Syria at the crossroads

The nation that "punches above its weight" in the Middle East is caught between the desire to come in from the cold and its old habits of militancy -- and now it's facing U.S. troops across its border.

Published January 5, 2005 2:21AM (EST)

The giant mobile-phone company ads that have replaced the grandiose posters of the late president Hafez Assad in Damascus cannot conceal the crumbling behind the country's newly commercialized façade. Yet in its foreign policy Syria seems to be as assertive as ever. Its ambiguous attitude toward the insurgency in Iraq has angered Washington. Its meddling in Lebanon has drawn criticism even from European sympathizers such as France. And both Europe and the United States are irritated by Syria's oldest hobby, stoking the fires of Palestinian militancy, at a time when the death of Yasser Arafat and exhaustion with the intifada may mean another chance for a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians.

Many foreign diplomats and some Syrian analysts say the government of Hafez's son Bashar can no longer afford those policies. And there are reasons to believe that the Syrian leader himself is trying to move away from his nation's traditional role as a bastion of Arab militancy. Yet during a recent visit to Damascus, a wide range of observers -- including a senior Palestinian leader, Iraqi politicians and local activists -- attested that the policies are continuing. Definitive proof is hard to come by here, in one of the most closed and controlling regimes in the world. Lebanon, which Damascus regards as its own private fiefdom, is the only place where Syria makes no attempt to hide its hand. But Syria still seems to be playing the games that under Hafez Assad made it famous for "punching above its weight" in the region.

The problem for Damascus, diplomats say, is that times have changed since 9/11 and the U.S. invasion of Iraq -- not to mention that the son is just not as adept as the father.

At the same time, however, Damascus is also reaching out to the West and its archenemy Israel. The young Assad is clearly interested in kick-starting negotiations with Israel, and not only through the official channels. Seated in the lobby of a posh Damascus hotel, one highly regarded academic told me, on condition of anonymity, that he was involved in setting up "second track" negotiations with the Israelis, based on the model of the Oslo talks that led to the historic 1993 agreement between the Rabin government and Arafat's PLO. The man, who is known to be reliable, provided names, dates and places and said the feelers were sanctioned at the very highest level.

Terje Roed-Larsen, the United Nations special coordinator for the Middle East peace process who was a key player in the Oslo talks, believes that Assad is sincerely interested not only in making peace with Israel but also in bringing Syria closer to the West. In the latest issue of Bitterlemons International, a Middle East round table, he wrote of "a very warm, creative and constructive" meeting with Assad. "I came away convinced that the president is genuinely interested not only in restarting negotiations, but also in seeking to reposition Syria and integrate the country more deeply into the international community," Roed-Larsen wrote. "All the indications are that Syria has recognized the signs of the times, and is trying to make some progress, both as regards peace with Israel and in terms of a broader redefinition of its role in the region."

Debate rages about Assad's motivations. Syria is clearly feeling heat from Washington and Europe, and the academic involved in the second-track talks admitted that Assad's peace feelers to Israel might be partly a P.R. ploy. But, he said, Assad is genuinely interested in making peace with Israel.

There can be no doubt that the United States, and now the United Nations, are putting pressure on Syria. Neoconservatives in the Bush administration who once boasted of making a "left turn" to Damascus after defeating Iraq and Iran continue to talk ominously about dealing with Syria. Although few expect the United States to actually invade either Syria or Iran now that its Iraq adventure has soured, the presence of American troops next door has clearly gotten Syria's attention. A few months ago the U.S. adopted the Syria Accountability Act, which imposed sanctions on Syria for allegedly seeking weapons of mass destruction, a charge Syria denies. And the U.N. Security Council in September agreed on Resolution 1559, which called on Syria to withdraw from Lebanon and to stop supporting that country's Hezbollah movement. To Syria's horror, France supported the resolution. But Damascus is far more worried about the United States.

Last week President Bush and one of his officials, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, demanded that Syria stop what they said was its support for the insurgency in Iraq. "We have sent messages to the Syrians in the past and will continue to do so. We have tools at our disposal, a variety of tools, ranging from diplomatic tools to economic pressure. Nothing's taken off the table," Bush said at a news conference. He is said to be reviewing options that include freezing the assets of high-ranking Syrian government officials. Armitage told the Lebanese newspaper An-Nahar that the administration would not let the subject of Resolution 1559 rest, either. "I hope that our relations with Syria do not worsen further, but it's entirely in the hands of Damascus," he said. "Syria's failure to accept U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559 is a defiance of the international community."

On Sunday, Armitage offered guarded praise for Syria's cooperation after meeting with Assad and his foreign minister, Farouk al-Sharaa. "Syria has made some real improvements in recent months on border security. But we all need to do more, particularly on the question of former regime elements participating in activities in Iraq, going back and forth from Syria," the Associated Press quoted him as saying.

Syria has tried to compensate for some of the American pressure by turning toward Europe. After nine years of glacial negotiations, Damascus this year signed an "association agreement" with the European Union. It was held up at the last moment when the EU insisted that its new rules on human rights and weapons of mass destruction be incorporated. But, says Frank Hesske, the EU's ambassador to Damascus, the agreement "certainly does not" mean that the Syrians can play off the EU against the United States.

