Syria: The Next Domino? Will it be stage three?
is now taking place (in Iraq) is part of a plan…to redraw
the regional map,” Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad informed
the Lebanese newspaper
on March 27. “We will not wait until they add Syria to
that plan.” With U.S. officials ratcheting up the diplomatic
pressure on Damascus following the fall of Baghdad, however,
it may already be too late. If the statements of U.S. policy-
makers are taken at face value, and their past writings are
read as prelude, we can safely assume that following Afghanistan
and Iraq, Syria is a leading candidate for the inevitable third
phase of the “war on terror.”
Syria, Terrorism, and War on Terror
policy towards Syria has tended to revolve around two concerns,
Israel and terrorism. Beyond this, Syria has no official lobbyists
registered with the Department of Justice or discernible media
presence. As a result, and due to the U.S.-Israel alliance,
Congress is almost uniformly hostile to Syria. The Syria Accountability
Act, for example, introduced in April 2002, sought to impose
comprehensive sanctions on Syria to force it to end support
for terrorism, pull out of Lebanon, and punish it for importing
Iraqi oil illegally and developing Weapons of Mass Destruction
(WMD). The act was not voted on in the last Congress, but is
now being re-introduced. It has, hitherto, been opposed by the
Syria maintains full diplomatic relations with the U.S., despite
being designated as a “state sponsor of terrorism”
by the State Department since 1979. This dubious honor is mainly
the result of conflicting Syrian and American definitions of
terrorism. Syria differentiates between terrorism and the struggle
against Israeli occupation. The U.S. does not. Syrian support
for Hezbollah in South Lebanon, and the presence in Syria of
offices affiliated with Islamic Jihad, Hamas, and other “rejectionist”
Palestinian groups, has been an ongoing source of tension. As
recently as November 19, 2002, Syria turned down a direct U.S.
request to close the Islamic Jihad office in Damascus.
The Arab-Israeli conflict aside, there is a confluence of U.S.
and Syrian interests in the campaign against Al-Qaeda. The first
Assad regime fought a ruthless but successful war against its
own Islamic opposition, some of whom had been supported by Iraq.
Syrian cooperation against Al-Qaeda has had concrete results:
wrapping up cells in Spain and Germany, preventing an attack
on U.S. troops in the Gulf in early 2002, and the detention
and “interrogation” of the alleged recruiter of Mohammad
Atta, Mohammed Haydar Zammar, a German citizen of Syrian origin.
Zammar was deported from Morocco to Syria with U.S. knowledge.
Syria and Iraq
recent histories there has been little love lost between the
Syrian and Iraqi Pan-Arab Ba’ath regimes. During the reign
of Hafiz Al-Assad, there was a rivalry of an intensity only
sustainable between estranged ideological cousins. Syria and
Iraq became closer after the elder Assad’s death, both
politically and economically. The countries did $1 billion in
official trade through the UN oil-for-food program in 2001,
not to mention the trade in illicit Iraqi oil that Syria, as
well as Jordan and Turkey, allegedly engaged in.
Syrian regime viewed the current U.S.-Iraqi conflict as undesirable
and an entirely different affair than the first Gulf War. Syria
feared that were it to ride the American tiger as it did in
1991, they would be left holding it by the tail on their own
southern border. Therefore, Syria did its utmost to prevent
war from within the Security Council and tried in vain to rally
practical support against the war from within the Arab League.
When the war got underway Syria was able to do little besides
call for the withdrawal of “coalition” troops. The
visit of Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri to Damascus on March
24, Syria’s vocal condemnations of the invasion’s
illegality, and the declaration on March 31 by Foreign Minister
Farouk al-Shara that Syria “has a national interest in
the expulsion of the invaders from Iraq,” may have bolstered
Syria’s pan-Arab credentials, but they played badly with
a U.S. administration notorious for holding grudges.
The Nascent Confrontation
significant quantities of oil, Syria’s value to the U.S.
lies in its role in the war on terror, significance to the Arab-Israeli
conflict, long borders with Turkey and Iraq, and in its ties
to the Gulf states.
As Syria is mainly a way station to other U.S. interests, the
nascent confrontation may seem an unnecessary undertaking for
a U.S. administration engaged in the twin occupations of Afghanistan
and Iraq. A timely intersection of a number of factors, however,
has led inexorably to this juncture; the moribund nature of
the “peace process”; the hostility of current Israel
and U.S. policymakers to Syria; the corrosive nature of U.S.-Syrian
disagreements over the definition of terrorism and Syrian support
for Hezbollah; and the broader lack of depth in the Syrian-
American relationship mentioned above.
