Syria Fears Aftermath of an Iraq War
Syria Fears It May Be Next in Line for Regime Change After a U.S. War on Iraq
DAMASCUS, AP, Syria March 5:
Behind Syria's fervent opposition to a war against Iraq lurk fears that a U.S. victory could damage Syria's economy and make the country a target in an American campaign for regime change throughout the Middle East.
Few governments have more to lose from the installment of a new, pro-U.S. leadership in Iraq, analysts and diplomats say.
Syria, a central participant in the Arab-Israeli conflict, would find itself surrounded by hostile or unsympathetic neighbors and cut off from a lifeline of subsidized Iraqi crude oil. Syrian President Bashar Assad would have little choice but to improve his prickly relations with the United States as the price of his political survival, they say.
"I don't deny we are afraid of a war on Iraq. There is a governmental opinion that Syria's turn will come next," said Haitham al-Killani, a political columnist and former Syrian ambassador to the United Nations.
The U.S. State Department includes Syria on a list of countries it accuses of sponsoring terrorism, and diplomatic ties between Damascus and Washington have long been strained. Suggestions by some Americans that the United States should pursue political changes in the region beyond Iraq's borders have alarmed Syria's ruling Baath Party.
Last week Syrian Vice President Abdul-Halim Khaddam denounced such intervention as illegal and "hegemonistic" at a meeting of Non-Aligned Movement nations in Malaysia.
Syria has long played a pivotal role in the Middle East, balancing ties between powerful Iran and Saudi Arabia and maintaining pressure on Israel by stationing thousands of troops in neighboring Lebanon. But Syria's usefulness to the United States would diminish if a pro-American government took power next door in Iraq, said Nadim Shehadi, director of the Center for Lebanese Studies at Britain's Oxford University.
Syria would find itself hemmed in by U.S. allies on all frontiers: Israel and Jordan to the south, Turkey to the north, and Iraq to the east.
"Syria would be snookered. It would be deprived of its ability to play a game where it would be useful," Shehadi said.
Signs of a thaw in U.S.-Syrian relations emerged after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, when Damascus pledged to support the U.S.-led war on terrorism. Authorities here have detained Mohammed Haydar Zammar, a Syrian-born German who allegedly recruited for al-Qaida in Hamburg, Germany.
Syria, the lone Arab member of the U.N. Security Council, also backed Resolution 1441, which called on Iraq to account for or destroy its weapons of mass destruction. Last month it withdrew 4,500 soldiers from northern Lebanon, putting them elsewhere in Lebanon and prompting some observers to conclude that Syria was showing a new willingness to compromise. However, Syrian analysts dismissed the troop movement as a minor redeployment.
Syria's overarching goal is the return of the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau that Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war. With few friends in the region and the likelihood of further isolation after a war on Iraq it would look increasingly to the United Nations for support, analysts say.
A U.S. victory in Iraq would rock Syria's economy. Iraq has become Syria's biggest trading partner since the pair overcame deep political differences two years ago. Iraq buys Syrian consumer goods and exports mostly oil, which it ships illegally outside United Nations channels. Syrian officials refused to confirm the trade, but Western diplomats and oil industry sources call it an open secret.
Syria is believed to buy as much as 200,000 barrels a day at a heavily discounted price, and analysts describe cheap Iraqi oil as an economic and political crutch.
"Already the economy is in bad shape, and if there is an economic collapse it would have political repercussions. Syria is politically stable, but it's on the edge," Shehadi said.
For now, the Syrian government is putting most of its energies into trying to prevent an attack on Iraq. If war proves unavoidable, Syrians hope the United States will become too bogged down rebuilding Iraq to threaten other leaders in the region.
One of the few good cards in Syria's meager hand is its close ties with Iraqi opposition groups that have taken refuge here. Over time, diplomats say, these groups may repay their political debt by allowing Syria some influence over developments in a postwar Iraq.