Asia Times Online | published February 28, 2006
On Syria, The Empire Holds Back
by ASHRAF FAHIM
CAIRO - It's now clear that the Bush administration just doesn't know what to do about Syria. It can't live with Syrian President Bashar Assad, the only significant Arab potentate indifferent to US interests, and it is bewildered at whether or how to bring him down.
The potential implication by United Nations investigators (and even by former Syrian vice president Abd al-Halim Khaddam) of high Syrian officials in the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri seems the ideal pretext for the United States to pursue regime change aggressively, a la Iraq.
Yet the Bush administration has balked, restrained by the international community's unwillingness to sanction Syria, the political cost of unleashing military power, and its own fears of what might replace Assad. The US State Department's announcement on February 18 that it intends to fund the fractious Syrian opposition to the tune of US$5 million hardly justifies five years of saber-rattling and suggests a poverty of options rather than the emergence of a plausible strategy for toppling Assad.
In a bygone era, successive US administrations treated Syria with a deference that now seems unthinkable. Though a paradigmatic dictatorship, Syria was considered a key player in the "peace process" and a pillar of regional stability. That all changed when George W Bush came to power, adorning his staff with neo-conservatives for whom Syria was a roadblock to newly imagined US interests and an unreconstructed enemy of Israel. The rhetoric descended from respect to contempt, and many analysts, this one included, speculated that after Iraq, the Syrian regime could be the next victim of US power.
But despite a war of words and several mini-crises, no coherent anti-Syria policy emerged. The US Congress passed the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act (SALSA), and Syrian officials such as Asef Shawkat (Assad's brother-in-law and the head of military intelligence) have been personally targeted by financial sanctions.
But these limited measures have hardly been sufficient to force Damascus to bow to Washington's demands - chiefly, ending support for so-called "terrorist" organizations and making an all-out effort to stop insurgents entering Iraq via Syria. Even the Syrian army's withdrawal from Lebanon likely had more to do with internal Lebanese pressure than US (or French) fiat.
Dr Joshua Landis, an expert on Syria from the University of Oklahoma (and author of the blog syriacomment.com), says the US has gone out on a rhetorical limb without the wherewithal to back up its bravado. "The US is in a bad policy position because it has pursued a very aggressive anti-Syrian policy yet it doesn't have the power to follow through with it, to change the regime, which I believe will take military force," he told Asia Times Online. "It's unwilling, on the other hand, to come to some understanding with Assad, which could also produce benefits for the US, whether in Iraq or in Lebanon and Palestine."
Washington is also paralyzed by the fear of what might come after Assad. The majority Sunni population could be even less amenable to US interests than the ruling minority Alawite clique, and Islamist gains in elections in Palestine, Iraq and Egypt hint at similar rumblings beneath the opaque shell of Syria's body politic.
The initiative to fund the Syrian opposition and recent State Department efforts to gather it under one banner cannot be effective in the short term, said Landis. "The problem is the Syrian opposition in exile are extremely weak and none of them have many followers in Syria."
Longtime secular opponents of the Syrian regime living inside Syria issued a statement on February 21 rejecting US funding. And Landis believes that the effort is further weakened because the exiled opposition does not reflect the Islamist trend. "There is every indication ... that if you were to have elections you would have something along the order of what you've had in every other [Arab] country, which is 65% of people voting for some kind of Islamist tendency."
US attempts to isolate Syria, however haphazard, are also foundering on the international community's unwillingness to destabilize Damascus, with the region already groaning beneath the shadow of Iraq's maelstrom. Also, for such states as Russia and China, Syria as well as Iran are chips in the great game in the Middle East in which the teetering Iraq project has illuminated hairline fractures in US regional hegemony.
Thus, even as the investigation into the murder of Hariri reveals the possible culpability of Syrian officials, it also reveals a lack of international political will to hold them accountable. Landis points out America's failures to get the UN Security Council to take decisive action.
"Both Detlev Mehlis [the former UN chief investigator into Hariri's death] and Serge Brammertz [the current one] have indicated that they have evidence that they feel confident would implicate the top Syrian administrators, so in theory they should just go to an international court, prove it and put them in a jail," he said. "But you have to get the UN Security Council to vote on all of this, and it's clear that America doesn't have the votes."
