The Magazine

Bashing Bashar

From the April 28, 2003 issue: A plan of action.

Apr 28, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 32 • By MARC GINSBERG
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ACCORDING TO pre-Islamic Alawi belief, people at first were stars in the world of light, but fell from celestial orbit through disobedience. Faithful Alawis believe they must be transformed seven times before returning to take their place among the stars. Syria's rookie Alawite president, Bashar Assad, son of the "Lion of Damascus," Hafez Assad, appears about to fall out of celestial orbit by provoking a showdown with the United States.

A genteel ophthalmologist turned absolute ruler by paternal fiat, Assad has jettisoned his late father's strategic imperative of maintaining correct ties with Washington despite the two countries' underlying differences. In recent weeks, U.S. and British soldiers have arrested at least six busloads of Syrian nationals attempting to enter Iraq to carry out attacks against coalition forces. And Assad has reportedly offered sanctuary to the remnants of Iraq's Baath party, who join the many other terrorists comfortably residing in Syria's safehouse of evil. But these are only the latest of Bashar's provocations.

Since coming to power in 2000, he has defied U.N. sanctions to provide Saddam Hussein with military equipment--lots of it. And now, U.S. officials are speaking on the record of Syria's secret production of weapons of mass destruction and its weaponization of missile batteries and rockets. Assad's spokesmen are busily fanning out to news outlets to deny these charges and denounce them as Israeli-inspired disinformation. We've bought this rug before.

Starting with Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's first visit to Damascus in December 1973, the elder Assad convinced Washington that without Syria's consent, there could be no peace in the Middle East. Assad strove, too, to be seen as the embodiment of the Pan-Arab nationalism that is the ideological underpinning of his ruling Baath party.

In the 1980s, Syria did its best to undermine President Reagan's efforts to pacify Lebanon and promote Lebanese-Israeli accommodation. Although the degree of Syrian involvement was never proved, many in the United States believe that Syria was complicit in the October 1983 attack on the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut. Two months later, U.S. aircraft attacked Syrian anti-aircraft installations in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, and U.S. battleships shelled Syrian military positions elsewhere in Lebanon. In 1986, when a Jordanian who had attempted to smuggle a bomb on an Israeli plane in London confessed he had been trained and equipped by Syria, Washington imposed sanctions on Syria, citing its "continued support for international terrorism."

Nevertheless, in 1991, Hafez Assad made the decision to back the U.S.-led liberation of Kuwait from his fellow Baathist, Saddam Hussein. This was a "win/win" move for Assad. Despite Syria's egregious human rights record and repeated culpability in terrorist acts directed against Americans, successive U.S. secretaries of state trekked to Assad's study, there to listen to him extolling the virtues of Baath party leadership and the dangers of Israeli expansion.

Today, Bashar Assad's choice to side with Saddam seems like a "lose/lose" miscalculation. The callow Bashar's decision to throw in his lot with his father's principal antagonist against a formidable U.S.-led coalition raises a host of questions.

Did Bashar bank on Saddam's turning Iraq into a Mesopotamian Vietnam for U.S. forces, as Syria had turned Lebanon into an American quagmire in the 1980s? Was Syria's dirt-poor economy simply addicted to half-price Iraqi oil? Did the politically weak Bashar feel the need to burnish his Baath party credentials by playing to the region's anti-American bloc? Did he believe Washington would turn a blind eye to his misconduct as long as Syria continued to provide the CIA with intelligence about al Qaeda? It's hard to say, but the Bashar-Saddam rapprochement is a departure in Syrian-Iraqi relations.

For four decades, the Syrian and Iraqi Baathists have vied for the dubious title of "true Baath party," and relations between the two countries have been marked by propaganda wars, assassinations, and subversion. The struggle reached its nadir in 1975 when a dispute over water rights could have led to war but for the mediation of Saudi Arabia. In the 1980s, during the Iran-Iraq war, Syria supplied weapons to Iran and cut off Iraq's only oil pipeline to the Mediterranean.

Today, Syria is the only country in the world that the United States brands a "state sponsor of terror," yet dignifies with normal diplomatic and economic relations. This incongruity stems from the view long held at the State Department that Syria is "indispensable" to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For over 30 years, Washington has refrained from pressing Syria to the wall in the hope that Damascus would support peace with Israel.