Paul Bremer's revelation that President Bashar al-Asad asked Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani of Iraq to "issue a fatwa calling for a jihad against the Coalition," in 2003 at the time of the American invasion has renewed the debate over regime-change in Syria. The Wall Street Journal published an editorial on January 12, 2006 claiming to be shocked by this revelation; it suggested that the US should "strike hard" at Syria (I copy the editorial below). Barry Rubin also believes "Something big is happening in Syria," the title of his most recent editorial. He bets Syria is going to blow.
Bremer's revelation is not new news, however. Syria was on record as opposing the American invasion of Iraq. The now deceased Grand Mufti of Syria, Sheikh Ahmed Kaftaru, issued a fatwa at the outset of the invasion declaring jihad an individual duty for every Muslim. Syria facilitated fighters from all over the Arab world to join the struggle in Iraq, offering them buses to the border and basic geographical guidance during the first months of the war. Abdullah Ta'i, who is from Bu Kamal, the main jumping off point on the Syrian-Iraqi border, has described this process in some detail for "Syria Comment." He interviewed people from Bu Kamal who witnessed the flow of insurgents as well as jihadists who joined the resistance. The fact that Syria went so far as to urge others, including the Shiites, in Iraq to fight against the Americans should not be surprising. On the contrary, we should be surprised if Syria had neglected to encourage Iraqis to join its efforts to repel the Americans.
Syria's strategy at the outset of the war was driven by the fear that the US would invade Syria. A number of influential US commentators were recommending this and according to news reports, Bush reject a proposal to allow US forces to continue across the border and on to Damascus in March.
Readers of SC have been engaging in a heated discussion of whether Syria's policy to actively encourage resistance to the American invasion was foolish. Some claim that Syria had little choice because of the anti-Syrian mood in the US and the gung-ho spirit that drove US ambitions to call for transforming the Middle East. Others argue that if Bashar had accommodated the US in Iraq, Syria might still have troops in Lebanon. At the very least, they maintain, Syria would not be isolated diplomatically, as it is today. They also suggest that Syria should have given up Lebanon gracefully when the US demanded free presidential elections.
This debate comes on the heals of the Tueni assassination and the demand by the UN investigation to interview President Asad about the Hariri assassination. Secretary Rice renewed threats recently to refer Syria to the Security Council should it stonewall. Washington believes that this time the international community will not be able to give Syria a pass, particularly after the damaging testimony of Vice President Khaddam.
Flynt Leverett is being lambasted by the right for having advocated positive engagement with Syria following the war. In his defense, Robert Dreyfuss takes up the engagement argument in his January 16 article, "Syria In Their Sights," published by "The American Conservative." He writes:
The Bush administration’s neocons wanted a showdown with Syria, while the realists at the CIA and the State Department sought a settlement. The prospects of a U.S.-Syria deal reached their high-water mark in September 2004. During that period, top U.S. officials, including William Burns of the State Department, visited Syria to talk about getting Syria’s help in shutting down the Syria-Iraq border, establishing joint U.S.-Syrian border patrols, and providing Syria with high-tech surveillance gear to help stop the infiltration of Islamist radicals into Iraq.
What went wrong? He generously argues that it was not the pig-headedness of Bashar. Rather he blames the disruption of these negotiations on the Israelis and neocons. He writes:
That all came to a crashing end a few days later after an assassination that stunned the world—no, not Hariri’s, but the murder of Izzedine Sheik Khalil, a top official of Hamas, apparently by Israel’s Mossad, in a huge car bomb in Damascus. It was the latest in a string of Israeli provocations against Syria, including the killing of a Hamas leader in Beirut, an Israeli air force strike at a Palestinian training camp outside Damascus, and Israeli overflights that buzzed the Assad family’s home in Latakia. Not without reason, Syria’s Foreign Minister Farouq Sharaa charged that the Israeli assassination was meant specifically to disrupt the progress in U.S.-Syrian relations. And so it did.
Not coincidentally, the end of the thaw in relations between Washington and Damascus occurred as the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1559, aimed at putting pressure on Syria to end its presence in Lebanon. Along with SALSA, Resolution 1559—which followed a stupid and clumsy attempt by Assad to extend the presidency of the pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud of Lebanon—set into motion the train of events that led to Hariri’s assassination on Valentine’s Day 2005. By October 2004, a full-blown crisis between the United States and Syria was underway. Even the Washington Post began calling for war.
But it is not just leftist commentators, such as Dreyfuss, who are decrying the way Syria-US relations have been handled.
