TCS Daily

Syria Surrounded

By Joe Katzman - April 18, 2003 12:00 AM

As the volume of warnings from Washington increases, there's growing speculation that Syria may become the next country to tangle with the U.S. military. While Bashar Assad could always play his hand poorly, those on the left and the right floating invasion scenarios misunderstand the policies and strategic calculations driving both Syria and Washington.

Let's start with Syria's position.

Yes, Syria's own Ba'athist regime worked with Saddam to smuggle oil out, and other goods in. William Safire uncovered a French rocket fuel scandal that leads straight through Syria, as do shipments of night vision goggles and other military supplies - possibly even AT-14 Kornet anti-tank missiles. That doesn't surprise, and should not. This is the Middle East. Smuggling is normal in the region, Syria has long wanted to remain on Saddam's good side, and the Syrians have strong historical and commercial connections with both France and Russia. Assad's regime could also use the extra currency, as Syria doesn't have a lot of oil.

But what about the Syrian troops found in Baghdad? Or the terrorists shipped into Iraq from Syria during the war? Or Syria's role in helping the Iraqi Ba'ath leadership escape, as Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and President Bush have indicated? Pre-war smuggling is understandable, but the Americans are in the house now and demanding respect. Is this the Mideast version of suicide-by-cop?

Probably not. The best exposition comes from Mike Plaiss, a commenter responding to blogger Jane Galt's puzzlement on this issue. He wrote:

"When trying to figure out the motivations of a dictator always keep the following thought in mind. Dictators do one thing - they stay in power. It is what they do, it's ALL they do. It is their reason for existence."

True. Probably because they often cease to exist if they don't stay in power. This is especially true for Assad and company, whose Alawite sect comprises about 10% of the Syrian population and are considered heretics by many Islamists. The regime is fragile, the stakes are high, and they know it. Worse, Bashar Assad has succeeded his father but lacks Hafez Assad's power base and reputation. That matters, as Plaiss goes on to explain:

"First off it is clear that Assad does NOT think Syria is next, and he is probably right. So pissing off the U.S. (as long as he doesn't go too far) is not a big deal at all - it does not threaten his hold on power.

"A dictator's biggest threat is almost always an uprising from the population or a coup from his inner circle. Analyzing both of these threats, Assad is doing exactly the "right" thing. Opposing the U.S. pleases the militants (the people who would be the most motivated to take action against him - keeping your population's anger focused on others is the first rule in the dictator's play book).

"Even more important, it is critical that the dictator not look weak. A show of weakness gets people thinking that the dictator may be vulnerable. It is important for Assad's survival that he not simply roll over and play dead when the Ba'ath party in a neighbouring country is overthrown by violent means. Even if it is only cosmetic he must be seen to be doing something - anything is better than nothing."

Speaking on CNBC's Kudlow & Cramer, Ralph Peters also pointed out that sending a bunch of jihadis across the border to almost certain death might be a smart strategy if Assad believed the U.S. would win. The reasoning goes as follows: One way or the other, an American win means the jihadi problem will have to be dealt with. Letting them head into Iraq helps Assad look strong to his power base, gets most or all of the jihadis killed, doesn't cost him a single soldier, and makes any coming military moves against them easier. Is Peters correct? We'll see.

With its pipeline to Iraq cut and enemies all around, however, Syria's options are direly limited. Fomenting trouble via the Kurdish PKK is no longer an option; given Syria's weakened position, Turkey's wrath would be forceful and fearsome. Israel sits to the south, having openly threatened a thrust to Damascus if Syrian-backed Hezbollah terrorists in Lebanon cross certain lines of behaviour. The Jordanians remain unfriendly, seeing Syria's pawns in the Palestinian movement as a direct threat to a kingdom that is itself 70% Palestinian. Now the U.S. sits in Iraq. Even without another terrifying U.S. military push, that Iraqi oil pipeline and the currency it brings are probably finished unless Syria plays ball. There are even proposals to reactivate an old Jordanian-West Bank-Israel pipeline out of Iraq instead, providing both an alternative export route and an economic boost to 3 key players in the Mideast peace process.

The Bush administration understands all this. Which is why Oliver Willis' recent piece claiming that the Syria was next on "the neocon hit list" and a target for imminent war was needlessly alarmist.

Yes, the Syrian threat is real. Al-Qaeda and its allies in Hamas, Hezbollah, and Islamic Jihad have made their declaration of war on the U.S. clear, both before and during Gulf War II. These groups are clearly backed by Syria - a Ba'athist state with significant weapons of mass destruction programs. Every argument for invading Iraq applies at least as strongly to Syria.

Having said that, prepare to be surprised at what comes next. As Saddam expected diplomacy without end, he got war. Syria and Iran expect war without end; they will get diplomacy.

Weakened and threatened, Syria is being given a clear ultimatum to clean up its terrorist mess - or else. Surrounded by enemies, deprived of its pipeline to Iraq, and staring at the U.S. divisions and airpower sitting on its borders, that threat is pretty meaningful. Which is why it will probably work. Step 2 thus involves Syria doing a lot of the dirty cleanup work itself - with a gun to its head, of course.

That's the strategic goal, not invasion. It's a smarter goal, too, because once Assad acts, he will be more ruthless about this than the U.S. would or could be.

Having shown - and used - the big stick, America can now afford to walk more softly as it surveys the neighbourhood from its newfound base of operations. The Bush administration is likely being underestimated. Again.

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