Syria: Hoping the U.S. fails

While the regime hopes the U.S. stumbles into a quagmire, Iraqi exiles argue about whether Bush or Saddam is the bigger enemy.

Published April 9, 2003 7:52PM (EDT)

"A huge Zionist plan to reshape the Middle East." That's how the senior spokesperson of the Syrian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Buthayna Shabaan, referred to the war in Iraq earlier this month. Shabaan belongs to President Bashar Al-Assad's closest circle of advisors. The fear that the Iraq war is just the first step in a grand campaign to reorder the region to Israel's advantage is reflected throughout the country's government-controlled media and in the slogans at the officially sanctioned antiwar demonstrations. More than ever before, you hear "Yahud" (Arabic for Jews) -- and not only in Syria but in much of the Arab world.

Syria has been one of the most vocal opponents in the Middle East of the war in neighboring Iraq. Even now, with American troops in the center of Baghdad, the government in Damascus is refusing to recognize that an earthquake has taken place next door. It keeps up its invective against what it calls this "illegal, imperialist, colonialist war against the people of Iraq." It is still only possible to cross into Iraq from Syria with an official visa from an Iraqi government that does not control its own territory anymore.

Young Iraqis still leave every night with buses from the Syrian capital, ostensibly to "go and fight for Saddam Hussein." It quickly becomes clear upon asking, though, that most are using this as an easy way in to join their families back home whom they are very worried about. But at the official Iraqi trade representation at the international fairground in the center of Damascus, the really serious "Arab volunteers" sign up and get transport to training camps inside Iraq. The Syrian government is fully aware of this and provides cover for the operation.

This seems like a dangerous game to play in the new Middle East, where the U.S. appears not to be willing to brook any significant resistance to its hegemony. Syria keeps saying that it fears "being next on the American hit list." Nobody knows what that means, but it does make it all the more surprising that Damascus seems to persist in its defiance of the U.S.-led action in Iraq.

Apart from the verbal skirmishes and the issue of the volunteers, U.S. and other observers have long believed that Syria is heavily involved in trading arms with Iraq. Recently the Bush administration claimed that Syria was shipping night vision goggles and grenades to Iraq . In Syria itself it is widely accepted that high-ranking officials or their relatives are involved in this trade, which is seen purely in business terms.

Syria, for its part, emphasizes that it has cooperated closely with the U.S. in the war on al-Qaida. It has also kept its client militia in Lebanon, Hezbollah, quiet during the war in Iraq. Western diplomats, though, scoff at this. Syria, they say, has only cooperated on al-Qaida, nothing else. That is not enough to placate Washington. As for the Hezbollah situation, it is still potentially volatile: Even during the war, some small-scale activity has continued. The Syrians reply that all the allegations are Israeli propaganda, aimed at creating animosity between Syria and the U.S.

Volleys of warnings keep indeed issuing forth from Washington aimed at the Syrians. The latest came from U.S. Assistant Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz over the weekend, demanding that Syria stop what the U.S. claims is its active support for Baghdad and for terrorist organizations, such as the Lebanese Hezbollah movement and the Palestinian militant organizations Islamic Jihad and Hamas. Syria's backing of these groups has landed it on the U.S. blacklist of nations that support terrorism.

"They are doing some things they shouldn't be doing and the sooner they stop the better it will be for them," said Wolfowitz. "The Syrians should know that what they do now, they will be held accountable for," he added ominously. "There's got to be change in Syria." His boss, Donald Rumsfeld, took up the issue of Syria allegedly allowing military equipment to cross into Iraq. Diplomatic sources in Damascus say that the Pentagon has only touched the tip of the iceberg.

The Syrians' defiant behavior may seem hard to fathom with a U.S. victory now a near certainty. But there may be a method in it. It is in Damascus' interests for the war to drag on and the aftermath to be messy and bloody: An Iraqi morass will arouse regional anti-U.S. sentiment, prop up domestic support and make it more difficult for the U.S. to meddle with Syria. Foreign Minister Farouq al-Sharaa seemed to express a wishful-thinking version of this view in an interview with the Italian daily Corriere della Serra. "The U.S. will face huge problems in Iraq and will face problems in the entire region," he said.

According to one of the rare Syrians willing to criticize the ruling party, the regime would love to be able to point to a chaotic, violent and ungovernable Iraq and tell its own population: "See, there is no alternative to us if you value a stable and peaceful existence." This would help the young president Bashar al-Assad, who inherited the mantle from his father almost three years ago, to postpone or even kill off reforms in the tightly controlled country.

The brief "Damascus spring" in 2001, when the authorities briefly allowed political gatherings and more freedom of expression, has already been stamped out, with some outspoken opposition figures jailed and others warned off. Bashar al-Assad let the people blow off some steam at his father, Hafez, but when it threatened to undermine his own rule, he clamped down. According to one of the remaining critics, the government is trying to use the war in Iraq as a way of restoring some legitimacy to its rule. "The 'Republican monarchy' in which Bashar succeeded his father as president has never been regarded as really legitimate. The economy is stalling and the reforms are dead. The regime badly needed an injection of popular sympathy and its position on the war in Iraq is providing just that."

