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Is Syria next?

By Alan Caruba
web posted April 7, 2003

The Middle East's lack of democracy was demonstrated in the way, upon the death of Hafez al-Assad on June 10, 2000, his son Bashar al-Assad was anointed the new president. Syria today is just another Middle East monarchy with the outward trappings of being a representative government. Syria is the al-Assad family business.

As the war in Iraq plays out to its inevitable conclusion, Syria has been warned by Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, to stop providing aid across its borders.

Bashar al-Assad
al-Assad

"The logical thing," Bashar told the pro-Syrian daily, Al-Safir, published in Lebanon, "is to implement the Arab Defense Agreement. According to this agreement, if an Arab country is invaded, the rest of the Arab countries should defend it." Bashar apparently hasn't noticed that a number of Arab nations are openly or covertly supporting the American invasion of Iraq in order to rid the region of the greatest threat to their security.

When asked if Syria feels threatened by the Iraq war, Bashar replied, "As long as Israel exists, the threat exists." Pardon me, but this war is not about Israel, but about the regime of Saddam Hussein. Bashar, like all Arabs cannot see any issue in any other context than the existence of Israel, but at least he is rational enough to know that Syria is "weak in comparison to a super-power."

When it was pointed out that Syria could become a target of the Americans if it did not heed our warnings, Bashar said "That means we are not going to wait until they include Syria in the plan." The smart thing would be to stay on the sidelines, but surely even Bashar must know the US would squash him like a bug. Or maybe not?

In an analysis for the Middle East Quarterly, Eyal Zisser, says "Not only does Bashar lack maturity, experience, and self-confidence, Syria-watchers generally agree that Bashar also lacks charisma and leadership qualities."

"In the Arab world, Bashar's instant rise to power was received with undisguised derision toward the man himself as well as the Syrian Socialist Democratic Popular Republic which Hafez al-Assad and his son had turned into a monarchy, even a family fiefdom."

Other factors are at work in Syria and they mirror those of Iraq's under Saddam's rule. "Syria is a country suffering from severe social and economic problems that require immediate and unequivocal solutions," writes Zisser. "Syria plays a crucial regional role and may even decide the fate of the region—for better or worse, for peace or war."

Bashar's rule is based on the fact that he is completely controlled by his father's Old Guard. He doesn't threaten the status quo. This alone may keep him alive for awhile. Meanwhile, as president of Syria, he has not initiated anything so far as domestic policy, socioeconomic affairs, and foreign relations are concerned. As is the case with other nations in the region, Syria is stagnating for lack of the willingness to respond to the changes occurring.

Don't hold your breath to see if the nations of the Middle East unite against American hegemony in the region. Given the distrust they have for one another, this is not going to happen. The notion of a pan-Arab "nation" is just rhetoric. Syria's relations with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and even Jordan are shaky at best and he is already on record attacking the leaders of Egypt and Jordan.

His support for the Intifada of the Palestinians and the control Syria has imposed on Lebanon has done nothing to endear him to Israel and Lebanon. Even Israel's withdrawal of its troops from southern Lebanon has not helped reduce tensions. Lebanon's Christian-Maronite camp continues to call for the withdrawal of Syrian forces from their nation. Ironically, when Bashar took troops out of heavily populated areas of Lebanon it was seen as a sign of weakness.

It is clear that Syria has little or no control over Hizbullah, the extremist Palestinian organization based in Lebanon that has continued to shell Israel. Hizbullah is owned by the Iranians who use it to pursue terrorism against Israel. Even Hamas and Yassir Arafat's Palestinian Authority have no control over a group that could ignite an Israeli response that would set the whole region afire. Bashar has not learned the lessons of the June 1967 war in which Syria lost the Golan Heights.

Now he has needlessly angered the United States. This is not a good idea when we have 300,000 troops next door pounding the hell out of Iraq. Giving sanctuary to several dozen al-Qaeda members and lying to the US Secretary of State about the flow of Iraqi oil via Syria was another dangerous and stupid misstep.

Though there is no rush to depose Bashar, the sheer inertia of Syria's domestic and foreign affairs will continue to undermine him and the Old Guard. It's going to be interesting to watch when the transformation of Iraq occurs after America asserts its control over that nation. Bashar's failure to make peace with Israel will suddenly become a much bigger problem and, no doubt, he will also be told to end Syria's occupation of Lebanon. He'd best do as he is told.

Both Lebanon and Israel will remain strong allies of America. Forty percent of the Lebanese people are Christians. Right now, because of Syria, there are about four million Lebanese residing there, but somewhere between 13 to 15 million who live outside. Lebanon is a thoroughly modern nation. It has 42 universities, 40 daily newspapers, more than a hundred banks, and is home to 18 religious communities. A free Lebanon would be the model for all others in the Middle East. Israel, for now, remains the only democracy, along with Turkey.

None of this bodes well for Bashar al-Assad and the current leadership of Syria. They must be looking across their border at events in Iraq and wondering if they are next. They should.

Alan Caruba is the author of "Warning Signs", a collection of his weekly column which is posted on the Internet site of The National Anxiety Center. © Alan Caruba, 2003

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