The historical Syrian strategic goal of retaining an independent
foreign policy and avoiding political and geographic isolation
is now imperiled by the U.S. presence in Iraq. As the U.S. dispatches
the Eastern Ba’ath, it appears tempted to confront their
marginalized western cousins—now the last nationalist,
rhetorically pan-Arab government of consequence. As early as
February 17, U.S. Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and
International Security John Bolton had acknowledged as much,
telling Ariel Sharon that after Iraq, the U.S. would deal with
“threats” from Syria, Iran, and North Korea.
Even on the rare occasions when the Administration has praised
Syria in the context of the war on terror it has done so grudgingly.
The president has gone so far as to question whether Syria is
truly “for us” as opposed to “against us.”
On June 24, 2002, President Bush said, “Syria must choose
the right side in the war on terror by closing terrorist camps
and expelling terrorist organizations.” For his part Bashar
Al-Assad declared, “we are neither for nor against the
United States.” Where that leaves Syria in Bush’s
dichotomy is unclear. Like Yasser Arafat, Bashar Al-Assad has
been shunned by the White House.
the United States and Israel
most corrosive to U.S.-Syrian ties is the disposition of the
current Administration towards the Arab-Israeli conflict. As
a result of U.S. support for the creation of Israel in 1948,
America’s relations with the newly independent Syria began
in conflict. The Ba’ath party came to power in Syria in
1963 and of the regimes in the region was perhaps the most unwavering
in its opposition to America’s ally. When Syria lost the
Golan to Israel in 1967, America’s “strategic alliance”
with Israel was fully inaugurated to Syria’s detriment.
U.S.-Syrian relations were severed after the war, only resuming
seven years later. U.S.-Syrian reengagement was enabled by the
pragmatic foreign policy of Hafiz Al-Assad, who came to power
in 1970. Assad accepted UN Resolutions 242 and 338 as a basis
for settling the Arab-Israeli conflict, but American and Israeli
indifference to his and Anwar As-Sadat’s diplomatic initiatives
resulted in the 1973 war.
After that war the American-initiated “peace process”
began in earnest. Egypt’s peace with Israel left Assad
and the Palestinians out in the cold and facilitated Israel’s
invasion of Lebanon in 1982, a war in which Syria would eventually
outlast both U.S. intervention and the Israeli occupation. When
the Soviet Union fell, Assad’s long quest for “strategic
parity” with Israel foundered. Its military patron gone,
Syria elected to join negotiations at Madrid after the Gulf
War to try to reclaim the Golan, annexed by Israel in 1981.
The 1990′s “peace process” failed largely due to the
fact that Israel, geopolitically stronger than its adversaries,
was permitted by the U.S. to dictate questions of timing, substance,
and procedure in the negotiations. The bilateral format was
chosen again over Assad’s comprehensive approach. While
Syria was drawn into the process through the careful diplomacy
and assurances of the first Bush administration and its “Arabist”
Secretary of State, James Baker III, it quickly lost confidence
in the Clinton administration, with its coterie of pro-Israel
policymakers. Negotiations ultimately failed in talks in December
1999 over Israel’s unwillingness to withdraw all the way
to the June 4, 1967, border, which would have re-established
Syria’s foothold on the Sea of Galilee.
Syria continues to offer Israel “full peace for full withdrawal”
as it has for the last ten years. In contrast Israel now offers
only talks “without preconditions.” In January, Sharon
declared, “I’d be happy to visit Damascus,” fully
aware that this offer is a nonstarter absent a prior Israeli
commitment to full withdrawal from the Golan.
Without U.S. pressure on Israel, Syria has few cards to play.
It continues to exert pressure on Israel by way of Hezbollah
in South Lebanon through the Shebaa farms dispute, a high-risk
endeavor. Syria has in the past sought influence over the Palestinians
and Jordan to augment its strategic weakness, but gradually
lost influence over both. Only its sponsorship of “rejectionist”
Palestinian groups gives it tangible leverage. In late January,
for example, Syria initially reigned in groups that wanted to
go to Cairo to discuss a Palestinian-Israeli ceasefire, leading
to the postponement of the meeting.
starring role in the Arab-Israeli conflict has made it invaluable
when America is interested in the “peace process.”