There are signs that the government is even actively using the war to suppress the few remaining dissidents. The state-controlled daily newspaper Tishreen last week launched a campaign against Ali Ferzat, a popular cartoonist and the owner of the country's only independent weekly, the satirical Al-Doumari. Ferzat's cartoons were an "insult to the Iraqi people and the Iraqi army," thundered the paper. The cartoons in question depict Saddam Hussein waging war at the expense of his people. In one of them a row of Iraqi soldiers with bull's-eyes on their back march in formation, each pointing his gun at the other's back. In another he derides the notion of Arab unity, depicting critics of the war secretly signing deals with the U.S. He has long been regarded as an irritant by the authorities for his sharply humorous attacks on the repressive regimes in the region. Ferzat has been targeted before and he knows what is happening now. "They have wanted to close me down for a long time, and they are trying to seize this chance."

Most of all, though, both Syria and another one of Iraq's neighbors, Iran, are worried that the U.S. will, in the words of U.S. Undersecretary of State John Bolton, "deal with" them after it deals with Iraq. Tehran, which has friendly relations with Damascus, is most emphatically in the Bush administration's sights as a member of the "axis of evil." It is in both Syria's and Iran's interest to keep the Americans busy in Iraq so that they cannot shift their attention to them. "It's simple," one Syrian analyst said, "as long as they face problems in Iraq, there's less chance they'll start on us."

Nobody is sure, though, what form U.S. pressure on Syria, or for that matter, Iran, might take. Military action seems highly unlikely, admits even Shabaan of the Foreign Ministry, "but other pressures are imaginable." U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Wolfowitz this weekend hinted that the administration is considering its options. "The military is not the only instrument, and it is not necessarily the main instrument in dealing with countries that support terrorism," he said.

One of the possible ways in which Syria could be threatened is if Washington gave Israel the green light to take action against Hezbollah. Israel says that the Lebanese group has built up its arsenal of medium-range missiles with Syrian and Iranian help. Even though many in Lebanon dismiss this claim, it could at some point be used as a reason for Israel to invade Lebanon, not only to attack Hezbollah but to attack the remaining Syrian troops in the eastern Bekaa Valley. This would remove one of the few cards that Damascus still thinks it holds in its quest to regain the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Whether Washington is willing to go that far is unclear, but the U.S. may be willing to let Syria stew, rather than invest new political capital in trying to bring the two arch-enemies closer together. What little interest the administration has displayed in the peace process has concerned the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Syria may also fear that it will come under economic pressure once a pro-American government is installed in Baghdad. It will certainly no longer profit from the cheap oil -- 150,000 barrels a day at $9 a barrel -- that it received from Iraq in defiance of U.N. sanctions. The Economist Magazine estimated that what it calls Syria's "semi-illicit" trade with Iraq accounted for 20 percent of its GDP. Some of that may continue even without the sanction of the central government, but most of it will be lost.

One influential and critical Syrian intellectual, Sadeq Al-Azm, a professor of philosophy at Damascus University, says that the regime fears the emergence of a pro-American "axis" in the region that would include Iraq, Turkey, Jordan and Israel. In the minds of the Syrian leaders, the latter part of the axis already exists. Israel and Jordan signed a peace treaty in 1994 and Turkey and Israel have maintained very cordial relations, including defense ties, even during the current Palestinian intifada and while an Islamist government was in power in Ankara.

Add Iraq, with its long border, a once-formidable army that could be rebuilt after the war and its oil resources to that axis and it is not difficult to see why Syria would be concerned: The four countries completely surround it. Farouk al-Sharaa, the foreign minister, voiced some of those concerns. "Everyone knows that relations between us and Iraq have been strained for 20 years but we are neighbors and Israel considers us as enemies," said Al-Sharaa.

The question of a postwar American-controlled Iraqi government recognizing and even making peace with Israel is dominating many of the Arab states' calculations. This may be behind the Arab League noises that it could suspend Iraqi membership rather than allow its new government to take the seat of Saddam Hussein. Many in the Arab world regard Israeli interests as one of the main reasons for the war, apart from oil.

This is not only the government line. In Syria the prominent human rights lawyer and dissident Haitham al-Maleh aims more of his verbal arrows at the U.S. and Israel than at the regimes in Iraq and in his own country. The war on Iraq is meant "to perpetuate confusion in the Arab countries," he says, seated in the large reception room in a decrepit building near the bus station in Damascus. This will, he says, benefit Israel while also enabling the U.S. to keep dominating the region. His main aim as a lawyer now, he says, is to bring Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and President Bush to court in Belgium, where human rights legislation makes such prosecutions possible. "Bush is worse than Saddam," he says. "Bush is the new Hitler."

