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Syrian Political – Diplomatic Success

06 April 2003

By Yisrael Ne’eman

So far it is difficult to find the winners and losers in the conflict in Iraq.  The Allies are poised for a military victory and Saddam Hussein will pay the price but none can guess much beyond that.  A surprise temporary winner is Syria.

Damascus continues to back the Iraqis and Saddam Hussein, not out of love but out of interest.  The Syrian Ba’ath of the Assad family has always known where to draw the line.  Radical rhetoric was fine, but one did not endanger American or western interests, nor get involved in developing nuclear weapons.  Chemical and biological equipment was enough and such moves were not for public discourse. 

When Hafez el-Assad died in June 2000, his son Bashar took over, continuing the extreme radical anti-Israel approach, both denying the Holocaust and accusing all Zionists of being the true Nazis.  Jerusalem was condemned for every crime imaginable in dealing with the Palestinians whether before or after the latest outbreak of Arafat initiated violence two and a half years ago.  Bashar continued his father’s support for the Hizbollah, the Islamic Jihad and Hamas in their never-ending campaign of terror against Israel.

None of this really bothered the Europeans and as for the US, there could be a diplomatic tiff or two and Syrian could even find itself of the list of countries supporting terror but as long as Damascus walked its fine line the Washington response was muted.  The Syrian Ba’ath behavior to the West was always more measured and moderate, much verbiage but less direct action.

Damascus feels itself strengthened as of late.  Their northern Turkish neighbors said “No” when the US asked for passage rights to open a major Kurdish front in Iraq and Sec. Of State Colin Powell flew to Ankara to smooth ruffled feathers.  The two countries having peace agreements with Israel, Jordan and Egypt, find their administrations in hot water with their populace as street demonstrations become larger and more radical.  It pays to be at least somewhat anti-American.

Bashar Assad took a different line than King Abdullah and President Mubarak.  Damascus actively encouraged massive support for Saddam and has allowed ‘volunteers’ to cross Syria into Iraq.  Today Syria is seen as leading the Arab nationalist cause more than any other nation and the younger Assad is emerging as the new pan-Arab hero, cementing his image day by day.

Syria, still firmly entrenched in Lebanon cannot survive without a perceived activist pan-Arab nationalism.  Assad is an Alawite (12% of the pop.) in alliance with part of the Sunni majority (65%) and much of the Druze (4%).  Lebanon is a quagmire of minorities with Sunni and Shi’ite Moslems, Maronite and Greek Orthodox Christians and the Druze.  The only realistic unifying identity is a radical Arab nationalism.

Replacing Saddam as the Arab world radical is a dream come true for Bashar Assad.