All Writings
April 13, 2003

Will Syria Be Next?

The short answer is No. The long answer is that although on the surface there seem to be several similarities between Syria and Iraq, treating Syria as if it were just another stage in our war on terrorism, will be disastrous to our strategic interests in the Middle East and have a dangerous ripple effect on the entire region. But if we do not pursue this path, we have a great opportunity to establish a relationship with Damascus that will foster political stability and peace while cementing our interests in region.

It is true the Syrian government is a dictatorship, controlled since 1963 by a rival branch of the same Ba'ath party that governed Iraq, with the military as its enforcer. But this is where most of the similarities end. Neither the late President Hafez Asad nor his son and successor, Bashar Asad, have equaled Saddam's ruthlessness and cruelty. Bashar Asad seems to have inherited much of his father's political agenda: He is a devout Arab nationalist, seeks to play a central role in Arab politics, supports the Palestinian struggle, wants to improve the lot of his people, and, to reclaim their national pride and dignity, is fixated on recovering the Golan Heights lost in 1967 to Israel.

These large differences between the two nations explain not only why we should avoid attacking Syria but why we should look at what role Syria can play in our war on terrorism and the promotion of peace in the region. If we see Syria in this light, our relations with it can mark the beginning of the healing process between ourselves and the Arab world. And a healing process is exactly what we need as that world is enraged and humiliated over our conquest of Iraq. But for now, let me detail some of the other differences between Syria and Iraq that lead me to this view.

Although Syria does possess weapons of mass destruction (WMD,) especially chemical ones and the means to deliver them, its leadership, unlike Saddam, has never used them against its own people or threatened other nations with them. (Israel too could fall into the same category.)

The situation concerning Syria's relationship with terrorist groups is somewhat more complex. The government does harbor several Palestinian-affiliated terrorist groups (in Syria, they are called resistence movements).Yet, Bashar Asad, like his father, keeps them under a short leash; thus, since the Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon in mid-2000, Damascus has reined in Hizbullah. Still, the government's cozy relations with Islamic terrorist groups remains suspect. Yet administration officials admit that Syria has been very cooperative with our intelligence agencies in the war against terrorism. In addition, despite being on the State department's list of states sponsoring terrorism, not a single terrorist activity has been traced to Syria during the past two decades.

We have also maintained diplomatic relations with Syria (at the ambassadorial level) and were actively engaged in the Israeli-Syrian negotiations throughout most of the 1990s. Another difference between Iraq and Syria is that Syrian officials lobby Washington for improved relations between our two nations. Indeed, Syria wants more than the full restoration of normal relations.

Syria has also committed itself to the peace process with Israel and has kept its commitments to prior agreements with it. For example, not a single violent incident has occurred between Israel and Syria since the disengagement agreements on the Golan brokered by the United States in 1974. Syria too accepted Crown Prince Abdullah's peace initiative adopted in March of 2002 by the Arab League, in Beirut, Lebanon, calling for peace between Israel and the Arab world in exchange for Israel's withdrawal from the territories it occupied in 1967.

Finally, while the so called "friendly" Arab or Muslim states, such Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Pakistan allow thousands of schools to indoctrinate their pupils with perverted Islamist teachings (providing breeding grounds for future generations of terrorists), very little of that exists in Syria. Syrian authorities have shown zero tolerance for Islamist restiveness since February of 1982, when the military crushed Islamist opposition in the town of Hama.

I want to emphasize here that I am not suggesting we give Syria a clean bill of health; its record on human rights leaves much to be desired. Syria lacks political freedom, social and economic liberties are limited, and the succession to power is not through an elective process. That said, Bashar Asad is not Saddam Hussein. Systematic oppression is not a state policy. If Syria assisted some Iraqis, as certain administration figures have claimed, it has done so not for the love of Saddam but to salvage Arab pride, which has sustained another unbearable humiliating blow with the defeat of Iraq. Meanwhile, Syria has vehemently denied transporting military equipment to Iraq or harboring Iraqi WMD, as defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld alleged. Even if we do not necessarily take Syria at its word, Rumsfeld's own choice of words, accompanied by threats, are reminiscent of similar administration pre-war utterances about Iraq. And, in this context, let's not forget: We have not as yet found WMD in Iraq, their existence presumably the reason why we went to war in the first place. This leads to the question: Where does this administration think it is going? Buoyed by the lightening fast conquest of Iraq, some conservatives, inside (and outside) the government, such as Rumsfeld, and Pentagon advisor Richard Perle, will be making a tragic error if they view the Syrian regime as another pawn to be taken as they redraw the geopolitical map of the Middle East.

A far more productive outcome of Hussein's toppling, which the administration has argued will produce a new political atmosphere in the region conducive to positive change, would be to enlist Syria on our side. Despite all its shortcomings, we can work with the Syrian regime. Surely Damascus should go beyond its current policy of hermetically controlling the activities of the terrorist organizations it currently offers refuge to and disassociate itself even more. Specifically, Syria must also disarm Hizbullah and stop using this Islamic group as a surrogate to do its bidding in its struggle with Israel over the Golan. But Syria needs to believe it will gain some dividend for this effort. A good beginning would be the removal of its name from the State Department list, which will open the door to commerce, trade, capital investment, direct and indirect economic assistance, and all the other benefits of normalized relations with the United States that Syria so desperately needs. It would be useful in this regard to recall that Syria supported UN resolution 1441 demanding Iraq's disarmament, because it wanted to be part of the new regional dynamic. I have been told by Syrian officials that Syria is willing to sign a peace treaty with Israel as long as it can recover the entire Golan. A skillful diplomacy will provide us with a golden opportunity to put and end to the Israeli-Syrian conflict which holds the key to Middle East stability.

The Bush administration has demonstrated, for better or worse, that it can take bold actions. The political risk in trying to bring Israel and Syria to the negotiating table is much smaller than those in attempting an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord any time soon. For Israel, there are considerably fewer emotional, psychological, and even religious constraints in dealing with the Golan than with the West Bank. We should not abandon the Israelis and Palestinians to their own devises. But we should not also wait to tackle Syria until we reach a resolution of that conflict which may be several years away.

It is a truism that waging war is easier than making peace. Thus far, we have done poorly in the diplomatic arena, managing to alienate at least half the globe in our quest to unseat Saddam Hussein. Will we somehow find the diplomatic skills necessary to match our military prowess and precision in the post-Saddam era and bring Syria around?