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It’s Hard to See Syria as the Threat It’s Made Out to Be

<i> Former Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.) was a member of the Foreign Relations Committee</i>

Lebanon is to Syria today as Cuba was to the United States in 1961: obsessively preoccupying.

Except that there are differences. Lebanon was part of Greater Syria before the secret Sykes-Picot agreement between Britain and France arbitrarily divided up the Middle East during World War I. Beirut is a 90-minute drive from Damascus, and in Lebanon there are about six Castros, each with an outside patron.

Even without Lebanon, the United States would have a tough time with Syria. The Syrians don’t like us much. We are manipulated, they say, by “Zionist influences.” Our one-sided support for Israel, they say, has alienated the Arab world, particularly them. Of all the so-called “confrontation states,” the Syrians take their continued state of war with Israel most seriously. Being the last to give up on crushing Israel, they now reluctantly talk about Israel existing within its pre-1967 boundaries.

Yet for all that, it’s hard to make them out as the threat they are often claimed to be. Their economy is troubled, to say the least. Like most other countries in the region (if not in the world), they are spending disproportionately on the military. Yet the troops I saw could have used some spiffing up, and they were nowhere nearly as concentrated near the Golan Heights as one is led to believe.

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Syria could use a big dose of Western technology. And, as in Iraq, there is a flourishing black market and underground economy. The Damascus taxi business is a classic-car collector’s paradise, but those 1959-1963 Chevys are still in business because they can’t afford replacements. (The cabs in Amman, one hour south, are Mercedeses.) And perestroika seems to have cooled off Soviet ardor for making Syria a springboard for mischief in the Middle East.

Which brings us back to Lebanon. Syria picked the wrong side, or at least failed to pick the prevailing side, in the Iran-Iraq war. And now it’s reckoning time. Iraq figures that, if the Syrians backed the Ayatollah just to give Iraq trouble, turnabout is fair play. So it’s widely believed here that the Iraqis are subsidizing the Christian militia (and possibly others) in Lebanon against the Syrian-backed Muslim forces just to keep the Syrians tied up in a never-ending squabble on their western border.

But wait a minute. Here it gets complicated. Because Israel, it is believed, supported Iran in its war with Iraq. And Israel, it is believed, is also supporting the Christians against the Muslims in Lebanon. Which puts Israel and Iraq on the same side in Lebanon. This is the kind of thing that would make even the most seasoned veterans of Chicago wards scratch their heads in confusion. It had to be one of the early caliphs who said: “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Never mind principles.

In spite of all the dated Syrian hard-line rhetoric about “Zionist influences” in the United States, our people say that the Syrians seem generally and genuinely cooperative in trying to prevent partition in Lebanon, even if it means giving up the chance to have a puppet for a neighbor.

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They may be outdated and out of touch, but the Syrians and their President Hafez Assad are not totally unrealistic. They know that the chances of a totally Syrian-dominated Muslim government are virtually nil. They know that partition means perpetual wars among tiny enclaves, and perpetual trouble from them. They know that they are being paid back by the Iraqis and bedeviled by the Israelis. They know that we, not the Soviets--tied down with their own fascinating power struggles--are the only ones who have even a ghost of a chance of brokering some deal in that tragically troubled little country. And they know, as we should, that Lebanon--a 10-sided Northern Ireland in the Middle East--could self-destruct any day now.

The time may come when Jordan and Egypt, possibly with Saudi Arabia and Iraq, may force Syria to join an Arab coalition for peace in the Middle East. Stranger things have happened. But the chances will be greatly enhanced if all parties in the region see the tragedy and danger of a partitioned Lebanon, a series of Balkanized puppet enclaves serving only the narrow interests of their arms-providing masters, and instead tell their clients to go about the business of negotiating a coalition, power-sharing Lebanese government.

If we get some help in saving Lebanon, then perhaps Syria can be next.


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