Syria: The Road To Damascus

The call went out from the mosques of Lebanon's Bekaa Valley as the Iraq war began: the time had come to defend Islam. And Zein Ali Othman answered. The unemployed 38-year-old veteran of the Lebanese Army, along with three others, was able, he said, to travel into Syria and across the country without stopping for the usual formalities. At the desert frontier with Iraq, he claims, they boarded a convoy of Syrian food trucks guided by local Bedouins and headed to Baghdad. Two days later Othman rejoined some 200 other volunteers from the Bekaa in Iraq's holy city of Najaf. A Shiite cleric gave them a choice. They could go fight the Americans or defend the shrines. Othman chose defense, and insists he never fired a shot. Most of those who chose to fight, he says, are dead.

Did Syrian agents facilitate the volunteers' odyssey to and from the Iraqi battlefield? Othman, now back in his hometown of Baalbek, refuses to talk about that. But Washington has plenty to say on the matter. Repeatedly last week, top U.S. officials, including President Bush, accused Syria of aiding and abetting the now fallen regime of Saddam Hussein. Damascus was supposed to have given Iraqi thugs a haven. There were even suggestions that Syrian officials had helped to hide Saddam's thus-far undiscovered weapons of mass destruction.

U.S. intelligence agencies did not have much substantiation for those charges, just scraps of information "cherry-picked by the Pentagon," as one officer put it. And Syrian officials, appearing to be flabbergasted, denied them all. "If they want to target us, they can always find a pretext," said Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Bouthaina Shaaban. But if Damascus was caught off balance, that was just fine with Washington.

Many of Saddam's cronies clearly did hope they could escape to Damascus. "Our information was that people were getting ready to flee and head in that direction," says a senior State Department official. But, perhaps because of Washington's stern warnings, the Syrians shut down the border. One of Saddam's half brothers, Watban al-Tikriti, was caught on his way toward the Syrian frontier. Palestinian terrorist Abu Abbas, long sponsored by Saddam, reportedly was turned back to be arrested by American troops. Intelligence sources believe that a former top intelligence official, Farouq Hijazi, did manage to get to Syria. But Hijazi's latest post was ambassador to Tunisia, and that's apparently where he was when the war broke out. So his face wasn't among the playing cards of wanted Iraqis that the United States put out, and he wasn't fleeing from Iraq. U.S. officials are interested in locating Hijazi, in large part because he may have had a role in plotting the abortive 1993 attack on former president George H.W. Bush.

On weapons of mass destruction, the administration managed a deft shift from the question of Saddam's phantom arsenal to a focus on longstanding concerns about Syria's own chemical and biological programs. Charges that Damascus has stockpiled sarin and other nerve agents are not new. Neither is American pressure on Syria to give them up. But this kind of muscle-flexing--and at such close quarters--certainly is.

Washington's biggest concern, however, is Syrian support for terrorism. Few governments have more experience in this black art. (Since the State Department first issued a list of states supporting terrorism in 1979, Syria's been on it.) But the Syrian regime's style is not apocalyptic. It aims to bleed its rivals in the region, not to bring on a war of civilizations. In fact, when it comes to fighting Al Qaeda, Washington and Damascus are on the same team. Last year, thanks to information provided by Syrian intelligence, the United States was able to foil a planned attack on the U.S. Navy's Administrative Support Unit (in effect, its headquarters) in Bahrain. According to U.S. officials, that Syrian tip saved a lot of American lives.

Damascus may do still more. Officials close to President Bashar Assad say they welcome a chance to engage the Bush administration, and look forward to Secretary of State Colin Powell's upcoming visit to Damascus and other Middle Eastern capitals, tentatively planned for early May. They also suggest that the seismic shift in the region could actually open the way for the young Syrian president, who inherited power from his father three years ago, to bring on long-anticipated political and economic reforms. In an ironic twist, Syria's vulnerability could become Assad's strength.

But the United States is vulnerable, too. It's big. It's powerful. But it's in Syria's neighborhood now. The last time it came, in Lebanon from 1982 to 1984, it left bloodied and bowed after a series of suicide bombings aimed at its diplomats and soldiers. Several of the powerful intelligence chiefs around Assad today were at his father's side then. By the time Syria occupied all of Lebanon in 1990, Washington almost welcomed the move. If the Bush administration is not careful, its hopes and plans for the Arab-Israeli peace process and for a stable, secure, pro-American Iraq could be destroyed by new assassinations and new terror attacks.

That's why Zein Ali Othman and his buddies in Baalbek are important. Syria rarely uses its own people to wage covert war. Instead it's relied on groups with their own agendas--resisting Israeli occupation, trying to overthrow rival Arab regimes, defending Islam--to carry on the fight against its rivals. As an ally of revolutionary Iran since 1980, Syria has especially close ties to Shiite Islamists like Hizbullah in Lebanon and several groups now itching to take power in Baghdad. Many of those organizations are already marching in Iraq's streets to protest American occupation. And many others are waiting in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon, site of ancient Roman ruins and modern terrorist-training camps, to answer the call to fight.

Syria: The Road To Damascus | News