Avoid the Road to Damascus

Martha Kessler, a senior Middle East analyst with the CIA until her retirement in 2000, is the author of "Syria: A Fragile Mosaic of Power" (Government Printing Office, 1988).

The United States has issued more warnings and threats to Syria in the last week than ever in the history of relations between the two countries.

U.S. frustration with Damascus apparently grows out of Syria’s willingness to do three things: to allow Iraqis fleeing U.S. forces to enter Syria; to allow individuals anxious to confront the U.S. to enter Iraq; and to permit the transit of military equipment across the border in both directions.

These actions, if verified, complicate the U.S. mission in Iraq. But, even at its worst, this situation does not constitute a threat to the U.S. Those who contend that it does are engaging in rhetoric for purposes other than those serving U.S. interest. Syria is not Iraq, and Americans should beware of those who try to make that case.

Syria lives in the same tough neighborhood that Israel, Kuwait, Jordan and others complain about -- a neighborhood in which military muscle and regional ambition characterize the tough players, the big players. Israel is the biggest of them all, with military prowess beyond that of all the others combined. Iraq was one of them, and Egypt and Iran are two aspirants.


Syria is decidedly not one of them. Like most of the other states in the region, Syria has had to survive in the neighborhood in one of two ways: find a powerful patron (as Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states have found in the United States) or create a credible military deterrence and a network of relationships to allow for bobbing and weaving through the punches of regional politics.

During the Cold War, Syria tried the patron route with the Soviet Union. But since the Soviet collapse in the 1980s, Syria has worked the more difficult approach of surviving on regional alliances and deals to generate the necessary economic and political wherewithal.

It has been able to do little more than manage -- manage its transition from a socialist to a more liberal economy, manage its factious, diverse and highly political society in a rapidly changing world and manage its meager natural resources.

Deteriorating Military

Syria is poor, its military is deteriorating and it is behind even by regional standards in the chase for modern technology. It is not a large, powerful, oil-rich regional player like Iraq.

Many, including several U.S. presidents, have accused Syria of having broad regional ambitions, as Iraq had. But, in fact, here are the only credible circumstances that fit the charge:

* Since independence in the 1940s, Syrians have believed that the map drawn by British and French colonialists left individual Arab nations weak and set one against another because of border disputes, divided societies and, thus, divided political loyalties.

Syrians, like many other Arabs, promoted the notion of rising above Western-imposed national distinctions to support broad Arab goals. Hafez Assad, the Syrian president’s father, mixed this pan-Arab ideology with a good deal of pragmatism, but he believed it until his death in 2000.


* Syria led the charge to isolate Egypt after it signed its peace agreement with Israel in 1979; most Arab states joined Syria in shunning Egypt. The case Syria made against Cairo was that it had abandoned its Arab brethren, robbing them of the international clout that naturally attends to the Arab world’s most powerful country and all but guaranteeing that those with serious territorial claims against Israel would never have sufficient strength to regain their patrimony.

* Syrian troops were sent into Lebanon in the 1970s to try to end the civil war there. They were dispatched under the aegis of the Arab League. The U.S. quietly accepted and, in some respects, welcomed the presence once it became convinced that Syria was the only power that could bring the bloody conflict to an end. This was not Iraq marching into Kuwait -- not by any stretch of the historical facts. As a result of its influence in Lebanon, Syria has battled Israel indirectly through Lebanese surrogates -- Hezbollah. Syria has also pressed Lebanon not to settle or “sell out” to Israel but to move in lock step with Damascus in negotiations with Israel. These actions have a name, but it is not regional ambition.

No Arab Democracies

Syria has been likened to Iraq as an authoritarian regime that represses its people. Syria is not democratic, but then there are no democracies in the Arab world; there are only authoritarian rulers -- some brutal, some enlightened, some pragmatic. The Assads of Syria fall mainly into the category of pragmatic.


A walk through Syria would not uncover plastic bags with dismembered human remains or young boys brainwashed and inducted into militant service of a personality cult. As for prisons, Syria’s are relatively empty, and their dark interiors would be indistinguishable from those in Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco and much of the rest of the world. Many Syrians want their governance liberalized, as a nascent reform movement illuminated when young Assad took power not quite three years ago. He has responded in fits and starts, just as his father did in the 1970s. But then, as now, turmoil in the neighborhood derailed reform. The surest way to help Bashar Assad enact reforms would be with carrots, not sticks.

The international community has suspected for decades that Syria developed chemical and biological weapons to serve as a “poor man’s” deterrent to the arsenal of several dozen nuclear weapons Israel is reported to possess. This fairly stable standoff has existed between Israel and Syria for decades. Not until now has it ever been suggested that Syria intended to use this capability offensively, much less against the U.S.

Washington has not had an easy time at home or around the world making the case for war on Iraq. Even those who generally support the war are deeply uneasy because we have not yet found the weapons of mass destruction that we were told about. The case against Syria would be infinitely harder to make.

This is a country that fought with the U.S. to oust Iraq from Kuwait. This is a country that sat at the table with the U.S. for 10 years of negotiations, patiently accepting Washington’s instruction and trusting its intention to fairness in finding a settlement between Israel and the Arabs. This is also a country that has helped the United States track down Islamic extremists, providing assistance that has surprised even its most determined critics. This is the Arab country that voted to accept Resolution 1441 -- the Security Council resolution under which the U.S. justified the war on Iraq -- thereby causing Washington a lot less trouble than some of its other friends.


The history and politics of Syria are not well known to Americans. Syria does not have much oil and has generally fallen outside the American sphere of influence and interest. Syria is thus an easy target for those who would like to see the U.S. march through the Middle East on a quest for Pax Americana.

When Americans hear talk of another war -- this time in Syria -- they need to remember that Damascus under the Assads has for years been committed to peace with Israel on the basis of the return of Syrian territory. To be sure, Syria has created complications for the U.S. right now. But there are no megalomaniacs in Damascus or threats to the U.S.

Syria is not Iraq -- not even close -- and Americans should not allow themselves to be spun into thinking so.