Henry Kissinger, the ubber-realist, did the same in a Washington Post op-ed of the 18th of December 2005. He recommends that "The time has come not only to define the strategic future in Iraq but also to broaden the base of political consultation in the region at large." To do this he recommends setting up "A political contact group including key European allies, India (because of its Muslim population), Pakistan, Turkey and some neighbors of Iraq should be convoked after the Iraqi election. Political discussions between the U.S. ambassador in Baghdad and Iranian authorities regarding Iraq have already been approved."
Syria's membership in the contact group is not mentioned by Kissinger, but it is clear he intends Damascus to be brought in, for he warns that "these cannot be the sole contacts with Baghdad's neighbors." He goes on to explain why it is important to put stabilizing Iraq above Bush's "democracy" agenda. Kissinger argues, "The functions of the contact group would be to advise on the political evolution of Iraq, to broaden the basis of legitimacy of the government and to reflect a broad international interest in the stability and progress of the region."
Why does Kissinger argue that it is important to stabilize Iraq before pushing ahead with Greater Middle East Reform, i.e. democracy? I think it is clear. Without a stable Iraq, nothing good is going to happen in the Middle East. Progress toward democracy in countries such as Egypt, Lebanon and elsewhere will be shelved. Dictators will point to Iraq and say to their people: "There for the grace of God go thou."
That is precisely what is happening in Syria, and it is working. Bashar has the Syrian people over a barrel. He has given them a choice of Iraqi style chaos or sticking with Asad stability and dictatorship. Syrians, I am willing to wager, will chose stability, despite Khaddam's and US efforts, because they don't see a third option. This conservatism on the part of Syrians will cost the Lebanese their chance of freeing themselves from Syrian intimidation. We have already seen US timidity in the face of Mubarak's challenge. He gave the US a whiff of Muslim Brother victory, and Washington has gone silent on its democracy agenda. America is spooked by the Islamic violence in Iraq.
Instead of changing its Iraq policy, America is going to go after Iran and Syria for being bad and mucking up their plans. This strategy will further exacerbate instability in Iraq, which will in turn require the use of more force and spook Middle Easterners away from democracy and any reliance the US. Saudi Arabia and Egypt are intervening on Syria's behalf, not because they like Asad, but because they fear Iraqi type chaos spreading into Syria. Asad has convinced them that he must stay. They fear that the US, left to its devices, will continue to do the wrong thing and stir up more trouble in the region. Of course, both Saudi and Egypt are insisting that Syria comply with the UN security council and cooperate with the Hariri investigation, but they are also searching for a way that this can be done without destabilizing Syria or overly taxing the regime. Taxing the Asad regime is precisely what Washington is trying to accomplish through the investigation, thus Riyadh and Washington are working at cross purposes. They don't agree on what price the Asad regime should pay for assassinating Hariri. Russia and China will both be happy to see the Saudis succeed in finessing Washington on the Syria situation, even if that means leaving the Lebanese to languish in their Syrian induced purgatory.
This brings us back to Iraq. Without some positive resolution to the Iraq situation, Washington will fail to promote democracy in the region, even in the most promising corners, such as Lebanon. It is failing in its attempts to discipline Asad.
Many readers have asked me if I believe Bashar can be successful in his strategy of confrontation. My hunch is that he can, at least in the short run - that is before the Syrian economy grinds down over the coming years, but by that time, Bush will be gone and who knows what US policy will be in the region or on what part of the globe Washington's attention will be focused. Bashar may also fumble through on the economy for longer than we think, just as his father did.
So far, Bashar is not as weak as some try to make us believe. There is no effective opposition, despite Khaddam's recent defection. His bluster about forming a unified opposition is just that, bluster. Who will give him leadership of their movement? He certainly won't join anyone as junior partner. Until there are signs of a real force on the ground that can push the Asads aside, I remain skeptical that the Asad regime will be dislodged.
As for the Khaddam notion that something big is brewing within Syria, I also don't buy it. I interpreted Ghazi Kanaan's demise to mean that the regime is being vigilant and not taking chances. It will purge anyone thinking of joining a coup. Also, Syria is not the Soviet Union, where Gorbachov led de-communization and cozied up to Reagan and the US. Bashar is not about to oversee de-Baathification. We now know that. Baathism still has a purchase on the Syrian imagination. Even if most Syrians know that the Baath is a corrupt organization, they still cling to many of its principles. Most importantly, they believe that the West is out to get them. Even those Syrians who are inclined to believe that the intentions of the US are pristine do not trust the US. They don't think it has the know how or competence to oversee regional change. Once again we return to the Iraq example.