The U.S. sanctions by themselves don't harm Syria's economy much. Trade between the two countries is relatively minor. But the sanctions do make it a lot harder to attract international investment, including capital from European companies, which is desperately needed to revive Syria's antiquated economy, says Hesske. Unable to provide jobs for young people entering the labor market and faced with slowing growth, Syria's economy may grind to a halt in two years' time. Partly as a result, social unrest -- including renewed stirrings of Islamic fundamentalism -- is growing. Fundamentalism was stomped out after Assad launched a brutal assault on the city of Hama in 1982, a stronghold of the Muslim Brotherhood, killing up to 20,000 people. Political repression is still heavy, even though the government is now steadily releasing small numbers of political prisoners. There have been no more signs of a thaw after the authorities came down hard on a nascent pro-democracy movement that sprang up after Bashar Assad took over in 2000.

The seemingly logical way to avoid a crisis would be to give in to the international pressure, get out of Lebanon, and stop meddling in Iraq and Palestine. But for several reasons Syria may find it difficult to do that. First of all, the regime survives by the grace of payoffs to clans and factions, according to several analysts who wish to remain anonymous. The money supposedly comes from Syria's involvement in Lebanon. Then there is the traditional role that Syria has played as a champion of Arab nationalism. It will not be easy for the government to let go of those ambitions and maintain its credibility domestically, among a public that has turned increasingly anti-Western after the U.S. invasion of Iraq. And lastly there is a persistent feeling that the good old ways still work.

Part of the riddle is the position of Bashar Assad. The British-educated ophthalmologist inherited the presidency upon his father's death, but many question the extent to which he is in control. Some observers speak of competing factions within the governing clique, which consists mainly of the extended Assad family, their minority Alawite sect, Christian allies and a sprinkling of outsiders. One of the factions is said to advocate business as usual, despite the 9/11 attacks and the presence of American troops in neighboring Iraq. Business as usual in Syria means that the country will keep up its support for hard-liners and militants wherever it can, in order to remain influential.

The continuing ambiguity about Syria's role in Iraq may fit this pattern. In Hiri, a desolate village about halfway along the 400-mile-long border, the Syrian security service, the Mukhabarat, seems to be keeping an eye on any suspicious strangers. Journalists who are not on a press tour organized by the country's Ministry of Information are told to leave and then escorted for more than 45 minutes through the nearby town of Abu Qamal, just to make sure they're really gone. But the regime's vigilance against people sneaking across the border to join the Iraqi insurgents, or bring them money or supplies, is said to be less sharp.

Indeed, as Syrian officials keep saying, the border is long and difficult to patrol. Near Hiri, the Syrians have built an earthen ramp to prevent cars from crossing, but everybody agrees that people get through elsewhere. The tribes and families in Syria are the same as on the Iraqi side, and people are used to moving back and forth. A sheik of the large Duleimi clan in Abu Qamal said that he was in Iraq during the war and that he knows that some people have since crossed to join their family members in their fight against the Americans.

The United States appears to be worried less about such individual crossings and much more about the possibility that the Syrian government may either be turning a blind eye to Iraqi insurgents or be actively assisting them. After initially complaining about the porous border, the United States has shifted its attention to the presence in Syria of members of the former Iraqi regime and its Baath party and their alleged role in funding and supporting the insurgency.

The country officially hosts some 45,000 Iraqis, but wildly inflated figures of up to a million refugees also circulate. One Iraqi Baathist who has been in Damascus for some 30 years, a refugee from Saddam Hussein, not an associate, is Mahdi al-Obeidi. "There are many people here from the regime," said Obeidi, who styles himself a representative of the "original Baath party, from before Saddam." In his shabby office in Damascus, he claimed to have met with many new arrivals. He does not make a distinction between those who have been "Saddam's men" and others. Now is Iraq's hour of need, and everybody should unite to fight the Americans, Obeidi said. "Even if I only have one dime left, I would give it to the resistance," he declared. Most Iraqis who are in Syria feel that way, he asserted, so it should not come as a surprise that they try to support the "freedom fighters." It is no secret that the Syrians are in "total sympathy with the resistance," Obeidi claimed. Sadly, he added, the government has not done much to help.

On the surface, it seems that the claim is correct, at least since the capture of Saddam Hussein about a year ago. Mahmoud Mohammed al Ghasi, also known as Sheik Qa'aqa, was a fiery preacher until the invasion of Iraq. Bearded and dressed as an Afghan veteran in a combination of fatigues and traditional garb, he urged the faithful to oppose American designs in the region. After the invasion he was told to tone it down. Now he looks like a businessman, dressed in a blazer with a cropped beard, and he has given up preaching in the local mosque. "The government does not have a problem with me," maintained Qa'aqa, seated behind his desk in his office in Aleppo. "I think some officials just became worried because I attracted too many people."

