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Syria in a Box

By: 
Bilal El-Amine
Date Published: 
March 01, 2006

The Syrian Baath regime, in power now for over 40 years, is in very tight spot. Internal political reform is long, long overdue. External pressures, mainly from the US but increasingly from Europe and the Arab world are mounting quickly. President Bashar Assad’s defiant speech to the nation on November 10 had all the hallmarks of regime in a corner, fighting for its very survival.

Despite its frail economy, meager resources, and weak military, the Syrian regime had fared relatively well through the most intense crises, enduring at least two major wars with Israel, the occupation of the Golan Heights, the 15-year Lebanese civil war, the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, and the collapse of the Soviet Union. One could even argue that Damascus played by Washington’s rules after the September 11 attacks by sharing intelligence and joining in on Bush’s “war on terror.” Then sometime around the US invasion of Iraq, everything began to turn sour. The scales in Washington tipped against Damascus.

The timing of this remains unclear—was it simply a ratcheting up of a long-existing policy of hostility toward Syria, did the neocons finally win the argument inside the Bush administration that Syria comes next after Iraq, or was it due to a convergence of events in the region that afforded Washington the opportunity to strike. Certainly, there was no notable change in the behavior in the Syrian regime to trigger the sudden desire in Washington to bring it down. Syrian control of Lebanon, for example, was sanctioned by the US since 1990, its border with Israel was kept meticulously calm for decades, and sure Syria opposed the US invasion of Iraq but so did virtually the whole world including most Arab countries.

The most often cited reason for Washington’s wrath, that Syria is to blame for the growing insurgency in Iraq, is not so convincing. As has been pointed out repeatedly and confirmed by the percentage of foreign fighters arrested by the US military even in “hotbeds” like Falluja—a mere 5%—the insurgency is overwhelmingly Iraqi and it is of Washington’s doing. No doubt the illusion that Islamist fighters are flowing into Iraq from all corners of the Arab world by way of Syria provides the Bush administration with a convenient scapegoat for its profound failure in Iraq.

And the claim that Syria supports and harbors terrorists (i.e., radical Palestinian groups like Islamic Jihad and Hamas, and Hizbullah in Lebanon) does not stand up so well either. Hizbullah’s real sponsor is Iran and the party enjoys enough popularity in Lebanon that it can survive nicely without Syria’s help. As for the Palestinian groups, most people and governments in the region view them as legitimate resistance organizations. Yet even here, Syria has complied with US demands that their offices in Damascus be closed. Today Islamic Jihad has an office in Lebanon, out of which it operates freely, but no one is accusing the Lebanese government of sponsoring terrorists.

No amount of compliance seems to satisfy the neocons—each time the Syrian regime beats a retreat, it wets their appetite for more. Who can blame the Baath for concluding that their necks are on the line no matter what. Given Assad’s recent speech, it seems that his regime has come to the decision that there is no way out and that confrontation is the only remaining option. He directed himself to his last remaining base of possible support, the Syrian people, hoping to rally them around his beleaguered regime.

The Lebanon option

When the Bush administration was first really considering doing something about the Syrian regime, its options were limited and ineffective. The neocons, with the help of the Zionist and right-wing Lebanese Christian lobbies in the US, came up with the Syrian Accountability Act and got it through Congress in late 2003. This allowed the Bush administration to slap Damascus with economic sanctions that had little effect. Then, the US military got bogged down in Iraq and Bush was unable to back his threats with any force. It appeared for a short time at least that Syria might very well evade the neocon lynch mob.

Then the heavens parted for the Bush administration and down came an opportunity to deal a powerful blow to the Baath regime without a single US soldier stepping foot on Syrian soil. In the course of a few short months (roughly between September 2004 and February 2005), as Syrian rulers in Lebanon committed a series of unforgivable political blunders, Washington got its big break. Beginning with a heavy-handed campaign to force the Lebanese into accepting an extension of their president’s term against their wishes and ending with the cataclysmic assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Harriri—believed to be the work of Syrian and Lebanese intelligence—the Syrian regime effectively delivered its own head on a platter.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that the road to Damascus opened up through Beirut. That has always been the case. Since its very creation by being artificially carved out of Syria by the French, Lebanon has been a constant source of anxiety to any regime in Damascus. Syrian opposition groups of all stripes have made good of use Lebanon as a base of operations. More critically, Lebanon’s proximity to the capital Damascus, acts as a soft underbelly, a point of weakness, in Syria’s defenses. If, for example, the Israelis were to reach the Biqa, just over the mountains to the west of Beirut, they would only be minutes from the political heart of Syria.

