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Syria: U.S. Insists Damascus Poses A Threat, But Motives And Objectives Remain Unclear

After the timid rapprochement that followed the 1991 Gulf War, relations between Syria and the United States have reached a new low. U.S. officials have recently threatened Damascus with retaliation over alleged arms shipments to Iraq and suspected terror links. Arab commentators generally believe those threats indicate the U.S. may target Syria once it is done with Iraq -- a view not necessarily shared by all analysts.

Prague, 8 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- In a 6 April interview on American NBC television, U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz threatened Syria with diplomatic and other consequences over suspected military aid to neighboring Iraq. "The Syrians should know that what they do now, they will be held accountable for," Wolfowitz said.

His comments echoed earlier remarks by U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld accused Damascus of supplying Baghdad with military equipment that could "vastly complicate" the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

"We have information that shipments of military supplies have been crossing the border from Syria into Iraq, including night-vision goggles. These deliveries pose a direct threat to the lives of coalition forces. We consider such trafficking as hostile acts and will hold the Syrian government accountable for such shipments," Rumsfeld said.

Syria's Foreign Ministry dismissed Rumsfeld's charge, describing it as "an attempt to cover up what [U.S.] forces have been committing against civilians in Iraq." It's not clear what prompted the U.S. criticisms of Syria.

Gary Gambill, the editor of "Middle East Intelligence Bulletin," an Internet publication of the U.S.-based Middle East Forum think tank, told RFE/RL he believes the U.S. was reacting to comments earlier by Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad. "I think the precipitating factor that led to Rumsfeld's statement had nothing to do with arms shipments. It had to do with an interview Assad gave and that was published the day before in [the Lebanon-based 'Al-Safir' daily], in which he became the second Arab leader after Saddam Hussein himself to publicly say that he wished that U.S. troops would be [eventually] defeated in Iraq," Gambill said.

In the interview, published on 27 March, Assad predicted the U.S.-led coalition would fail to suppress popular resistance in Iraq regardless of its success against Hussein's forces. Adding fuel to U.S. irritation, Syria's government-appointed chief mufti, Shaykh Ahmad Kaftaro, the next day called for suicide bombing attacks against coalition troops in Iraq.

In many Arab countries, the U.S.-led attack on Iraq has sparked a wave of public outcry and triggered large, sometimes violent, anti-American protests.

During the weeks that preceded war, Syria -- a rotating member of the United Nations Security Council -- joined its voice to that of China, France, Germany, and Russia to urge a peaceful solution to the Iraqi stand-off in an apparent bid to spearhead an antiwar Arab front. Yet, traditional divisions among Arab leaders prevented Assad from achieving his goal.

Now that the war is going on, some analysts believe the 37-year-old Syrian leader is trying to raise his pan-Arab profile through other means. That could explain his remarks to "Al-Safir," which Gambill believes were meant mainly for domestic and Arab consumption.

"It is not something that Assad thinks will defeat U.S. plans in Iraq. What it will do, though, is allow him -- now that Saddam is essentially going to be gone -- to sort of present his credentials as a pan-Arab leader. Saddam being ousted is really an opportunity for Assad because as long as Saddam was around, Assad could never be the toughest Arab leader. Anything that he could say about the [Israeli-Palestinian] peace process Saddam could trump because [he] had nothing at stake in the peace process, in economic cooperation, or in any of other things. So Saddam was always perhaps more in [harmony] with the Arab street," Gambill said.

Tim Niblock, the head of the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the British University of Exeter, said he believes Assad's remarks reflect Syria's position as one of the few Arab countries now strong enough to voice Arab objections to the war.

"I think Syria is one of the few countries within the Arab world at the moment which feels in a strong enough position to make statements which defend Arab causes in general. Other Arab governments tend to be very careful in what they say so as not to offend the United States. Syria, for all kinds of historical and other reasons, and economic reasons [as well], does not seem to have that same obligation," Niblock said.

