Resist Assad's charm offensive!

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
May 21 2004 5:10 PM

The Battle for Damascus

Don't fall for Bashar Assad's charm offensive.

Syrian President Bashar Assad has spent so much time with the press recently, he might as well be promoting his role in a Jerry Bruckheimer film. And indeed, the story about several Syrian weapons experts being aboard the North Korean train that crashed last month would make a great summer blockbuster.

It's been a busy year for Assad that started with a war in neighboring Iraq and was capped off last week when President Bush signed an executive order implementing a range of sanctions in accordance with the Syria Accountability Act. Since the United States does little business with Syria to begin with, sanctions against exporting goods and banning direct U.S. flights are mostly symbolic. However, there's another congressional act in the offing that, as one Syrian analyst writes, could spell a more serious economic blockade against the country unless Damascus stops foreign fighters from crossing its borders into Iraq, ceases its support of terrorist groups, and ends its occupation of Lebanon.

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Assad says that there are no Syrians fighting in Iraq, and, besides, it is very difficult to control the country's borders. The latter is true, which is why the Arab Bedouin tribes in the Syrian desert have historically been allowed to do pretty much whatever they please so long as they let Damascus know precisely who and what is crossing the border. For all their services rendered to the Assad regime—like helping to quell the riots in Qamishli this March, during which 33 Kurds were killed—the Bedouins have rights to Syria's smuggling franchise, transporting not just foreign fighters, but also drugs and weapons. But Assad says there are no weapons going to Syria either; in fact, he claims, it's the other way around.

A colleague in Cairo, Raymond Stock, notes an item from the April 23 issue of the Egyptian daily Al Ahram where Assad confessed that "weapons are being smuggled from Iraq into Syria." This is both very odd and very tantalizing. While it's unlikely that the president meant to confirm suspicions that Saddam Hussein moved his WMD supply to Syria before the war began last spring, it's equally unlikely that someone is sneaking arms past the Bedouins and their boss.

So, what's going on—in Assad's head and more generally in Syria itself?

The most important thing we know about Syria is that we really don't know what's going on in Syria. That's intentional, of course; the Baathist regime is authoritarian, which means it controls the country's flow of information. Among other things, that lack of transparency means that there is more room for conjecture, and so a host of U.S. and Western academics, journalists, and government officials are more likely to draw conclusions about Syria based not on fact but rather on their own prejudices.

In Inventing the Axis of Evil (ambitiously subtitled The Truth About North Korea, Iran, and Syria), Israeli Moshe Ma'oz wonders why Washington doesn't "adopt a totally different strategy toward Damascus—being positive rather than negative, cooperative rather than rejectionist … [and] employ political and diplomatic means to integrate Syria into a new US strategic regional network."

Actually, Washington did follow such a policy beginning with the first Bush White House; the State Department called it "constructive engagement." But it didn't work. Fourteen years later, there is nothing resembling a Syrian-Israeli peace agreement, Syrian troops are still in Lebanon, the regime still provides extensive support to terrorist groups, and, maybe most important, while Hafez Assad backed the United States' first war on Iraq, his son did his best to subvert this Bush's war. The White House's current aggressive stance toward Syria may very well be mistaken, but it's probably wise to ignore policy recommendations based on assertions like Mo'az's, that once there is peace with Israel, Syria "should not need its alliances with Hezbollah" or "its relations with Hamas and Islamic Jihad."

This might be true, but there is no evidence—besides Professor Mo'az saying so—to prove it. Isn't it worth entertaining the possibility that the regime's ties to those Islamist groups are at least as important as peace with Israel? After all, in the Middle East, it is dangerous for leaders to make peace with Israel and safe to make common cause with Israel's enemies.

In fact, almost two decades after his father threw Yasser Arafat out of Syria, last week Bashar invited the chairman's ruling Fatah movement to reopen its offices in Damascus. Perhaps the recent retirement of Syria's famously outspoken defense minister Mustafa Tlass helped pave the way for Fatah's return. The 72-year-old Tlass, who wrote a book explaining how Jews used the blood of Christians to make matzo, once called Arafat the "son of sixty thousand whores." Since Arab military figures seldom resign of their own accord, Bashar apparently tired of the old man's one-liners. Gary Gambill, a tough-minded Syria analyst, suggests that maybe the Bush administration strong-armed Assad into forcing Tlass to retire. After all, as Gambill explained to me, Tlass' son Firas is suspected of smuggling into Iraq much of the materiel that Syria says it never smuggled into Iraq. But as Gambill admits, we really don't know why Tlass is gone. Maybe, as one commentator suggested, he just wanted time to write another book.

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