Syria intervened in the Lebanese civil war back in 1976 for this very reason. The Lebanese Christian right was about to be defeated by a coalition of the Lebanese left and the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) when Syria decided to step in. Its fear was that if it doesn’t save the Lebanese right—certainly no friends of Syria—Israel could very well do so and win the powerful Christian community’s loyalty in Lebanon. Such an alliance terrified Damascus and sure enough it came to be when Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 and with the help of the Christian right camp proceeded to create a new pro-Israeli order in Lebanon.

Syria’s luck was better back then and it managed with the help of its Lebanese Muslim allies to undo Israel’s plans. Damascus then gradually consolidated its control over Lebanon to become its unrivaled master throughout the 1990s, intervening literally in all aspect of Lebanese life. At first, their heavy-handed rule was tolerated because Israel continued to occupy southern Lebanon and the presence of Syrian troops no doubt helped prevent the return of civil strife and militia rule. But by the time Israel withdrew in 2000, there no longer seemed to be a reason for Syrian military presence in Lebanon. Sentiment against them began to build in Lebanon, only to erupt like a volcano when Harriri was assassinated in February, on Valentine’s Day (2005).

Blood in the water

Soon Syrian troops were packing their trucks and tanks and by the end of May had completely withdrawn from Lebanon after nearly three decades. Years of dirt about the Syrian intelligence services who pretty much ruled Lebanon, including stories of torture, corruption, intimidation and censorship, began to surface. Few doubted that Damascus had a role in killing Harriri—after all the Syrians were known to assassinate Lebanese figures who opposed them, as the former prime minister was beginning to do before he was killed. Losing Lebanon and having to leave after mass protests and a barrage of abuse in the Lebanese media was no doubt bitterly humiliating to the Baath. The Bush administration could smell blood in the water and moved in for the kill.

Suddenly the tiny, oil-free country of Lebanon became the darling of Washington’s foreign policy in the Middle East. The US ambassador became a fixture on the nightly news and Condi Rice never missed an opportunity to express her deep concern for Lebanon’s well-being. The Bush administration banded with its former nemesis France and easily passed a UN resolution calling for an internationally sanctioned investigation into the Harriri assassination. And unlike the invasion of Iraq, no one at the UN could really oppose such a proposal, thus handing Bush the full weight of the “international community” to do in the Syria regime.

The UN investigative team, not surprisingly, has found a Syrian hand in Harriri’s death. If they can establish that elements in the top echelons of the Syrian government were involved, as the neocons are hoping, then Washington’s work should not be so hard. It would simply tighten the noose gradually, by way of economic sanctions at first, followed by military action if that becomes necessary, and with a truly multinational coalition this time. The German judge Detlev Mehlis, in charge of the investigation is supposed to give a final report on December 15 in which he may very well name some high-level Syrian officials.

The Syrian Baath is certainly in no position to put up much of a fight. The regime has few cards to play regionally where it finds itself almost completely isolated now that it has been driven from Lebanon. Their only option is to look inward, to the internal front, hoping to buttress the regime against the coming storm. But Bashar seems to be offering very little in the way of political reform. He has ordered the release of a couple of hundred political prisoners, but hundreds more remain. Political activity is heavily restricted by a decades-old emergency law and new legislation meant to open the way for a multiparty system is slow in coming.
The Bashar clique may be gambling that economic reforms alone will suffice. There is evidence though that as the heat on Syria intensifies in the coming weeks, the regime may take further steps, including the long-established taboo of talking to the banned Syrian Muslim Brotherhood, perhaps the most credible alternative among the opposition to the existing regime. Internal reform that would end the Baath’s monopoly on power, or serious movement in that direction, can go long way to win popular support for the regime at this critical time.

Already Syria’s behavior in Lebanon has dealt a deadly blow to Arab solidarity and has given the US and Israel a golden opportunity to turn the tables on their opponents in the region. The Baath can stem the American tide swallowing up the area country by country if it does the right thing by it own people. Continuing in the old way could spell an Iraqi-style disaster at the hands of the US and its allies, sinking Syria and its neighbors—with Lebanon first in line—into a swamp of sectarian violence, economic ruin and political chaos for years to come. The Syrian regime has the right to stand and fight, but it is unlikely to succeed without the Syrian people by its side.

Bilal El-Amine is a writer based in Lebanon. He can be reached at [email protected]. Previous reports on the Lebanese elections and other articles by Bilal can be found on www.leftturn.org, www.beirut.indymedia.org, www.muslimwakeup.com and www.zmag.org.