Without an international consensus, the United States has forsaken the unilateral route it chose in Iraq, even though by hair-trigger Bush administration standards it has a more plausible casus belli. It's not that the US could not attack Syria if it wanted to, according to John Pike, the director of GlobalSecurity.org. He believes the recent talk of military overstretch in Iraq limiting US options elsewhere is vastly overstated.
"If the president told the military to do it [occupy Syria] they will do it," he told Asia Times Online. "They've only got a very small fraction of their total force in Iraq ... Presumably with the Iraqi security forces starting to have the potential to take up some of the slack, if we thought that the initial buildup in Syria was going to be a relatively short-term proposition, I think that either General [Peter] Shoomaker [the US Army chief of staff] would make it happen - or [Vice President] Mr [Dick] Cheney would find somebody who would."
Pike said there are also numerous effective military options short of occupation. Regime assets could be bombed to the degree that life would become extremely uncomfortable for the Syrian regime, he said. "There are a lot of things that we could do to cramp his style that we could do from 20,000 feet that don't require boots on the ground."
US restraint, said Pike, reflects a political rather than military calculus. While he believes Iran's nuclear infrastructure will certainly be attacked next summer, he sees no enthusiasm for destabilizing or attacking Syria, save within a narrow circle inside the Bush administration. "There is a community of opinion [in Washington] that has always felt that Syria is low-hanging fruit ... that it doesn't look as if Bashar has a firm grip on things, and if we just hit him hard enough, he'll fall over."
But the US administration is too preoccupied with Iraq and Iran to worry about conjuring uncertainty in Syria, he said. "At this point they just have to say to themselves that if it ain't broke don't fix it. Whatever level of aid and comfort Syria is providing to the enemy [in Iraq], it just doesn't seem to be that big of a factor overall."
And despite the Hariri affair, he credited the Syrian regime with playing its hand with notable guile. "Whatever level of aid and comfort they are providing to various other regional troublemakers, at this point they seem to have gauged successfully how annoying they can be without provoking a significant response," said Pike.Advantage Bashar
For the moment, Syria has grasped the advantage in its continuing confrontation with the Bush administration and its standoff with the international community over the Hariri investigation. In his past two major relevant speeches, Assad in essence implied that he would give up some minor officials to investigators, but that Syria would resist if the UN aimed too high.
In the meantime, Assad is consolidating control at home and buffering Syria's regional standing. Syria is slowly reasserting its influence in Lebanon, where it maintains the backing of Hezbollah, which represents Lebanon's largest community, the Shi'ites. Hezbollah recently withdrew from the government to demonstrate its ability to derail the Lebanese political process and has found allies in powerful Christian leaders such as Michel Aoun.
"There are more and more Lebanese that are coming to the conclusion that the US has a losing policy in the region," said Landis. Inside Syria, he said, "Assad has purged the old guard. Khaddam's departure from Damascus [to Paris] demonstrated that he lost an internal struggle that was hard-fought for five years ... so people inside Damascus began to put two and two together and realize Assad is going to last."
Syria's neighbors have also made it clear to the US that they have no stomach for sudden upheaval in another Arab power. Iraq simply makes the prospect of further chaos too forbidding and the possibility of Islamist gains too frightening. Both Egypt and Saudi Arabia have tried to arbitrate the Hariri affair, telling visiting US officials such as Cheney that regime change in Damascus is not an option.
Syrian fortunes have also been boosted by Hamas' triumph in the Palestinian elections. Hamas has strong ties to Damascus and its victory gives Syria crucial sway in the conflict with Israel. Further solidifying the Syrian position is its reinvigorated alliance with Iran, whose President Mahmud Ahmadinejad is reveling in his new role as the Bush administration's bete noire. Ahmadinejad's visit to Damascus in January was meant in part to remind the United States of the pain Iran and Syria might inflict together if either were attacked.
Either through luck or design, Assad now looks, if not quite as wily as his father, certainly like more of a survivor than many imagined. He has, for the present, called America's bluff and lived to tell the tale.