Right now, despite noises about the “Road Map,” the
U.S. is not very interested. The appointment of Elliot Abrams
to an NSC post that includes the Arab-Israeli portfolio is a
disquieting omen. Abrams is an anti-Oslo, pro-Likud hawk opposed
to trading land for peace. Attempts have been made to build
relations through officials of the previous Bush administration.
Talks took place between Farouk al-Shara and former U.S. ambassador
to Syria Edward P. Djerejian at the Baker Institute in January
2003. However, that old guard appears to hold little sway in
the neo-conservative second Bush administration.
Israel is making the most of the negative U.S. disposition towards
Syria, stressing Syria’s ties to “terrorism”
and attempting to connect Syria to Iraq’s WMD program.
In late December 2002, Sharon suggested that Syria was hiding
Iraq’s WMD while UN inspectors scoured Iraq. Syria issued
a denial, replying that the charges were “intended to divert
attention from the nuclear, chemical and biological weapons
that Israel holds.” Israel has also repeatedly tried to
connect Hezbollah to Al-Qaeda, claiming Bin Laden’s supporters
had found their way to the Beka’a valley after fleeing
Afghanistan, without providing proof. “We know that they
are in Lebanon, working closely with Hezbollah,” Sharon
claimed in December.
efforts in this regard dovetail nicely with Washington’s
new strategic disposition. The release of National Security
Presidential Directive 17 and Homeland Security Presidential
Directive 4, on December 10, 2002, makes explicit the U.S. willingness
to use preemptive force, including nuclear weapons, to prevent
any enemy from using WMD against the U.S. A classified appendix
names Iran, Syria, North Korea, and Libya as targets of this
doctrine. U.S. officials have indicated that the policy is intended
to prevent these countries from allowing WMD or long-range missiles
to cross their borders. Sharon’s statements of late December
could not have been any more directly targeted.
officials make it clear that support for Hezbollah alone would
earn Syria a place on the state sponsors list. Israel’s
magnifying of the Hezbollah threat plays to existing U.S. prejudices.
To the U.S. government and ordinary Americans, Hezbollah has
become synonymous with terrorism. In early September U.S. Deputy
Secretary of State Richard Armitage said Hezbollah was “the
A-team of terrorists.” To Syria and most Arabs the group
is instead a heroic national liberation movement. On this question,
Syria and the U.S. can never come to accord.
Just as Israeli hawks cite the withdrawal from Lebanon as emboldening
their enemies, U.S. hawks cite the U.S. withdrawal from Lebanon
following the attack on the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut in
1983 as emboldening U.S. enemies, including Bin Laden. To both
Israel and the U.S., Hezbollah is an open account that must
be settled. “They’re on the list and their time will
come,” Armitage said in September. Although Hezbollah has
repeatedly made its desire to maintain a ceasefire known, Israel
or the U.S. may now perceive an opportunity to strike at them,
possibly drawing in Syria.
foreign policy remains heavily indebted to the pragmatic yet
rhetorically pan-Arab legacy of Hafiz Al-Assad. Syria played
all sides in the Lebanese civil war to retain the role of kingmaker,
sided with non-Arab Iran in the Iran-Iraq war, and fought against
its Ba’athi cousins in the Gulf War. Still, Assad’s
pragmatism grew out of a genuine desire to strengthen Syria
as a frontline state against Israel to what he perceived as
the collective benefit of the Arabs. Syria remains the central
player in Lebanon, retains its alliance with Iran, and had been
normalizing relations with Iraq.
A U.S. occupation and/or pro-American Iraqi regime would bifurcate
the Syrian-Iranian alliance and imprison Syria geographically.
This encirclement has long been an ambition of the neo-conservatives,
now the most influential group shaping U.S. Middle East policy.
Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, Elliot Abrams,
I. Lewis Libby et al., share a collective vision: the removal
of the Iraqi regime igniting a chain reaction of “democratization”
in the Arab Middle East, with the resultant U.S.-friendly regimes
3inclined to acquiesce to Israel’s strategic prerogatives.
“Israel can shape its strategic environment,”
Perle and Feith wrote in a memorandum to the newly elected Benjamin
Netanyahu in 1996, “in cooperation with Turkey and Jordan,
by weakening, containing and even rolling back Syria. This effort
can focus on removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq.”
grandiosity naturally involves purging the Arab world of the
unifying ideology of Arab nationalism, which is strongly anti-Zionist.