Almost since its accession to independence in the wake of World War II, the Syrian Arab Republic has had uneasy relations with Washington. Damascus's strong Arab-nationalist and socialist line, confrontation with Israel over the capture of the Golan Heights during the 1967 war, and Syria's subsequent occupation of northern Lebanon have all been sources of friction with Washington.

Soon after succeeding his late father in July 2000, Bashar al-Assad engaged in a policy of modest liberalization and tried, with limited success, to boost ties with the U.S. and the West. Over the past 2 1/2 years Damascus has softened its stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, officially restraining its demands for the return of the Golan Heights.

After the 11 September 2001 attacks on the U.S., Damascus helped U.S. law-enforcement agencies hunt down Al-Qaeda operatives and even detained the suspected recruiter of the suicide hijackers, Syrian-born Muhammad Haydar Zammar.

Yet, while praising Assad for this cooperation, the State Department regularly blacklists Syria among countries that allegedly sponsor terrorism. Among other evidence, U.S. officials cite Damascus's suspected ties with the Lebanon-based Hizballah organization -- also allegedly linked to Iran -- and the radical Palestinian groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad. The U.S. also has claimed that Syria is developing a chemical-weapons program.

Arab commentators generally believe the renewed charges against Syria herald a new phase in the U.S.'s Middle Eastern policy. Despite U.S. denials, some even go so far as to say Rumsfeld's comments foreshadow possible U.S.-sponsored "regime change" in Damascus or U.S. military action against Syria.

To many Arabs there is a link between Rumsfeld's remarks and Bush's earlier prediction that the fall of Saddam would help democratic regimes emerge in the Middle East.

Yet, Gambill believes it is not in the U.S.'s interests to destabilize Assad, whose restrictive Ba'athist regime relies on followers of a tiny Shi'ite Muslim sect known as Alawites.

"I think the U.S. [for] sure is not entertaining the idea of a regime change in Syria. And the reason is that the Assad regime cannot fall peacefully. Given the history of sectarian blood-letting in Syria, given the sectarian composition of the Assad regime, if [it] weakens, you could have a civil war in Syria that would be much worse than anything that has ever happened in Lebanon. So I think the goal of the U.S. policy is still the same, [that is] stability in Syria," Gambill said.

Gambill said, instead, the U.S. may have concluded that its secret diplomacy with Syria, pursued by the State Department, has failed and that new methods may be required. He cites the fact that U.S war ally Britain -- which has worked hard to improve relations with Damascus -- was caught unaware by Rumsfeld's comments and said this is evidence that U.S. aims regarding Syria have not fundamentally changed.

Yet, there might be something more to the U.S. change of attitude toward Damascus.

Addressing the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) on 30 March, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell leveled fresh accusations against Syria's suspected links with Hizballah and issued what sounded as an ultimatum: "Syria can continue direct support for terrorist groups and the dying regime of Saddam Hussein, or it can embark on a different and more hopeful course. Either way, Syria bears the responsibility for its choices and for the consequences."

In comments made before the same audience the following day, U.S. national security adviser Condoleezza Rice denounced both Syria and Iran as "rogue regimes" for their support to Hizballah.

Arab commentators and Western analysts fear such harsh criticism aired before one of the most influential pro-Israel forums in the U.S. may backfire and affect the Israeli-Palestinian peace process at a time when a roadmap for the possible creation of a Palestinian state in 2005 is being discussed. The magnitude of this impact, however, remains unclear.

IAIS director Niblock told RFE/RL: "I don't think the U.S. is interested at all in bringing Syria into [the Middle East equation]. I think the U.S. would like to divide off the different parts of the problem, to leave the Golan Heights as a separate issue, which is dealt with between Israel and Syria -- and perhaps with the U.S. being involved. But they would not like Syria to be involved in discussing issues which relate to the West Bank and Gaza."

Whatever the final aim of this criticism of Damascus, Niblock concluded, "U.S. officials will have to be trying to manufacture some kinds of grounds because there is little evidence that Syria is posing any kind of threat to Washington."