Once President Bush and senior U.S. leaders had released their latest wave of warnings against Syria, the Baath of Damascus unleashed their own wave of propaganda. Washington’s grave concern with Syria’s growing role in Iraq is certainly warranted. That role is not even simply a reaction to the defeat of Saddam. Syria was fighting the Iraq war even before the U.S. did. A thorough analysis of the Assad campaign against the United States and its “Coalition of the willing” will find its immediate roots in September 11. Indeed, while Syria’s official line was to condemn terror, its real policies geared in other directions.
Syrian diplomats told their American counterparts that their security services were waging war against al Qaeda. The State Department was delighted to inform whoever asked that Bashar Assad was a partner in the war against terrorism. But what Syrian diplomats never revealed was their government’s role in supporting Hezbollah — the world’s “largest network of terror,” in the words of the former chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Democratic Senator Bob Graham. Little footnotes were also disregarded: Hezbollah protects Sunni Islamists who are supporters of bin Laden. Syria harbors Islamic Jihad and Hamas. Both are close associates of al Qaeda.
On the Arab League front, Damascus succeeded in preemptively dismantling the needed Arab endorsement for Washington’s diplomacy. When Vice President Dick Cheney toured the region last year to muster support for an international consensus, Syrian pressures got there ahead of him. Rather than lending Arab League support to the U.N., Arab leaders were hurrying to a summit in Syrian-occupied Beirut. There, under Syrian tanks and bayonets, monarchs and presidents-for-life produced the fireball Damascus and Baghdad had been preparing. Far from putting pressure on Iraq, the meeting shielded Saddam’s regime. America was stripped of a regional Arab partner, leading to divisions in the international community. Syria’s first battle was won in Beirut. Its second success will reach New York.
With its “Arab” seat in the Security Council, Damascus managed to foment division in the West. Bashar Assad is not his father, but his technique is inherited from Hafez: Divide and rule. Jaques Chirac was conquered by the young dictator, and proceeded to enlist his German colleague, Schroeder. Syria’s promise to the Rhine axis was as enticing as the one made on the Russian Volga. The coalition of the unwilling was built on Syro-Saudi promises of fat contracts. Better then pitting NATO’s nations against each other, the Baathist elites of Damascus reconciled their Baghdad brothers with their Wahhabi financiers. The picture of Iraq’s vice president embracing the Saudi crown prince immortalized the moment. Bashar Assad was like a new Nasser, or thought he was. In short, Syria had started the political battle before the U.S. started the war.
But as Coalition forces thrust reached the capital of the Abbassides (Baghdad), plan B was put forth in the capital of the Umeyyades (Damascus). In the latter, the ruling establishment didn’t seem to grasp the fall of the statues. “Today Saddam’s — tomorrow Assad’s,” the young demonstrators in Iraq seemed to say. Bashar’s response was immediate. The Alawi junta seems to have concluded: Let us fight America in Iraq, rather than fighting it in Syria.
Buses loaded with mujahedeen began crossing the borders between the twin countries. The fedayeen of Saddam were reinforced by jihadists from Lebanon, Sudan, Egypt, and beyond. In the minds of Damascus war planners, Beirut 1983 was the model to follow. Then, one man with one truck killed a hundred Marines. Now, 100 men with dozens of trucks could massacre thousands of U.S. troops. Syrian tactics are as varied as were Iraq’s weaknesses: Pit Kurds against Arabs, Shiites against Sunni, and trigger havoc wherever possible. But Syria’s plans are more than a lifeline to the remnants of Saddam.
Scores of high-ranking Iraqi Baathists have found refuge inside Syria. Their money has been deposited in Beirut’s banks. Worst of all, components of nonconventional weapons crossed the border, from east to west. Damascus is playing a very dangerous game: Connecting Iraq’s illegal explosives to Syria’s illegal systems of delivery. These are the red lines Bashar shouldn’t have crossed. America is bound to deal with them now that they have.
Between the spokeswoman in Damascus, Buthaina Shaban (foreign minister), and the spokesman in Washington, Imad Mustapha (deputy ambassador), the front being presented to the West is: “No, there are no WMD in Syria; no, Syria is not encouraging terrorists to attack U.S. forces in Iraq; no, Damascus is not hosting the outcast of Baghdad.” Syria’s current strategy is an old but familiar one: Deny, deny, deny.
— Walid Phares is a professor of Mideast studies at Florida Atlantic University, and an MSNBC analyst.