Middle East

Middle East

Syria: Political or Military Target?

Yemeni students leave Iraq for Syria
A bus full of Yemeni students crosses into Syria from Iraq at the beginning of the war, March 20, 2003 (Photo: Louai Beshara/AFP).

Washington has launch an organized campaign raising concerns about the Syrian government. This has lifted Syrian-American relations from the normally obscure zone they normally inhabit to the full glare of the media spotlight. But what are these concerns? Who is drawing attention to them? And how serious is the nature of the Syrian threat? Ultimately, what is the goal of all this commotion in Washington? Is the talk of an attack on Syria another installment in the series of attacks or is it just a manifestation of political pressure with the goal of imposing a restructuring of the Middle East in a political manner instead of a military manner?

To cut to the chase, I believe Syria is a political target and not a military target. But the data used to arrive to these conclusions is more important than the conclusion itself. I should remind the reader here that I have been writing about the dominant themes of U.S. Middle East policy in this newspaper for more than a year and correctly predicting Washington’s next moves. I feel coming events will further certify the correctness of the remaining parts of my argument.

It is possible to classify American concerns about Syria as relating to two pillars of U.S. foreign policy. The first pillar is founded on the idea of peace as an organizing principle for relations between the nations of the Middle East. But this “political peace” wouldn’t be the quite the same thing as a “security peace,” the latter meaning only the absence of actual aggression of one nation against another. Furthermore, it wouldn’t be a peace limited to Israel alone, even though it is possible to say that any peace made would be on Israel’s behalf simultaneously. Iraq was an obstacle to the U.S. goal of achieving peace and it was also an obstacle to achieving any political reform in the region. In particular, Iraq was an obstacle to peace because it did not accept the premise of peace negotiations with Israel, or even with Kuwait for that matter. Thus, in the U.S. administration’s view, it was necessary to remove this obstinate regime. But is Syria the same as Iraq during the reign of Saddam Hussein?

There are obvious and big differences between the Syrian government of President Bashar Al-Assad and the Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein. Nevertheless, the United States seems to be giving its concerns about Syria and Iraq equal weight, and this is primarily because of the second pillar of American policy in the region. This pillar is built on the war on terrorism, which the Americans view as having reached its second stage. As I said in the pages of this newspaper more than a year ago, the war on terrorism is a war of three stages which rely on 30 years of planning and strategic calculations. The first of the three stages includes striking against organizations that can threaten the United States. Many Islamist organizations have been put on this list, among them Hamas, Hezbollah, and Islamic Jihad. We should also assume that the Muslim Brotherhood is on the list because, from the American viewpoint, this is the “mother movement” that gave birth to all of these radical Islamist groups. The second stage includes striking states that sponsor terrorism. This began with the Taliban regime in Afghanistan and was followed by Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq. Who knows what country is next? Is it really Syria, as many say? The third stage, will consist of “draining the swamps” that allow terrorists to flourish. This will be done through changing the political realities of the Arab world. This means creating a democratic atmosphere that would prevent the reoccurrence of the events of Sept. 11, 2001. The driving theory of this stage holds that there is a local context to the regional anger which is really directed at Middle Eastern governments and not at the United States.

We see then that the attention directed toward Syria falls within the neatly defined theoretical framework of these two great pillars, or principles, which also restrict the character of U.S. foreign policy. As such, the U.S. administration is concerned with Syria because Syria possesses chemical and biological weapons, because it is allegedly harboring Iraqi leaders who fled from the war, and because it backs and embraces movements like Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad. All of these above concerns can be lumped under the umbrella of the war on terrorism. We can also add that Washington is concerned that Al-Assad is young and hampered by senior officials from his father's administration…and that his administration does not enjoy the support of the Syrian people. Washington wants political reform to remove the old guard from power and permit the rise of new leaders.

Washington is worried about Syria’s relations with Hezbollah, which means, by extension, that there is a relationship tying Syria with Iran, one of the nations in Bush’s “Axis of Evil.” Since Syria hasn’t cut this link binding it with Iran, the U.S. administration considers Syria and Iran one nation. Moreover, the idea that Syria might be sheltering Iraqi Baath Party leaders would play into the American misconception that the ideological ties between Iraq’s Baath Party and Syria’s Baath Party are still relevant, despite the history of discord between the two factions. The U.S. administration claims that Syria didn’t surrender those Iraqi leaders to the United States and for this reason the United States does not see a difference between Iraqi Baathism and Syrian Baathism. This will fulfill the criterion of the hawks in the U.S. administration and put Syria in the same category as those nations that oppose the war on terrorism.

The noises coming from the hawks in Washington are meant to give the impression that Syria is in the cross hairs of the U.S. military. As of yet, war with Syria is only hypothetical and I don’t think it will be the American response. I feel this way because the United States, after ending Saddam Hussein’s regime, found itself entangled in an unprecedented manner in the sands of the Middle East. This military entanglement restricts it. Since the beginning of the war, the United States has held very little political legitimacy, or “cover,” which would have been derived from the international legality of U.N. resolutions. It even lost its popular legitimacy, as evidenced by the enormous demonstrations against war in practically all the countries of the world. The United States, then, needs to produce political cover in the Middle East. And it isn’t possible to manufacture this cover except through one means: a serious attempt at solving the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Official sources claim that backroom pressures are being put on Israel itself. Reportedly, an important U.S. official said to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that the United States needs Israel’s cooperation in order to facilitate the political cover for the Iraqi military action. In other words, the Americans interpret success in Iraq as being premised on Sharon’s movement toward peace. Sharon’s response has been that Syria is the key. Sharon’s recent statements make me believe that Syrians are right when they say that Israel is the one that put them in the barrel of the American cannon. On the other hand, the reason for this isn’t because Israel is the master of the situation as the Syrians claim. In reality, whenever the United States presents demands to Israel, it inevitably seeks to balance these demands—in this case with a repudiation of Syria—in order to be able to pressure Israel in the first place. So, for the United States to make progress in Iraq, it needs Sharon’s cooperation. To garner Sharon’s cooperation, the United States needs to put pressure on Syria. Thus began the campaign against Syria. And this is why I argue that Syria is a political target and not a military target.

Syria doesn’t hold many cards. Or, to use a better metaphor, the chessboard in the region has been changed and one of the principal players, Saddam Hussein, is no longer playing. The current strategic layout of chess pieces has been set up by the United States, or rather the Marines, leaving a configuration that gives the American and Israeli players greater freedom of movement. Until today, Syria has been to trying to buy time by constructing diplomatic ramparts. But the endgame is approaching and Syria has only a few remaining moves.