Diplomatic Diary: Lessons Of War

Will the real Syria please stand up? Depending on whom you believe, the Syrian Arab Republic is a repressive state that harbors Saddam Hussein's weapons, maintains its own arsenal of chemical and biological weapons and supports international terrorist groups. Or it's a multiparty democracy with an undying hatred for Saddam and his arsenal, and a simple desire to see an end to Israeli occupation of Arab lands.

When Secretary of State Colin Powell visits Syria this week, he will be straddling these bipolar views of President Bashar Al Assad's regime. The Bush administration currently subscribes to the first view of Syria: a threat to the region and the world. The second--that the country is a modernizing, principled Arab state--is the self-styled view of the latest generation of Syrian officials. Whether Washington accepts the former or the latter, or ends up somewhere in between, will effectively set the course for its relations with Damascus. Powell told the Senate's foreign relations committee on Tuesday that he would have "a full, candid and open discussion" with Assad later this week. Translation: he'll be laying down the new law of the land. "I hope that President Bashar Assad and his colleagues are looking at what's happening in the region and factoring that into their policy-making apparatus--a complete change in circumstances as a result of the end of the Saddam Hussein regime," Powell explained.

That process of learning the lessons from Iraq needs to work its way through the Bush administration too. The danger of a rapid victory on the battlefield is that it can dazzle Washington's policymakers into believing that the only effective strategy in the Middle East is force or the threat of force. But what if some countries were already on the path towards reform before the war? What if the threat of force halts those reforms instead of speeding them up? And what if the sight of American and British military superiority actually hastens their plans to build weapons of mass destruction? It's easy for both sides to draw the wrong lessons from the war in Iraq.

So let's think about Syria for a moment. According to the State Department's official country report, "Syria is ruled by an authoritarian regime which exhibits the forms of a democratic system but in which President Assad wields almost absolute authority." Case in point: when former president Hafez Al Assad died in June 2000, after 30 years in power, the Syrian parliament changed the constitution to allow his son Bashar to take over. The same day he was elected president in an unopposed referendum in which he won 97.29% of the vote. (A paltry performance compared to Saddam, who won a perfect 100% support in his last referendum on power in October.) As president, Assad heads both the Arab Baath Socialist Party and the National Progressive Front (comprising six parties). "Political opposition to the president is not tolerated," says the State Department.

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What kind of international policies does this system support? The CIA says that Syria actively tried to buy the ingredients for chemical weapons last year as it tried to develop new "toxic and persistent nerve agents". That's in addition to its stockpile of the nerve agent sarin, the agency says. As for terrorism, Syria has been on the list of state sponsors of terrorism since it was first published in 1979. It supports anti-Israeli militant groups such as Hizbullah, Hamas and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. That support includes transferring arms from Iran to the terrorists, as well as allowing them safe haven in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, which Syria controls. However at the same time U.S. officials readily acknowledge that Syria has provided invaluable intelligence against Al Qaeda. It also appears to have turned its back on its 1980s strategy of direct engagement in terrorism. That strategy included the creation of radical new Palestinian terrorist groups and the 1986 attempt to blow up an Israeli jetliner in London.

That's the U.S. opinion of Syria. The Syrian view of its own government is, needless to say, a little more generous. First, the claim that Saddam would send his weapons--or his aides--to Syria is ludicrous, the Syrians say. "They would rather come to the United States than Syria," says Butheina Shaaban, spokesperson for Syria's foreign affairs office. "It showed a considerable lack of knowledge of relations between Syria and the Iraqi regime, which would go anywhere except to Syria, because we really suffered for 20 years [from] the Iraqi regime and stood against every war." Still, Shaaban concedes that trade with Iraq did flow in recent years--including oil supplies--but only because U.N. sanctions had put "the Iraqi people...in a desperate situation".

As for terrorism, Shaaban--like almost all Syrians--draws a line around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Hizbullah only operates from Lebanon, she argues, and only targets the Israeli armed forces. "We have 500,000 Palestinians in Syria," she says. "What do you expect them to do? Shut their mouths?" Then there is the nature of Syrian democracy. "We have seven political parties in government and we have voted and our parliament has just been changed," she explains. "Things are being done inside Syria according to the social, cultural and economic pace in the country."

It's easy to dismiss Shaaban's arguments as propaganda. But Shaaban herself might be a sign of real change in Damascus. A literature professor from Damascus University, Shaaban is an ardent advocate of women's rights in the Arab world. Most tellingly, she is also open to talking to the U.S. media in an effort to win public support--a sea-change in the attitude of the Syrian government under the late president Assad.

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As Powell prepares to travel to Syria this week--and engage in a campaign to sell a new peace process to the region--the Bush administration needs to evaluate rapidly where Syria stands on the scale between repression and reform, terror and counter-terrorism, black and white. The same is true throughout the region. After the war in Iraq, the Bush administration is pushing for reform across the Arab world, peace between the Israelis and Palestinians and an end to the spread of weapons and terrorism. How you achieve that hugely ambitious agenda depends in large part on whether you think those Arab nations are moving with you--or against you.

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