By strange chance the American embassy in Damascus almost faces Iraq’s. As US forces roared up the Euphrates valley to topple Saddam Hussein in 2003, the contrast between the two buildings was stark. A forbidding fortress that few people wanted to visit stood on one side of the road, ringed by concrete bollards, bulletproof screens and high walls. Nearby, a bustle of eager volunteers – Palestinians, Algerians, Syrians and Saudis – milled around excitedly or queued for Iraqi visas so they could join the struggle to defend Arab land.
Perhaps inspired by this outpouring of grassroots pan-Arab solidarity, at that stage nationalist rather than jihadi, President Bashar al-Assad gave an interview to the Syrian press in which he expressed the hope that the Americans would lose the war. It was a unique utterance. No other Arab leader dared say the same thing. When Syria was in the doghouse at the UN security council this week, I could not help remembering this tale of two embassies. The catalogue of American complaints against Syria contains numerous issues, among which Assad’s wish for a US defeat in 2003 is never publicly listed. Yet it is hard not to feel that those remarks – brave certainly, unwise probably – do not still rankle with Washington.
In some sense they were a turning point. Until then Syria had been courted by western governments. After 9/11 its chief of military intelligence, Asef Shawkat, who is Assad’s brother-in-law and a key suspect today in the death of the former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, worked closely with US counter-terror agencies. Syria’s support for Hamas and Hizbullah, which has now become a major cause for complaint, was tolerated. Syria held a seat on the UN security council and, to the delight of Bush and Blair, backed the resolution to send weapons inspectors to Baghdad in the run-up to the US invasion in 2003.
The Iraq war changed things on both sides. When the Americans won the first phase, Assad saw little incentive in helping them. He expected to be punished. Washington’s neocons added Syria to their list of “bad guys”, seeing it as a softer target than Iran.
The murder of Rafik Hariri has to be seen against this background. If the Mehlis report’s presumptions of Syrian guilt are correct, then Damascus did not just make a criminal mistake. It committed an international blunder. It opened the way for the US to turn a bilateral dispute into a battle between Syria and the rest of the world, with the Assad regime in the dock at the security council while other Arab nations keep silent or desperately urge it to cooperate.
In spite of Syria’s isolation, some analysts think Assad can yet escape. They argue that he can string the international investigators along, just as Gadafy did when the Lockerbie pressure mounted, haggling over the terms under which he would comply and what sort of court any suspects in the case should be tried by. The threat of sanctions is hollow, they claim, since few countries want them, including Lebanon, which would also suffer economically.
Others say the pressure on Syria is enormous, and that Assad has no choice but to cooperate with the UN by sacrificing his most trusted colleagues and thereby risk his own survival if they mount a coup against him. The men hinted at in the Mehlis report are not the “old guard”, who were close to Assad’s father, the founder of the current regime, and became estranged from his son; the evidence suggests they wanted to reduce Syria’s exposure in Lebanon. The key suspects are part of the “new guard” – though it is not clear whether they kept their young boss informed.
The unknown factor is the effect of the latest crisis on Syria’s internal politics. Will it hasten or delay reform? For all its talk of democratisation in the Middle East, Washington’s demands on Syria mainly relate to foreign policy. Assad has already shown he is willing to scale back his role in Lebanon, having withdrawn all Syrian forces this spring. If he were to do more to try to block the flow of Arab volunteers going to join the Iraqi insurgency, or expel the representatives of Hamas and Islamic Jihad from Damascus, would the US be satisfied? When Condoleezza Rice says the US wants “behaviour change” not “regime change”, she means Syria’s behaviour on the international stage.
Assad knows this, which is why he always plays the Islamist card by warning that worse will follow in Syria if he goes. The Bush administration half believes this scare, just as it does over Palestine, where Hamas looks like it will do well in elections in January, and in Egypt, where Muslim Brotherhood candidates could win dozens of parliamentary seats this month. If it cannot have both, Washington usually prefers docile regimes to democratic ones.
Syria’s domestic politics are in a state of flux, and if the weakening of the Assad regime through the Hariri investigation emboldens the internal opposition, so much the better. On Sunday around a dozen secular parties, including pan-Arabists, some leftwing activists and two Kurdish groups, put out a “Damascus declaration”, calling for the lifting of the 42-year-old emergency law and the release of political prisoners. The Muslim Brotherhood, from its exile headquarters, promptly endorsed the statement, creating a broad opposition front that is remarkably similar to what has been happening in Egypt.
It is certainly the most impressive sign of opposition activity since Assad came to power five years ago, and subsequently launched – and then aborted – a modest programme of reforms. The opposition does not advocate the overthrow of the regime. Many want a government of national unity in which the Ba’athists would retain a major role.
Faced with this creative turmoil, foreign governments need to play a careful hand. American-led sabre-rattling could unite Syrians behind the regime, just as it has been doing in Iran. An American military attack would be worse. The New York Times recently reported that US forces have crossed the border from Iraq in “hot pursuit” of insurgents or to strike at their alleged safe houses on several occasions. In one clash Syrian troops were killed. On October 1, the paper said, the White House discussed a variety of moves against Syria, including special operations inside the country.
These leaks may be designed to add to the pressure on Assad. If they lead to overt military activity, they will surely backfire. The Iraq fiasco shows the United Nations route is the only one that both commands international support and can work. Bush-style unilateralism is a proven road to disaster.