One disappointed former associate who preferred to remain unnamed said that he and a group of some 300 core supporters left Qa'aqa almost a year ago because the sheik "turned out to be a fraud." He said that before the war, Qa'aqa had called for a holy war against the Americans if they invaded Iraq. After the fall of Baghdad, Qa'aqa made a U-turn. "A lot of kids came to talk to him about going to Iraq and he swore again and again that there is no jihad in Iraq." Qa'aqa's former associate is closely watched by the Mukhabarat, and he has been forbidden to meet with other former followers of the sheik. "They do not want us to organize," he said. Nevertheless, he claimed that he and others like him had "very good contacts" among the insurgents in Iraq and that it was no problem to cross the border.

There is disagreement in Syria about what the government knows about such supposed ties and what it is doing about it. One advisor to the foreign ministry called it "inconceivable" that the government would allow, let alone condone, support for the Iraqi insurgents. "Those people may go and fight, be trained, learn all kinds of things, and come back to make trouble," said Riad Daoudi, arguing that the insurgency in Iraq is not in Syria's interest.

A prominent human rights lawyer, Anwar Al Bounni, agreed -- up to a point. He said that the government was arresting fighters who returned from Iraq, but not because it wanted the American vision of a democratic Iraq to succeed. At the beginning of December he was visited in his office in Damascus by one man who had been held for four months after crossing back to Syria. He told Al Bounni that at least 50 former fighters were languishing in the same jail. The lawyer thought that there must be many more elsewhere, and said that the government has indeed clamped down on some of the people who were calling for a jihad in Iraq. In Hama, where fundamentalism is reviving after the elder Assad's massacre, 16 preachers who had called on their followers to go to Iraq were arrested in September, the lawyer said. This was done, he claimed, not because the authorities wanted to stop the flow of fighters but because they do not want such fighters to be "outside their control."

Al Bounni said the government has no interest in a stable Iraq. "They worry about Iraq being a really democratic and free country." This presumably would set a bad example for Syria's own population. Another analyst who has insight into the working of the government, slightly adjusted that picture. Syria may still play a "passive" role in allowing fighters and financial support to cross into Iraq, he said. But the government would be willing to stop that "in exchange for a role" in the affairs of its neighbor. He called it the Americans' greatest failure that they have not made such an offer until now.

Syria's relationship with the Palestinians may face a similar problem. Syria simply does not want to be the last country to make peace with Israel. Its negotiating position over the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights would suffer if the Palestinians cut a deal first, which now seems possible, if only faintly. But both the Israeli government and the Bush administration have made clear that they are in no hurry to let Syria in on peace talks and thus evade international pressure over its other actions. In mid-December, Bush said, "Assad needs to wait: first peace between Israel and Palestine, and then we'll see what to do with Syria."

So Syria may once again revert to its "spoiler" role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The country hosts some of Palestinian militant groups' leaders and offices, and senior Palestinian leaders also say Damascus is trying to influence factions in the Palestinian territories. This is shaping up as a concern in the run-up to the elections on Jan. 9 for a new chairman of the Palestinian Authority to replace Yasser Arafat. The new Palestinian leadership is worried about the possibility that renewed fighting could disrupt the elections and scupper their plans to restore a measure of stability and even to restart negotiations with Israel. Over the last couple of weeks, fighting in Gaza between the militants and the army once again escalated after a period of relative calm in the wake of Arafat's death.

In Damascus, a veteran Palestinian leader, Naif Hawatmeh, earlier this month said that Syria indirectly supports some of the militant factions inside Fatah, the main PLO faction, through the Lebanese Hezbollah movement. "Everybody knows Syria and Iran support Hezbollah. Well, Hezbollah supports some of the groups in the Palestinian territories, not only the Islamic ones but also some inside Fatah such as the Al Aqsa Martyrs' Brigades," said Hawatmeh, who is the leader of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine and has been based in Damascus for decades.

Persistent Israeli claims to the same effect may have been exaggerated, but even Palestinian sources inside the West Bank, from all the important factions, agree that Hezbollah is involved, and Syria is blamed for instructing some factions to serve its own needs.

The Palestinian Islamic groups are also a concern for Mahmoud Abbas, the new PLO leader and the leading candidate in the Palestinian elections. He visited Damascus in December and met with the political leader of Hamas, Khaled Meshaal. A Hamas source said that the visit yielded little agreement and that the elections for the leadership of the Palestinian Authority were not even discussed. Meshaal rejected a Hamas cease-fire. After the meeting between Abbas and Meshaal, Hamas increased its attacks on Israeli targets in and around the Gaza strip.

At a press conference in Damascus -- after a meeting between President Assad and the Palestinian leadership, led by Abbas -- Syria's foreign minister, Farouk Shara'a, indicated where Syria's interests lay. He said that coordination between the Palestinians, Syria and Lebanon over peace moves was a "demand" of all the Arab states. Abbas also said he wanted coordination but did not make any firm commitments.

Syria is trying hard to prove that it is needed in the regional equation, that it cannot be ignored. In Damascus, critics of the government agree that Assad's government, even though it is reaching out to the rest of the world, is up to its old tricks. Where they differ is on the question of whether the regime will be prepared to abandon its practices at a price, or whether it never will because its very survival is bound up with them.

By Ferry Biedermann

Ferry Biedermann is a journalist based in Beirut.

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