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.

Now, U.S. forbearance may be running out. President Bush and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld have launched a rhetorical "shock and awe" campaign against Syria, raising the spectre of armed conflict. Indeed, if Syria continues on its present path, it may qualify as Iraq's replacement in the Axis of Evil.

In case Damascus is hard of hearing, what the administration seeks is: an immediate end to support for jihadists and Hezbollah members entering Iraq from Syria; a full accounting and repatriation of senior Iraqi Baath party officials and members of Saddam's entourage who have been provided sanctuary in Syria; cessation of Syrian support for Hezbollah and expulsion of terrorists from Syrian soil; an agreement to end its weapons of mass destruction programs and accede to international nonproliferation accords; and the cleansing of the terror nests in the Bekaa Valley.

Shortly, Secretary of State Colin Powell will be heading to Damascus to pursue these objectives. There are several steps the administration should take to "shape the diplomatic battlefield" for his mission:

(1) The Bush administration should reverse itself and support passage of the Syria Accountability Act of 2002, which would impose economic sanctions on Syria for its continued support of terror and occupation of Lebanon.

(2) The Kirkuk pipeline, through which Syria illegally received over 200,000 barrels of Iraqi oil per day at half the world price, should be kept closed until Syria has complied with Washington's demands.

(3) The administration should invoke a provision of the 2001 USA Patriot Act that permits the United States to "confiscate" and "liquidate" property belonging to a foreign country that aids U.S. enemies during wartime. According to last week's Wall Street Journal, Syria has an estimated $133 million in assets in the United States, including $43 million in securities held by Syrian nationals and entities.

(4) Without so much as an additional executive order, the U.S. Office of Foreign Assets Control can prevent U.S. companies from continuing to do business with Damascus by imposing foreign assets controls on U.S. financial transfers to Syria.

(5) The United States should oppose the granting or extension of any credits or loans to Syria by multilateral institutions, including the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

(6) The United States should urge Turkey to cooperate in a regional effort to alter Syria's conduct by threatening to reduce the flow of water from Turkey into Syria's watershed.

(7) The United States should end its silence about Syria's nearly 30-year control of Lebanon. Nothing would embarrass Damascus more than a U.S.-sponsored resolution before the U.N. General Assembly calling for the cessation of Syria's colonial rule, backed up by similar efforts in other multilateral forums.

(8) During the upcoming G-8 summit in Evian, the administration should urge participants to join it in imposing trade sanctions against Syria in hopes of avoiding a military confrontation between the United States and Syria.

(9) Finally, it is time to sanitize the Bekaa Valley, which has become a refuge for every major terrorist organization not headquartered in Damascus. Last April, ABC News reported that a veritable predators' ball of terror organizations, including representatives of al Qaeda, attended a secret meeting in the Bekaa to plot against the United States--a meeting evidently condoned by Syria.

An outright attack on Syria should be a last resort, but our efforts to democratize Iraq will be greatly hindered if Syria persists in its meddling. Perhaps Bashar Assad will heed American warnings. If not, we may soon have a chance to see a shooting star falling over the skies of Damascus.

Marc Ginsberg is a former U.S. ambassador to Morocco and chair of the Alliance for American Leadership, a Democratic foreign policy organization.