Monday, December 15, 2008

Syria Theory

In Foreign Policyland there is a train of thought that choo choos up and down a very short piece of rail road called the "Syrian Track".

If and when Syria track ever reaches the depot - look out! Peace, love and tolerant understanding will softly fall across the ME. Syria's uncool hook up with Iran will be coitus interruptus, the Golan will magically become Syrian again, Lebanon will be free of meddling Syrians and Hiz'B'Allah will be looking for a new hood.

Like a hot phantasy that will never be requited, Syria track bears some tough looks and in depth quizes like Dr Jonathan Spyer laid out at Gloria Center for Research in Internat'l Affairs:

"Could Israeli concessions to Syria prove a sufficient prize to lure Damascus away from its 25-year alliance with the mullahs in Tehran? Answering this requires taking a closer look at the Syrian regime's interests in the region.

Syria lacks the size of Egypt and the resources of Saudi Arabia. But it has been able to project power and influence in the region because of its willingness to support radicalism, act as a disruptive force and thus create a situation in which it cannot be ignored. Thus, Damascus backs a host of Palestinian groups opposed to a peaceful settlement of the conflict with Israel - including Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, PFLP-GC and others.

Syria offered significant support to the Sunni insurgency in Iraq. That totally failed as the Sunni tribes hitched their wagons to the Great Satanmobile. And most importantly, Damascus maintains influence in Lebanon - following its ignominious departure in 2005 - via its relationship with the pro-Iranian Shia militia, Hiz'B'Allah.

The ability to foment chaos and project influence in Lebanon is key for the Assad regime. The expulsion from that country was a personal humiliation for the young president, and its loss is exacting an economic cost on Damascus.

Furthermore, the regime seeks to prevent at all costs the commencement of the work of the tribunal into the killing of former prime minister, Rafik al-Hariri. Its chosen method for doing this is the fomenting of instability in Lebanon and the instrument it chooses to use is Hizbullah.

The mainstream Arab states - most importantly Egypt and Saudi Arabia - are frightened by the growth of Iranian influence across the region. They are furious with Syria for its backing of non-Arab Iran. But only by backing the radical power in the region can Syria maintain its powerful role as mischief-maker."

Internat'l Strategic Affairs points out that Bashar's Syria is perhaps at her weakest point - ever:

"Syria has had a bad run in the last year, and that bodes ill for a tyrant whose survival rests on an image of omnipotence. Syria now faces pressure along several fronts, in addition to the ones noted in Israel’s press, for which it would need to “change the subject” to buy a strategic respite and counteract international pressure.

Syria came out of the 2006 Lebanon war with a newfound confidence (and belligerence), a strong suspicion that Israel as a regional force was spent, and even threats to take back the Golan Heights by force. But the two years since have not been good for Damascus. "

Those several fronts include:

"After a half century of Ba'ath Party rule, the Syrian economy remains an inefficient, heavily regulated socialist command economy. Because the country's oil sector provides a quarter of its GDP, half of the government's revenues and some two-thirds of its export receipts, declining oil prices are having devastating effect. The International Labor Organization has estimated Syria's unemployment rate at almost 18 percent. "

But most of Syria's weakness, which has become ever more apparent since Bashar Assad assumed power in 2000, is political. It was forced to withdraw from Lebanon, following the assassination of Rafik Hariri in 2005.

It has endured humiliating incursions into its territory, like September 2007's strike on a nuclear facility that North Korea was helping to equip. (Assad refused to allow the International Atomic Energy Agency to conduct a follow-up visit to the site, despite its recent report confirming the presence of uranium there.)

And in late October, American special operations forces made a raid into eastern Syria to target militants responsible for running weapons and fighters across the border into Iraq.

Then there has been the spate of assassinations in Syria: Gen. Muhammad Suleiman, a top Assad adviser; Imad Mughniyeh, the operations commander of Hizballah; Muhammad Suleiman, a senior military officer killed last month in the port town of Tartus; and Hisham el-Badni, Khaled Mashaal's top aid, who was taken out of his car and shot in the city of Homs earlier this month.

In late September, meanwhile, a car bomb exploded near a Syrian intelligence agency office in Damascus, killing 17.

If all this weren't telling enough, Assad's recent crackdown on dissidents offers yet another sign of his growing insecurity. In May, Tarek Bayassi, aged 24, received a three-year sentence for publishing "false news" on the Internet. After reporting on riots in an industrial town near Damascus, Mazen Darwish, president of the Syrian Center for Media and Freedom of Expression, was given a short sentence for "defaming and insulting the administrative bodies of the state."

Essentially for Bashar - Syria track realises several points:

"First, breaking with Iran would imply a break with Hizballah as well. For Syria to turn its strongest asset in Lebanon into a mortal enemy would be a strategic blow of unimaginable proportions for Damascus.

Recogging Little Satan would also tear from Syria its leadership role on the Palestinian issue. Without these allies, Syria would be in a difficult position to continue to assert itself as the guardian of Arab pride and defiance, which continue to be the cornerstones of its governing ideology and the justification behind its militarization and sacrifice.

Second, Syria is a minority regime ruling through terror. Natan Sharansky taught in the essential "Case for Democracy" that regimes cannot survive any crack in the façade of their brutality, since it is the only currency which keeps them afloat.

Bashar understands that Great Satan will eventually demand improvements in human rights and majority enfranchisement, both of which can threaten not only his regime but the survival of his broader Alawite community.

Bashar needs Iran's mullahopolis to simply survive. Indeed, it is so much so that it is inconceivable that Damascus would see any money or security assistance as capable, grand, or clever enough to counteract the deadly, massive and sophisticated Iranian structures which operate in Syria and have entrenched themselves over nearly three decades. It was one thing for Sadat to expel intrusive Slavs in 1972, but quite another for Syria to expel Iran’s agents of influence.

Fifth, Damascus is not as interested in the Golan Heights as it is in Lebanon. Bashar al-Assad labors under the burden of losing his father’s signal achievement—the successful takeover of Lebanon in 1975-1976. Trying to get the Golan back, which his papa never did, is a distant second priority.


Ultimately, the Syrian regime cannot escape its fate as an Alawite government in a Sunni land. The moment it fails the Sunni majority, it delegitimizes its stewardship and puts its stability in peril. Any move to acknowledge Little Satan's right to exist would trample on the key mechanism through which this regime (and the Alawite community upon which it is built) has justified itself among Sunnis since 1969: pan-Arab nationalism.

In short, Syria’s pan-Arab nationalist rhetoric is an essential part of its legitimacy to rule over its Sunni majority. The regime cannot cede pan-Arab or Sunni “rights” in the name of the Sunnis and still expect to be considered legitimate, let alone to survive.

Indeed, Syria is acting consistently with previous rounds. Its peace feelers today, as in the mid-1990s, are tactical diversions designed to restore to Damascus the initiative it has lost in recent months to pursue its strategic aims. And that, more than anything else, would explain why Tehran is signaling that “it is not worried by the talk about the resumption of talks between Israel and Syria over the Golan Heights.”

Pic - Bashar al Assad - Lion of Syria