Syria, Iraq and the US
What does Syria want in Iraq? Some analysts have argued that Syria is and will be an implacable foe of a pro-West Iraq and is doing everything in its power to undermine the new government and to help the insurgents. Others argue that Syria wants to work with the US and new government if the US reverses its anti-Syrian policy and brings Damascus in as a partner in its efforts to stabilize the country and build trade. Joseph Bahout has a good article in the Daily Star arguing this last point, entitled,Syria seeks an edge in Iraq, and there is much to lose - June 8
Syria opposed the US invasion of Iraq for obvious reasons. The anti-Ba'thist and Arab nationalist ideology of the US was a direct threat to the Syrian regime. No doubt, Syria was happy to see the Iraq resistance put a stop to the American juggernaut. With 5,000 Americans killed or wounded by the Iraqi resistance, early US dreams of remaking the Middle East through regime-change have evaporated. That allows a new relationship to be hammered out between Damascus and Washington. Bashar is making every effort to do just this and is courting the Americans not only with honeyed words but also with serious body language. I suspect the US State Department is engaged in negotiations with Damascus - perhaps even contemplating an important re-think of its Syria policy and negative view of Bashar. Last month US Assistant Secretary for Near East Affairs William Burns said that "the American administration is keen on the continuation of developing relations with Syria to get the correct ties in the future. He stressed that imposing sanctions on Syria did not mean to cut communication between the two countries. If Bush is not contemplating reviving US-Syrian relations, he should be.
Syria has many reasons to court Baghdad and the US:
Syria needs to build trade with Iraq. The American invasion of Iraq hurt Syria's economy badly. According to IMF statistics, GNP in Syria during 2003 dropped significantly because of the cut off of trade with Iraq. GNP slumped to a meager 2.5% in 2003, and trade declined 22% according to Tishrin's announced customs figures to 4.76 billion dollars in 2003 from 6.07 billion in 2002. Much of the decline comes from the shutting off of the oil. See the article by La Syrie.com The IMF predicts that GNP will spring back to 3.6% growth in 2004 and 4% in 2005. But these percentages are still well below the numbers Syria needs to make a serious dent in its 25% unemployment rate.
Syria can expect the Iraqis to open the pipeline from Kirkuk to Banyas once relations between the two countries stabilize and real sovereignty returns to Baghdad. Better relations between Syria and Washington will speed this process along. Iraq desperately needs another outlet for its oil exports, which have been attacked relentlessly by the Iraqi resistance. Of course, the Syrian pipeline would also come under attack, so any trade between Syria and Iraq will depend largely on the security situation in Iraq. This means that Syria needs security in Iraq as much as everyone else, giving the US a strong incentive to talk seriously with Syria. The only thing that separates them is ideology.
Bashar is hardly a Ba`thi. Almost every statement he has uttered in the last months suggests he does not see the world through a Ba`thi lense. He promises Syria will leave Lebanon as soon as it gets back the Golan from Israel. He has reassured the world that he recognizes Lebanon's right to sovereignty and only holds it as a bargaining chip. His clear renunciation of any Syrian claims on Lebanon is a dramatic shift away from the "qutri" thinking that has been the cornerstone of Ba`thism. Syria's constitution, replicating Ba`th Party ideology, states that Syria is only the "qutr" or region of the Arab nation and not a legitimate nation on its own. Bashar is rapidly jettisoning such rhetoric and thinking.
Nothing reflects this more than today's announcement that Syria is planning on erasing a clause from its national convention which forbids recognition of Israel. The convention, which replicates the "three no's" of the Khartoum conference explicitly forbids recognition, negotiations and peace with Israel. The changed convention will call for the implementation of United Nations and Security Council resolutions in order to reach a just peace in the Middle East. Syria has aligned itself with the UN and international law rather than 1970s Arabism.
Bashar's steady attack on the Ba`th Party took another step forward as well. With regard to internal policy, the new convention will allow students who are not members of the Ba’th party to participate in organized university events. What is more, it will also take into account the fall of the Soviet Union and remove references to the socialist bloc of nations.
Moshe Ma`oz, a reliable Israeli Syrianist, claims that these changes are largely due to American pressure. Who can deny that they have been sped along by US sanctions, but they also accord with Bashar's stated plan to move away from Ba`thi influence, open up the economy, and make peace. Bashar is much closer in ideological outlook and instinct to the US and the West, than the US seems prepared to admit. If the US wants a stable and pro-American Iraq, it will have to move away from its hostility to rulers like Bashar and recognize that the Syria is also interested in stability and liberalization in the region. Of course, Syria wants to see US troops leave Iraq, but so do most Iraqis... and most Americans. Syria, however, does not want instability in Iraq and will accept American troops there so long as they don't plan to stay indefinitely and don't threaten Syria.
To compliment its recognition of Israel, Syria has also recognized OSLO and made up with the Palestinian Authority. The Cultural Minister of the PA Yehya Yakhlof said Tuesday that Syria and the Palestinians have resolved their differences. He said, "The Syrian leadership assured to me that any Palestinian Authority leader and (any other) official is welcome in Damascus and that the page of dissension has been turned." Syria has laid the groundwork for peace. Israelis who claim Bashar is insincere will have to scratch around for some new argument. Perhaps they will insist on seeing a Swedish form of democracy in Damascus before they can open discussions?
The Old Guard
Another common argument used to explain why Bashar will never really make peace with Israel or the West is that he is weak and a hostage to the "old guard." But the old guard is being replaced and Bashar is coming into his own. Defense Minister Mustafa Tlas retired two weeks ago. Yesterday it was announced that Vice President Abd el Halim Khaddam will resign his post in the coming months. Khaddam, 72, accompanied President Hafez Assad for many years and helped President Bashar Assad take power and learn the complicated art of Arab diplomacy. He has been an important advocate of improving relations with Turkey.
Faruq al-Shara`a is the last of the triumvirate usually associated with the old guard. Perhaps he is also getting ready to retire? Many have speculated that Buthaina Shaaban is ready to replace him.
Bashar has become much more sure of himself on the world stage. He has developed a lively and appealing persona in his frequent TV interviews and seems to have developed a real taste for the media. What a welcome change from his father's sphinx-like silence. More important, what a change from Bashar's own timidity during his first years as president. He is also turning into a world traveler as he gains experience and self assurance. In the last several weeks he has been to Turkey, Spain and Kuwait. He is now headed to Asia to speek to the Chinese and sign a number of trade and cultural agreements.
Those who argue that Syria must be isolated and brought to its knees misreading Bashar. Syria's president is not only in control, but he is becoming a stronger leader all the time. His strength is good for the West and good for Israel, if only they will see it. This is an opportunity for both. As for Iraq, Syria has no reason to undermine the new government or democratic political process that we all hope will take root there. To ensure Iraq's stability and economic growth, which will be crucial to democracy, the US needs to recognize that Bashar is changing Syria and is a force for good in his country and the region.