Bashar Assad's nightmare is coming true By Daniel Sobelman
[Ha'aretz - 15 April]:
The editors of the official Syrian government newspapers have in recent days lowered the rank of U.S. administration officials to one reserved until now only for their Israeli counterparts: Nazi war criminals.
"The UN Security Council and the UN General Assembly must transfer the leaders of the American administration to the International Criminal Court, so they can be judged as war criminals, equal in rank to the Nazi war criminals," said one of the editorials of the newspaper Tishrin two days ago.
The tension between Damascus and Washington has reached a peak unequaled in recent years. It's not clear whether this is a result of the recent American warnings to Syria that it should soften its positions toward the United States.
Syrian spokesmen, including the country's Ambassador to Washington, Rostom Zoubi, and Foreign Minister Farouk Shara, have tried during the past two days once again to recall the historic animosity between Damascus and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein. It is doubtful whether this will help.
In the past two years, the United States has expressed dissatisfaction with the behavior of Syria in regard to the crisis between Israel and the Palestinians, and with its assistance provided to the terrorist organizations, but it has almost totally avoided imposing fines; now, Syria has been singled out by the Bush administration as a country that dared to operate against the U.S. itself, even if indirectly.
In recent days, Israel has received reports that the Syrian leadership understands that it must change its ways. However, there has been at least one report of a Syrian warning to the U.S. that Syria has the ability to defend itself and to cause damage to anyone who tries to harm it.
Syria also made sure to level penetrating criticism against the Arab countries that supported the U.S. move on Iraq, or at least "went along with" the U.S. In light of this, Syria's relations with countries like Egypt and Jordan are not what they were, either.
Syria was in fact the only Arab country that during the period of the Iran-Iraq war, from 1980-1988, while the United States supported Saddam's regime, stood alongside Ayatollah Khomeini's Islamic Republic. But in recent years there has been a significant thawing of its relations with Iraq. Full diplomatic relations have not been renewed, but since 1997, and even more so since Assad Junior took over the government in the summer of 2000, trade relations between Syria and Iraq have been continually on the increase.
In November 2000, in violation of the sanctions on Iraq, Syria and Iraq renewed the flow of the oil pipeline from Kirkuk, and Syria began to rake in profits to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. Later Bashar Assad and Shara promised U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell that the flow of oil would be stopped, but they didn't honor their commitments. Recently the U.S. closed the pipeline.
Closer trade relations had enabled Baghdad to get Syria "addicted" to the Iraqi market. Now Syria is expected to sustain an economic blow.
Damascus saw in Iraq a sort of strategic rear guard against Israel, and feared the collapse of this rear. Now Syria will find itself politically isolated, with pro-American regimes on almost all sides. In Syria's opinion, this will strengthen primarily its chief enemy - Israel.
Even Syria's relations with its ally Iran are soon likely to suffer from an overdose of tension, if Tehran decides to moderate its attitude toward the U.S.
The Syrians had additional reasons for interfering with the American plans. Assad believed that the more the American forces became mired in the Iraqi "mud," the more the administration's intention to persecute Syria as well would be delayed or even called off. In addition, the Syrian president preferred a conflict with the U.S. administration to one with public opinion in his country.
Syrian behavior now is not characteristic of the Syria of the past decades, under Hafez Assad, who knew how to set ideology aside in favor of expediency. Iran and Hezbollah, which didn't support the American move but didn't interfere, either, apparently handled the situation much more cleverly than Syria. Hezbollah's leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, hasn't opened his mouth for almost a month, and his organization made sure to emphasize that it wasn't sending any men to help Iraq.