Is Syria Next?

The recent allegation by US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld that Syria is smuggling war materiel into Iraq raises the ominous prospect that America's attention will turn toward Damascus the moment it is finished with Baghdad.

Rumsfeld's charge--vehemently denied by Syria--now tops a long list of unresolved issues in Syria's relations with the US: Syria's open-ended military intervention in Lebanon and continued support of Hezbollah there; its supposed involvement in the 1982 suicide attack in Beirut that killed 241 US Marines; its continued support of various "outlawed" Palestinian groups; and its allegedly growing stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons. Indeed, Syria has long been included on the US State Department's list of nations that support terrorism.

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For these reasons, Syria could well become a potential target for American military adventurism. Even before the onset of the current hostilities, the possibility was raised by certain members of the Bush Administration, such as Richard Perle, and conservative media commentators, all of whom would gladly add Syria to the "Axis of Evil."

Recognizing this possibility, the Syrian regime has made clear its opposition to the American war in Iraq, which has been branded by President Bashir Assad and other senior officials as "a war of aggression". Top-level thinking about the risks that Syria runs were recently made clear in an interview that President Assad gave to a Lebanese newspaper.

Assad compared the situations in Lebanon and Iraq, insisting that Iraq could achieve what Lebanon had already accomplished two decades before, namely the forced withdrawal by American and British troops in the face of steadfast, bloody resistance. "The US and Britain will not be able to control Iraq," Assad claimed.

Declaring that "Arab popular resistance" to the American invasion has spread through the region, Assad referred to the increasing numbers of Arab, including Syrian, "volunteers" who have gone to Iraq to fight alongside Saddam's soldiers. The Arabs, Assad said, would resist American efforts "to rearrange the region as it sees fit" in order to control its oil wealth and accommodate Israeli interests. In response, he called for the enactment of the Arab Mutual Defense Pact.

Recently, the 90-year-old Grand Mufti of Syria, Sheik Ahmad Kiftaro, called on Muslims worldwide to carry out "martyr operations" against American interests, a call that could not have been made without advance government approval. It seems that the Syrian regime is painting itself into a dark and dreary corner, a development that could set the stage for a potential showdown with the US in the not-so-distant future.

This said, however, there is also an unpublicized aspect of Syrian-American relations to consider. Since the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington on September 11, 2001, security cooperation between the two countries seems to have intensified. The Syrian intelligence apparatus has provided much valuable information on the activities of Muhammad Atta and others suspected of involvement in those attacks, as well as information about other al-Qaeda activities. There are even indications of some Syrian intelligence-sharing with the Americans regarding Iraqi military readiness in the weeks preceding the attacks.

This should not be surprising, for Syria's rulers over the last thirty years have proven skillful at hedging their bets. It is even possible that the regime's loud anti-American stance might be meant to hide some secret arrangement with the Americans, especially regarding the Kurds and Iraqi opposition members living in Syria.

Nonetheless, if the Americans win in Iraq--which they must in order to maintain their global credibility as a superpower--their relations with their new Syrian neighbors will not be easy. Resolving all outstanding issues will not happen quickly. Moreover, the Syrian view of the Arab-Israeli dispute cannot be glossed over, because Syrian agreement is necessary for any peaceful settlement.

If the US attempts to isolate Syria, it will not have an easy time of it. Damascus maintains good political and economic relations with Russia, China, and key EU members, especially France, with its paternalistic attitude towards its former colony and its young president. On the other hand, with Americans controlling Iraq, Syria will find itself surrounded by three unfriendly (if not outright hostile) and allied neighbors: the Americans in the East, and the Turks and Israelis in the north and south, both of which occupy Syrian territories.

Nonetheless, outstanding issues between Syria and the US would be better resolved using smart diplomacy than smart bombs. Considering the evidence on display in Iraq, Syrian leaders must be wondering whether the Bush administration is capable of thinking in these terms. At the same time, will Syria's new rulers prove capable of striking the kind of Machiavellian bargain for which the late Syrian president, Hafiz Al-Assad, was famous? Because the country's rulers include many members of his team, such a possibility probably exists. But are the Americans willing to see it?