CAIRO – Syria is surrounded by trouble on its right and left – Lebanon and Iraq – and the United States is mired in trouble in Iraq.
And yet Damascus and Washington seem intent on escalating a war of words instead of figuring out how to work together on that real war that shows little sign of abating in Iraq and which hurts them both.
It wasn’t always like this. The fathers of Presidents George W. Bush and Bashar al-Assad were allies during the first Iraq war, after all.
How much better and bolder it would have been for Bush to meet with Assad at this week’s U.N. General Assembly instead of making it clear that the Syrian leader would be snubbed. It could have nudged both countries away from the stubborn standoffishness of the past few months and towards finding ways to calm Iraq – something in both their interests.
Sen. Joseph R. Biden, Jr., urged the U.S. administration through the pages of The Washington Post recently to “develop a regional strategy that either forces or induces Iraq”s neighbors to act responsibly. In some instances, that would require the administration to engage regimes that the United States would rather not work with”.
Not much has been working in Iraq lately so I agree with Sen. Biden that a change of tack is in order – especially where Syria is concerned. Fewer threats and more talk of cooperation might work better.
It is not as if the United States has a surfeit of friends lining up to help in Iraq. America’s Arab friends in the region are Sunni-dominated countries smarting at the loss of Sunni privilege in Iraq as the country’s Shia and Kurds are on the ascendancy.
Syria understands Iraq’s complex sectarian and ethnic makeup. Syria’s army, for example, is made up of Sunnis and Shia – a mix few others in the region can match.
When I visited Damascus earlier this summer, supporters and opponents of the Assad regime alike emphasized they did not want to see Iraq’s bloody downward spiral replicated in Syria. Even the most vocal critics of the Assad regime who want reform do not want it the “Iraq way”.
Syria’s ethnic and sectarian makeup bears an uncomfortable resemblance to pre-war Iraq, albeit in a topsy-turvy way. In pre-war Iraq, a Sunni-minority dominated a Shia majority country which had a significant Kurdish population. Assad, who is an Alawite, a sect that is an offshoot of Shia Islam, rules over a Sunni majority country that also has a significant Kurdish population.
The Syrian leader, who is married to a Sunni and who has been courting his country’s Sunni population by assigning them top positions in his government, can help with Iraq.
If Assad is turning as blind an eye to Sunni fighters streaming through his country as the Bush administration claims, then he’s playing a dangerous game. The last thing he needs is a well-worn path into Syria for Sunni militants who could eventually ally with Islamists still smarting from his father’s bloody crackdown on them that flattened Hama in 1982 and left at least 20,000 dead.
It seems at times that Assad is not as weak as he claims to be nor as strong as the U.S. makes him out to be. But using his control or lack thereof of the border as a bargaining chip with the Americans is a losing game.
But at the same time, if Syria has been the gateway for Sunni militants on their way to Iraq, most are from other countries in the region and those other countries rarely receive the public rebuke dished out to Damascus. This is not lost on the Syrians.
If the U.S. needs Syria’s help in Iraq, Syria certainly needs to give that help. It is in Syria’s interest to prevent Iraq’s sectarian and ethnic conflagrations from catching fire at home. Moreover, as the focus of the U.N. investigation into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, Syria needs to be on its best behavior.
Pressured into finally withdrawing from Lebanon but mired in suspicion over just who ordered Hariri’s elimination, Assad needs to stack up on the good deeds. A more cooperative stance with the Americans could eventually work to Assad’s advantage as he purges recalcitrant remnants of his father’s regime with the excuse that the U.S. administration forced his hand.
A Syrian political analyst who is actually friendly to the regime told me as much when I asked if Syria needs U.S. pressure to reform. “Activists say we need U.S. pressure to reduce arrest and torture in Syria and officials say yes this will be the card in the president’s hand to push on hardliners inside, to say we have to do it or we will be finished.”
I am no fan of the Assad regime. Its human rights record is miserable and it leaves little room for dissent or pro-reform activity. But Syria is changing. Damascus in June was not the city I first visited in 1999. I heard more Syrians openly criticize the Assad regime. Satellite television and the internet have broken the isolation that worked to Assad senior’s advantage when he filled even more jail cells than his son does with opponents.
Watching their country forced out of Lebanon and following an investigation that will bring accountability to a regime not accustomed to answering to anyone can help embolden the internal Syrian opposition.
Rather than excluding Damascus, the Bush administration should try including it among the Arab countries it is pushing towards reform. Outside pressure would certainly help the small group of dissidents who risk their freedom to push for a democratic Syria.
Rather than grandstanding through his ministers and the official press, Assad should tell Washington clearly he wants to help with Iraq.
Washington and Damascus can help each other out of trouble.