Wedged in between a devastated Iraq and a perpetually occupied Palestine, the Syria of the young president Assad seemed, until the beginning of April, to have been miraculously forgotten in the thoughts of the Pentagon.
That oversight has been repaired, and, even if today the fever seems to have calmed a little, we were at one moment asking ourselves if Damas wasn’t about to pay the price of the victorious campaign in Iraq. The western press, prompt as ever, discovered with apparent surprise that Syria wasn’t really a democracy and that the regime installed by General Hafez el Assad displays disturbing similarities to the defunct regime of Saddam Hussein.
Indifference between Damascus and Baghdad
Syria has for a long time effectively had all the qualities required to get a high profile place within the ‘axis of evil’ formed by the inspired White House: a clear supporter of the Lebanese Hezbollah, the presence on its soil of militant Islamic Palestinians, a studied intransigence on ending the Golan question, an hereditary republic. So many determining elements to justify the subtle American threats. It is simply stupefying that the paragons of democracy have taken so long to react. Only a few months ago the American counsel in Damascus was refused entry to a fashionable restaurant, solely on the grounds of his nationality, and during ‘spontaneous’ demonstrations in support of the Palestinian intifada, convoys invariably converged on American embassies. At the time, these sorts of events did not however invite the wrath of the Washington hawks.
We can then legitimately pose the question of American credibility whilst its leaders make wide eyes. The arguments used to justify their declarations were moreover pretty laughable: they accused Damascus above all others for supporting the shaky neighbouring regime: because they welcomed with open arms escaping Iraqis, because they sent fighters ‘in their thousands’ to fight against America in Iraq, and – the cherry on the cake – because they hold weapons of mass destruction. Fashionable arguments, but no more convincing than those brandished by Powell at the UN to justify operation ‘freedom in Iraq’. Any person even vaguely familiar with the issues in the region could see the profound indifference that has always existed between Damascus and Baghdad. To suspect Damascus of collusion with Saddam Hussein is a distressing absurdity on the part of those expected to know a minimum about the Middle-East dossier. And, as for weapons of mass destruction, – chemical weapons or whatever else – we’re still waiting for the Iraqi arsenal to be discovered.
Cast an eye in the direction of Islamabad and Tel Aviv
This episode reveals an essential characteristic of American foreign policy. Far from being based on any long-term vision, it is more adapted to circumstance, leaning on a series of questionable ideological assumptions. Profiting from their victory, American strategists have for a moment considered ‘finishing the job’ – an expression that fits perfectly with George W. Bush’s terminology – by sending their troops and a few embedded journalists to Damascus. Perhaps they also simply wanted to put some pressure on Syria, but the situation in Iraq has evidently brought them back to the harsh reality of international relations. Before re-modelling the Middle East that they have for so long contributed to the destruction of, the Americans must pacify and democratise Iraq, a task far from complete. Threats against Syria in this context appear if not ridiculous then at least useless. To add to the demonstration of military might the barkings of Donald Rumsfeld is to under-estimate the analytical capabilities of the Syrian leaders. The US has certainly got what it wanted from Damascus, and the threats have disappeared. Only the effects of their style remain, but there still the Bush administration didn’t need to prove that it was the new sheriff on the international scene. Everyone understands now. America strikes who they want, when they want.
The attitude of the Syrians has been very sensible. The ‘Arab street’, usually so prompt to demonstrate (as if blind and bloodthirsty by nature, not at all like the ‘western streets’ which apparently don’t even exist) didn’t budge. The population of Damascus follows obediently, as always, the official line imposed from on high. The arguments raised by the authorities, the same as those of the Syrian ambassador to the UN during discussions on Iraq, underline precisely one of the numerous paradoxes of American policy. If the US really wants to clean up the region of all non-conventional arms, they should start in Islamabad, its ad hoc ally, and in Tel Aviv, its old friend, today more then ever, in the White House.