“Iraqi government officials would be subjected to ‘de-Baathification,’…a
program that borrows from the ‘de-Nazification’ program
established in Germany after World War II,” the
reported on February 21. A war on the ideology of Pan-Arab
Nationalism is now underway next door to Ba’athi Syria,
which has long called itself “the Beating Heart of Arab
Testing Times Ahead
of U.S. officials has publicly attacked Damascus since the invasion
of Iraq. Donald Rumsfeld alleged on March 28 that Syria was
providing military equipment to Iraq, which he termed a “hostile
act,” and has since alleged that Syria is providing Iraqi
Ba’ath officials sanctuary. Rumsfeld’s deputy, Paul
Wolfowitz, told Tim Russert on April 6, “there’s got
to be changes in Syria as well.” On April 15, secretary
of state Colin Powell said, “In light of this new environment,”
Syria should “review their actions and behavior, not only
with respect to who gets haven in Syria, and weapons of mass
destruction, but especially the support of terrorist activity.”
It has been left to Tony Blair to reassure Assad that Britain,
for what it’s worth, “completely disagrees with those
who (call for) targeting Syria.”
U.S. allegations about Syria’s WMD have likewise resurfaced.
On May 6, 2002, Bolton accused Syria of maintaining an extensive
chemical and biological warfare program and accused it of pursuing
nuclear weapons in later testimony to Congress. President Bush,
on April 13 of this year, cited a recent CIA report, which alleges
that Syria is developing chemical weapons, as did Secretary
Rumsfeld the next day. The regional context of Israel’s
highly sophisticated WMD program has apparently escaped their
Israel, true to form, has continued prod the U.S. and Syria
into confrontation. IDF Military Intelligence claimed on April
7 that Syria was likely hiding missiles and WMD for Iraq. A
week later, Shaul Mofaz, Israel’s Defense Minister, reiterated
that Syria had “taken in senior Iraqi figures” and
“allowed terrorism to be launched” on U.S. forces
in Iraq. Assad is “dangerous,” Sharon chimed in the
next morning, calling for “heavy pressure” on Damascus
and providing a list of demands Washington could make of Syria
for good measure. Syria has strongly denied the onslaught of
American and Israeli accusations.
How might a U.S.-Syrian confrontation develop? It might begin
with demands for WMD inspections, leveraged by an intense effort
to isolate Syria diplomatically and impose comprehensive sanctions
by way of the Syria Accountability Act. Secretary Powell hinted
as much in statements on April 14. The Kuwaiti daily
claimed on April 2 that Washington had already taken
punitive action when U.S. special forces destroyed the Iraqi
pipeline through which Syria allegedly imported oil outside
of UN control.
Stronger measures such as a full scale invasion, while unlikely,
cannot be ruled out. A report in the
15 claimed that Donald Rumsfeld had ordered his deputies, Douglas
Feith and William Luti, to develop “contingency plans for
a war on Syria to be reviewed following the fall of Baghdad,”
and “put together a briefing paper on the case for war.”
The most likely flashpoint, however, remains Hezbollah. Washington
may issue an ultimatum for Syria to end support for the group
or ask that it be disarmed, something that it alone amongst
Lebanese militias was not required to do when the Lebanese civil
war ended. Unsatisfactory responses to either demand might result
in limited air strikes, possibly through the IDF on the Beka’a
valley or militant targets inside Syria.
A key element determining the direction of U.S.-Syrian relations
will be the ability of the largely untested Bashar Al-Assad
to steer the ship of state into safe waters. The Bush administration
may yet credit his ability to reform Syria’s economy and
authoritarian political system and continued cooperation in
the war on terror. The U.S. may not wish to prejudice the young
president too far against them during a complex occupation of
Iraq. Unlike Saddam Hussein, the U.S. appears to have no personal
grudge against Bahsar Al-Assad.
Weighed against these considerations is the counsel of Ariel
Sharon. “If he [Syrian President Bashar Assad] felt isolated
in the international community because of his support for terror,
and if there was a political and economic price to pay for this,
perhaps his policy would change,” Sharon told a visiting
U.S. Senator in January. There has been no daylight between
Israeli and American policy on Yasser Arafat or Iraq. The question
is: will there be on Syria?
Fahim is a freelance writer living in New York City. His
work has appeared in the
and in the online
He has an MA in International Studies and Diplomacy from SOAS,
University of London, where he did his dissertation on the Syrian-Israeli