Syria: the fork in the road for Bush and Blair
Engage with Damascus and you can hope for change with some stability. Pull it
down and you may reap the whirlwind
15 April 2003
"I have made it clear, and I repeat, that Syria is not 'next on the list',''
declared Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, yesterday in a tone that sounded
anything but confident.
His nervousness was understandable, for Syria seems all too clearly in the
American sights, as over the weekend, starting with Donald Rumsfeld and going
on to the Secretary of State Colin Powell and finally President Bush himself,
one warning after another has been sounded against the Syrian regime for
harbouring Iraqi leaders and having developed weapons of mass distraction of
It was only by the skin of its teeth and Tony Blair's urgings that Syria
escaped being included in President Bush's "axis of evil speech" last year.
As the countdown to war with Iraq developed this year, Rumsfeld, the US
Defence Secretary, started openly to bracket Syria as a potential enemy. Told
about by this by an aide fearful of a widening war, President Bush is
supposed to have looked up from his papers and simply said "good".
That is not a view shared by London, where the accession to power in Syria of
Bashar Assad, the British-educated son of the wily President Hafez al-Assad,
had in 2000 given rise to fond hopes of a London-Damascus axis to bring
peaceful reform to the Middle East. "But Assad and his wife have only
recently had tea with the Queen," gasped a ruffled TV announcer when
Washington's war of words began in the middle of last week.
At this moment, the US is probably not planning to direct its armies to wheel
left from Baghdad to march on Damascus. But the sense of threat, and the
menacing tone of the references to "regime change", are far too carefully orc
hestrated to put down to pique at Syria's vociferous and unrelenting
denunciation of the invasion of Iraq or specific concerns about escaping
That is certainly what the Syrians believe. From the beginning they have seen
the US as aiming to redraw the Middle East map, in which Israel's enemies –
most notably Iraq, Syria and Iran in that order – would be brought to heel or
knocked off one by one, if not by direct military action then by the threat
And there is some justification for this fear, if not for the Zionist
conspiracy theories that Syria and much of the rest of the Middle East
believe in. Regime change not just in Iraq but in the neighbouring countries
has been a central plank of the security policy developed by Rumsfeld, his
deputy Paul Wolfowitz, Vice-President Dick Cheney, security adviser Richard
Perle and Richard Garner, America's proposed governor of Iraq, a decade ago.
In this view, the root of the problems of terrorism and insecurity in the
Middle East lies in the continuance of a series of undemocratic states,
supported in the past by Washington, whose interests lie in stirring up
trouble abroad and denying Israel's right to exist in order to divert
attention from their tyranny at home. Confront these regimes and force change
and the Middle East will develop into a peaceful region of democratic states
that will cast aside terrorism, recognise Israel and peacefully pursue a
course of economic development at home and neighbourliness abroad.
Syria, in this world view, is an archetypal baddy. It is a tyranny run by a
one-party Baathist regime headed by a small clique of minority Alawites
committed to the suppression of political dissent and a command economy
inside its borders and a confrontation with the US and Israel outside them.
Although it sided with the US in the 1991 Gulf War, its threat to regional
order has been immeasurably increased by its military presence in Lebanon and
its support of Hizbollah there.
If this is indeed the view held by President Bush's inner circle – and it is
a programme that has so far been followed to the letter in the war against
Iraq – then it catches Damascus at a peculiarly vulnerable time. Hafez Assad,
the Arab world's most astute political operator, had managed through two
decades to carve out for Syria an independent role by playing to Arab public
opinion with anti-Israeli rhetoric in public and playing off his enemies and
neighbours in practice.
Ruthless in his exercise of power – he smashed the Islamic fundamentalists at
Hama with the loss of some 10,000 lives – he was also extremely subtle in
politics, never taking a position that he could not retreat from or making an
enemy he could not later embrace. Yitzhak Shamir regarded him as the one Arab
leader who could deliver on his promises, and, had it not been for Shamir's
assassination by a Jewish fanatic, there might have been peace between the
two countries. Shamir's successors loathed Assad as the hard rock of Arab
Bashar is a different figure entirely. Never brought up to succeed – his
elder brother Basil, the chosen heir, was killed in a car accident in 1994 –
Bashar came to power in a country that had been prepared for peace and then
stood down for continued confrontation. Although he has managed to attract a
constituency of young, more pro-Western reformers, he remains distrusted and
still heavily circumscribed by the old guard of military and security chiefs.
They have allowed him internal economic liberalisation, but not a loosening
of internal political controls or a radical departure in foreign politics.
Tony Blair learned to his cost, in a peace-seeking mission a year ago, that
however cordial your relations with Damascus, on the issue of Israel Bashar
still has to play hardball. Indeed, after the election of hard-right
governments in Israel and the US, the authorities in Damascus moved to
tighten control of political dissent and, over the last two years, to
re-establish relations with Saddam Hussein. In doing so, it has undoubtedly
added ammunition to America's deep distrust.
Whether Syria is really giving aid and comfort to America's defeated enemy or
developing chemical weapons on any scale must be doubtful. Personal relations
between the Baathists of the two regimes were always closer at the level of
the armed forces than the politicians. Syria's rapprochement with Iraq was
largely to do with economics, and the illicit trade in oil. Leading Iraqi
figures may have fled across the border, but if they have done so it will be
through bribes to a corrupt Syrian hierachy rather than asylum. Equally, it
is hard to see Syria as having weapons of mass destruction. Unlike Iraq, it
has learned to be extremely reluctant to face military confrontation given
the poor state of its armed forces. In a stand-off with Turkey two years ago,
it pulled back its troops within weeks.
The dilemma over Syria is the same as in other parts of the Middle East in
the post-11 September world – to confront or engage. Washington's
neo-conservatives can point to the experience of Iraq and say that the people
of Syria, and Lebanon for that matter, no less than the Iraqis wish a change
that can only be brought about from the outside. The engagers, led by Britain
but including most of Europe, can point to a Syrian society that is far more
open to foreign contact and economic liberalism than ever Iraq was, and a
country that has kept largely to its own outside of Lebanon, where internal
divisions have sucked it in to keep the peace. The Baathist regime may not be
popular but it has largely kept the country out of trouble for the last 20
years and given the Arabs some pride in its refusal to compromise with
Israel. Without the Alawite regime, its delicate balance of competing ethnic
groups – Sunnis, Druzes, Kurds and Christians – may well descend to the
chaos we saw in Lebanon and are witnessing in Iraq.
Engage with Damascus and you can hope for change with some stability. Pull it
down and you may threaten to reap the whirlwind. That is the dilemma facing
London as it reacts to the chorus of threatening voices coming from
Washington. It's a dilemma, however, that seems to trouble Tony Blair far
more than President Bush.