This is why it is so important to get Iraq on the right path. If Bremer had one important message, it wasn't that Syria opposed America, it was that he and other US administrators were constantly asked to lie. He explained on TV this morning that he was given the choice between toeing Rumsfeld's line or resigning. He toed the line and said things were going fine in Iraq, when he knew they weren't. It was Vietnam all over again. Bush is still saying things are going fine and insisting that he can push ahead with plans to reform the Greater Middle East, challenge Iran, Syria and Hizbullah and fix Iraq to boot. He can't. Kissinger is insisting on a radical shift in policy because he doesn't believe Bush is winning. He believes Iraq is the key.
Syria as it is now ruled, will not last forever. It can't. The United States cannot make a deal with Syria now. The Hariri murder put an end to any deal making. Egypt's recent attempts to sound out the Lebanese on a deal demonstrated that the Lebanese are in no mood for such a thing. The Saudis proved the same in Jidda. Rice insists that the investigation must go to its end, which probably means that Bashar al-Asad is going to be named as a suspect at the end of the day. All the same, few countries want sanctions imposed on Syria. This makes it nearly impossible to envisage how the Syrian regime will be punished at the end of the day.
Because of the Hariri investigation, many analysts, such as my friend Tony Badran, are arguing that it is no longer about Iraq, but about Lebanon. They believe that the Saudis really want Asad to get nailed and that is why they are urging Syria's cooperation with the Hariri investigation. But it is also possible that the Saudis don't really know what they want. They may want to punish the Syrians, keep their Lebanese friends happy by pursuing the investigation, and keep France and the US happy by pursuing the investigation. And yet, at the same time, avoid any real confrontation that could bring down the Syrian regime or end in sanctions because they have been spooked by Iraq. I think most countries are caught in the same dilemma. They want to punish Syria, but they don't really want to punish Syria.
If this is the case, it means that the present impasse between Syria and the UN and between Lebanon and Syria could go on for a long time, grinding away without a clear resolution. There is no possibility of a detente between Washington and Syria. At the same time, it is very difficult to envisage how a change in Syria will occur. This forces me to conclude that we will see more of what we have been seeing. Syria will be condemned but not disciplined. The investigation will proceed from one report to another. Then there will have to be a trial, God knows how or where. The Lebanese will speak out, but not gain security. The Syrians will continue with their double track, cooperating and resisting. As of yet, I don't see an endgame.[end]
Here is the Wall Street Journal
editorial of January 12, 2006:
The former U.S. proconsul in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, is in the news this week for claiming in his new book that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld ignored his requests for more troops. Mr. Bremer played down that point in a visit to our offices this week, insisting that Mr. Rumsfeld had immediately relayed those requests to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who ultimately turned them down.
But Mr. Bremer also called our attention to one very underplayed revelation that deserves wide notice.
He writes that in the fall of 2003 he was told about a secret attempt by Syrian President Bashar Assad to incite the Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the pre-eminent Shiite cleric in Iraq, against Americans. Mr. Bremer was told by a messenger that the Ayatollah had received a secret communiqué from Mr. Assad urging him to "issue a fatwa calling for a jihad against the Coalition," similar to the one the Shia had called against British occupying forces in 1920.
"This was an act of extraordinary irresponsibility from Syria's president," Mr. Bremer writes. "We had good intelligence showing that many insurgents and terrorists were coming into Iraq through Syria. But the message from Assad essentially incited Shia rebellion. If [Assad] were to succeed, the Coalition would face an extremely bloody two-front uprising, costing thousands of lives, including Americans."
In the event, the Ayatollah turned the Syrians down, knowing as he did how the 1920 uprising proved to be disaster for Shiites that only perpetuated minority Sunni rule for the rest of the 20th century. But it's worth recalling that even in 2003 there were important voices in the U.S. foreign policy establishment urging President Bush to work with the Syrian dictator.
Thus former CIA and State Department analyst Flynt Leverett testified to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in October 2003 that "Bashar could be a suitable subject for diplomatic engagement" provided the U.S. makes its policy expectations for him clear. "There is a lot of discussion in Washington right now about new sticks in our Syria policy," Mr. Leverett testified. "But I don't hear much discussion about carrots; indeed, the Bush Administration resists intensely any such discussion."
Now we know just why the Administration was so averse to Mr. Leverett's
prescriptions: Far from being cooperative, the Syrian regime was attempting to open a second-front rebellion that would have killed thousands of Americans and Iraqis. As for the U.S. laying down what Mr. Leverett called a "clear roadmap" for Mr. Assad, the State Department has been doing exactly that by insisting that Syria cooperate fully in the U.N.'s investigation into the murder of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. That cooperation has not been forthcoming -- not surprising since the Syrians are widely believed to be complicit in the deed.
Even now, Syrian political opponents in Lebanon regularly turn up dead, while the regime in Damascus takes only cosmetic steps to stem the flow of terrorists into Iraq. Tell us again why the U.S. hasn't struck hard at a country causing mayhem on both its eastern and western fronts?