’s support for international terrorism, its possession of chemical weapons and its authoritarian Baathist regime have earned it comparison with its neighbor, Iraq. Glenn Robinson says the similarities between the two nations end there.
“Iraq was really the only country in the region that crossed the line from authoritarianism to totalitarianism. It really was a Stalinist regime,” he says. “Syria is much more like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and really almost all of the Arab states that have this sort of personalized, authoritarian rule. Saad Eddin Ibrahim in Egypt coined this term some years ago, jumlukiya, combining two Arabic words: one for republic, one for monarchy, to suggest that these regimes like Egypt, like Syria are republics on the face of it, but they really act like monarchies with power being transferred from father to son.”
Syria’s leader, 37-year old Bashar Al-Assad, is a British-trained opthamologist who came to power in June 2000 after the death of his father. Many Syrians had hoped their young leader would press for more liberal, open policies. Mr. Robinson says those hopes are gone and reality has set in among the population.
“My read is Bashar Al-Assad is really a captive of the power structure that his father created. Not just the structure but many of the same people surround the president and have certain interests, and I think they basically don’t allow Bashar Al-Assad to go outside certain pretty strict parameters of action,” Mr. Robinson says.
“I obviously have no idea of what’s in Bashar Assad’s heart of hearts,” he says. “But even if he were this Jeffersonian Democrat in his heart of hearts, he would have to be extraordinarily politically savvy to be able to pull off a significant opening in Syria, given the power structure that he inherited.”
With political reforms stalled, Bashar Al-Assad has tried to improve Syria’s economy, but that too, is slow going. Syria has violated UN sanctions against Iraq by accepting some 200,000 barrels of oil a day at a deep discount and then selling it on the world market. This has brought hundreds of millions of dollars a year into Syrian coffers.
With Iraqi oil now cut off, Talcott Seelye, a former US Ambassador to Syria, says economic concerns may draw Bashar Al-Assad toward the West.
“I think an inducement will be that Syria’s economy is in worse shape now that it cannot depend upon Iraqi oil. It’s a serious blow to the economy,” the ambassador says. “And I think Syria also senses much greater isolation. One reason it started to improve relations with Iraq several years ago was that it felt terribly isolated. I think that for economic reasons, if for no other reason, they realize they have to have better relations with the U.S. as well as all countries in the West.”
Chafing under a stagnant economy and repressive rule, Syrians vent some of their frustrations on the United States and what they see as its support of Israel over the Palestinians. Observers say strong U.S. backing of the Arab-Israeli peace plan would make it easier for President al-Assad to continue his internal reforms and move away from rogue states and closer to the West.