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Avoid the Road to Damascus

Syria has little in common with Iraq. Americans should be wary of those using heated language to suggest otherwise.

April 18, 2003|Martha Kessler | 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.

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