The increasing number of clashes between U.S. and Syrian forces raises serious questions about the Bush administration’s intentions and the wisdom of its actions. It appears that this escalation on the American side is dictated not entirely by the urgency over the infiltration of foreign insurgents from Syria into Iraq. Rather, it is motivated by the administration’s desire for regime change in Damascus. This preoccupation explains why instead of persuading Syria to support the administration’s efforts in Iraq by offering it real incentives, the White House has chosen to bully yet another nation, at the tremendous risk of escalating the war in Iraq and engulfing not just Syria but other states in the region.
It is not difficult to present a complete dissertation on Syria’s egregious past and present support of extremist groups committing acts of terror in Israel, Lebanon, and Iraq. Syria can vehemently deny such a role, but any serious review of its conduct and the sanctuary that Damascus offers to these groups affirm that assertion. That said, Syria has in the post-Saddam period also cooperated with U.S. intelligence and has, by the CIA’s own admission, proven to be of use. And time and again, the Syrians have made overtures to the United States for the two nations to engage in meaningful dialogue, only to be rebuffed by an administration fixated on regime change in Syria. The administration’s intentions coupled with persistent public criticism from Washington are what pushed Damascus a few months ago to end all security and intelligence cooperation between the two nations. Yet while the administration has made no secret of its goal of regime change, it turns to Syria for help in Iraq, although clearly, if the United States succeeds in Iraq, the Syrian government will be targeted next. Although it is naïve to assume that any country will contribute to its own demise, this administration is not looking to offer either a logical approach or a sound rationale for its policies toward Syria. Having systematically misled the American public about the dismal reality in Iraq, now the administration finds itself in need to invent another international crisis to divert attention from the real nature of its plight, which is increasingly coming to light.
It is true that foreign insurgents do infiltrate Iraq from Syria, as do many others from Iran. But how much longer will the administration continue to blame foreign insurgents for its failure to cope with the insurgency in Iraq when in fact, according to American intelligence reports, they constitute no more than 4 to 6 percent of total insurgents? Although foreign fighters are more likely to become suicide bombers and thereby inflict disproportionate damage, as was suggested by a former senior intelligence officer, and recently reported by the New York Times, it is always easier to blame foreign fighters for the strength of the insurgency than to develop effective new counterinsurgency strategies. As recently as October 2, General John Abizaid, Commander of the United States Central Command, said on NBC’s Meet the Press, that he recognized the need to “avoid hyping the foreign fighters’ problem.” Indeed, the vast majority of insurgents are former Iraqi military personnel that the administration disbanded immediately after the fall of Baghdad, thereby itself creating an instant deadly enemy. With their families, these soldiers and officers represent more than two million Iraqi Sunnis who have been abandoned with no jobs and no future: it is they who make up the core of the insurgency.
For these reasons, the administration must defuse the conflict with Syria by opening a dialogue with Damascus. Threats and intimidation will work with Syria only up to a point. President Bashar al-Asad would not last another day in power if he caved in to American pressure, especially after his surrender of Lebanon. But if the intention of the administration remains to topple President al-Asad, his demise will not provide the regime change it is hoping for. His successor is likely to be smarter, more experienced and certainly much bolder in securing his power base because only a strong leader can muster the support of the Syrian Ba’ath party, which forms the country’s military establishment. Working with Syria’s present government is hardly impossible. The administration continues to negotiate directly and indirectly with many unsavory regimes, including those of North Korea and Iran, and with dictatorships and theocracies. There is no reason to treat Syria differently, especially when Damascus can be extremely helpful to the United States. The administration’s choices are not, as it would have people believe, limited to seeking diplomatic isolation of Syria, as Secretary of State Rice advocates, or using more coercive methods, as the Defense Department proposes. Syria is eager to normalize relations with the United States, because the government there knows that much of the country’s economic development and national security considerations, and certainly its hopes for recovering the Golan Heights, depend on U.S. willingness to help. Syria is eager to have an open-ended dialogue with the United States that will serve their mutual interests. It should be noted in this regard that Syria’s relations with these extremist groups, to which Damascus does not admit, is nothing more than a marriage of convenience. They are bargaining chips that Syria will happily trade for an offer of constructive relations with the United States with some security guarantees. Instead of resorting to coercive methods to force Damascus into submission, a policy that will certainly backfire, the administration must first abandon the idea of regime change and use incentives to persuade Syria to support its efforts in Iraq.
Emboldened by its success in Lebanon, the administration can make a tragic mistake in trying to push the Syrians to the breaking point by launching military strikes inside Syria as some administration officials speculate. The unintended consequences of a bloody conflict with Syria will be far more severe than this administration could imagine, if Iraq offer any example. Conflict with Syria could ignite a regional war engulfing Israel and Lebanon and shattering any remaining hope that the Middle East will see democracy and stability in the foreseeable future.