Iraqi opposition figures, who are well represented in Syria and with whom the government has long maintained cordial ties, are enraged by such remarks. "It makes me sad to see all the death and destruction in my country," says a very senior leader who does not want to be identified, "but if in the end it means that Saddam Hussein is gone, I will be glad. There were periods when he killed more people in one day than the Americans in this whole war." He condemns the complacent anti-American stance of many Arab countries and commentators. "It is easy for them to play politics with this -- they never lived under Saddam Hussein."

The leader, a former communist, snorts with disbelief at the many conspiracy theories that circulate about the pro-Israeli intentions of the war. "That is always the excuse here in the Arab countries," he says. That the war is taking longer than expected and that Iraq has resisted more fiercely than expected is mostly irrelevant, he says. "We Arabs have this amazing ability to turn defeats into victories. We only hurt ourselves with that because we never face reality."

Postwar Iraq, in which this powerful "Sheik" may well have a say, can be under U.S. control, as long as it is from a distance, he says. "It can work if we have American-style democracy and they let us run our own affairs." That also means giving Iraq leeway in its foreign policy -- and while he does not say so explicitly, it almost certainly precludes ties with Israel. "I have always defined myself as Iraqi first, then as Arab and then as opposition," the aging leader says. An Iraqi break on that point with most of the other Arab countries seems unthinkable at the moment; certainly popular feeling inside the country would not support it.

Still, many Iraqi exiles are not so pleased with the Arab countries' reactions to the war either. The town of Saida Zeinab near Damascus has risen up around a Shi'a Muslim shrine and is now home to some 200,000 Iraqi Shiites. Iyad Al-Tuki is one of the people in a crowded cafe who is not afraid to speak out, possibly because he has lived in the U.S. for eight years. "Chemical Ali is dead," he says, referring to one of Saddam Hussein's cousins and most feared henchmen, who was allegedly killed by an allied airstrike. "We are not happy to see him or Saddam dead, we would like to see them suffer longer, torn apart bit by bit."

A Syrian who is listening interrupts Al-Tuki excitedly, "How can you say that? We have to support your leadership now against the Americans who are killing your countrymen." Al-Tuki explodes: "How dare you and all the other Arab cowards tell us who Saddam Hussein is and what we should do!" Al-Tuki is from the southern, Shi'a town of Nasiriya, and he and two of his brothers fought in the uprising against Saddam Hussein after the Gulf War of 1991.

Al-Tuki rounds on his Syrian critic and shouts: "Now you tell us to fight the Americans because they are killing our people? Where were the Arab countries in 1991 when Saddam was slaughtering us? Why did we not hear a word of criticism from any of you then?"

His brother Ali afterward shakes his head and tries to explain the anger and the frustration that many Iraqis feel at the Arab posturing during this conflict. "They say the Americans only want our oil. Well, Saddam did not give us freedom and he did not give us our oil either. At least with the Americans we will get our freedom." There's one warning, though, that even the Al-Tukis have to address to the Americans: "Don't stay, don't occupy us. Liberate us and hand us our freedom."

Many Iraqis in Saida Zeinab are still worried that Saddam will survive and that they will be punished by his agents for such bold statements. "So what, U.S. troops are now in Baghdad," says Jabar Ahmed who is watching the TV news in the café. "It's a war and you never know how it will finish." He says it will not be not over until the U.S.-led forces have taken Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, north of Baghdad. Many Iraqis, wary from long experience of dealing with Saddam, say that even in Syria and even now they cannot be sure that the dictator's agents will not take their revenge on them for opposing him, or they worry they could still be endangering their families back home.

Nearby, at 10 in the evening, two buses leave for the Iraqi capital. "No, the road is not dangerous," says one of the travelers. "I came five days ago and now I'm going back. The Americans are liars if they say they control the country. The overwhelming majority of the passengers on the rickety Iraqi bus say they are going home to be with their families. Two young, tough-looking men say they are going to fight the Americans. Another Iraqi starts to laugh when he hears that and one of the tough-looking guys grabs him by the shirt. In no time a huge brawl develops among the Iraqi passengers.

Such a sign of internal Iraqi dissent, even in Damascus, is bad news for the U.S. plans for Iraq and the region. Sadeq al-Azm, the prominent Syrian intellectual and critic, fears the worst. "This will be a Pyrrhic victory for the Americans," he says in his study which is lined with books, many of which he wrote. "The longer and the worse the unrest in Iraq, the more negative the effect on the entire region." His problem is not only with the violence and anti-American emotions this may unleash but also with the way the Americans have gone about removing Saddam. He fears that from now on liberal democracy will be even more associated in people's minds with violent and Western imposed change. "This is a death blow to liberal, secular intellectuals in the region who have argued from within for change and whom the U.S. says it wants to support."

By Ferry Biedermann

Ferry Biedermann is a journalist based in Beirut.

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