Syria’s Iraq Policy

The following is a discussion on Syria’s Iraq policy that appeared in the last discussion section. I have copied it here.

Sasa said:

 

Josh,

I’m interested to hear your thoughts on Cordesman’s line about the potential threat from the growing number of Iraqi refugees.

My feeling is two-fold: first, that they have fled violence at home, so they are not going to become involved in trouble in another country. Secondly, their position towards the Syrian government is probably not overly hostile: Syria is the only place which has offered them sanctuary.

Best,

Sasa. 

Joshua replies:

 

Sasa, You ask about the potential threat to Syria from the growing number of Iraqi refugees.

We do not really have a good sense of the Iraqi impact. Western diplomats usually mention two things.

1. Iraqi money has helped the economic boom here, bringing much money into the economy and driving up real-estate prices and consumption, which benefits the rich, who have seen their portfolios take a monster jump in value. Of course, it has had the reverse impact on the poor and those on fixed incomes, who have seen their economic status fall due to inflation.

2. The other thing foreign diplomats say is that the Iraqis have put terrible pressure on the system. Thus, they argue that Syria must cooperate with the Americans on the Iraq file even if they cannot find common ground on the Lebanon file. The US, in particular, wants greater Syrian support for the Malki government. Diplomats here saw the cancellation of the Iraqi opposition meeting in Damascus on Monday as a good sign that Syria is working with the Iraqi gov. They don’t say it was done for the US, as the Syrian government explained.

The other thing that all Western diplomats stress is the Islamist fear. They want a renewal of intelligence sharing on al-Qaida types in Iraq and around the region. This was cut off in 2004. The US says Syria cut it off. Syria blames it on the US and the isolation policy pursued as a result of Syria opposition to the Iraqi invasion. Foreign diplomats complain that Syrians are not properly fearful of the challenge Iraqi refugees will present to Syrian stability. They argue the Syrian government should be more afraid than it is. They want the Syrian Government to cooperation on the Iraq and terrorism files more than it is doing.

Syrians are split on this. The foreign ministry in Syria seems to be making real efforts to cooperate and sees the Iraq file as the one thing the US and Syria can agree on, perhaps 90%. Many here are clearly worried about the “Iraqi issue” and whether it will sew the seeds of endemic future problems and instability, bringing terrorist cells to Syria. There are concrete signs of action from the Syrian government. Nine NGOs that deal with refugee issues have been let into the country – a first for Syria, which has no real foreign NGOs.

All the same, Syrian intelligence seems to believe that they have a good handle on suppressing Islamist groups within Syria. (The blast in the military school north of Aleppo, casts a shadow on this, which makes the question of how it happened so important to all.) Intelligence is not eager to be pressured into cooperation with the US. Cooperation would mean putting a dent into Syrian relations with Sunni opposition elements, whether ex-Baathists, military, or Sunni fundamentalists. It could also mean helping the US and Iraq government go after Muqtada al-Sadr’s people here.

Intelligence is reluctant to do this because they may believe that the Malki government will be swept away as soon as US troops begin to withdraw, in which case, Syria will need good relations with alternative leaders to be found among today’s opposition elements.

Syrians are very divided in their assessment of whether the US is going to withdraw from Iraq when Bush goes. The conspiracy minded believe that America will stay for the oil and hegemony no matter which US party is in power. Others think the the US position in Iraq is untenable and will collapse sooner than later. Therefore, Syria must be ready and maintain good relations with as many Iraqi groups as possible.

For those who think it will collapse, there are two schools of thought.

One believes that Syria must retain good relations with as many Iraqi opposition elements as possible, despite US pressure to give them up. This would be done in order to have cards to play when Malki falls. Think Hamas and Palestinian radicals. Syria cleaned up when the PLO collapsed and Hamas won. Syria stuck by Hamas and Mashaal, despite very serious US pressure to cough him up over the years. I think many Syrians are thinking they must resist US pressure to cough up Iraqis for the same reason. They are hoping that among the many Iraqis they are protecting and developing good relations with, one will be a future Iraqi Mashaal and will have a large role to play in the post-American Iraq.

A second school believes that Syria cannot afford to wait for a Malki collapse because it may bring much worse civil war. In such a case, holding opposition cards may backfire. Syria will be flooded with refugees, trouble, and instability emanating from Iraq. Syria will not be able to manage a post US withdrawal collapse. For this school, it is better to have the Americans in Iraq and to support the Malki government at the expense of Iraqi opposition elements resident in Syria in the hope of forestalling such a collapse.

Wise Americans seems to be aware of this debate and are asking for cooperation on intelligence concerning al-Qaida people most specifically. They want to distinguish between what Syrians consider “legitimate” or “authentic” Iraqi opposition and foreign jihadists and super extremists, which threaten both countries – the US and Syria. The problem is that Syria expects pay-back for such cooperation. They will not give it for free, which the US expects. The two governments still do not see eye to eye on this.

The trouble is that no one knows what is going to happen in Iraq. Second, the US and Syria are at such odds over Israel and Lebanon, that any cooperation on Iraq is made very difficult. The Syrians are paranoid of America and the possibility of an Israeli strike. This fear causes paralysis rather than action on the question of cooperation on the Iraq file. Syrians have a hard time reading the factional splits in Washington – i.e between realists and neo-cons. Many believe the splits are not real and only a skulduggerous set up to deceive Syria and force it to give up cards in order to get nothing.

Many Syrians suspect that the “good guys” the American foreign policy establishment – such as Anthony Cordesman – are pressing Syria to make a real demonstration of good will to break the anti-Syrian mood in Washington. They say Syria must have a serious forward action plan to propose to the Americans rather than being reactive and waiting for others to come to them. The problem with this is that many Syrians believe that the “neo-cons,” i.e. the Cheney crowd, is still really calling the shots and that Syria is being succored by Rice and state department figures, who try to cajole it into making concessions. The Syrians believe that US should make a gesture first to show their good intentions. Distrust runs deep on both sides.

The Lebanon issue has really soured the atmosphere here. So has six years of the Bush administration and listening to extremists in the States talk of regime-change in Damascus. Damascus is constantly being told that Washington has changed. People here don’t believe it. They are waiting to get succor punched.

One smart Syrian who keeps his finger on the pulse here said to me yesterday that he felt certain Israel was preparing for an attack by the end of the summer. He explained that it would probably be ignited by Israeli pressure on Hamas. Hamas would strike back and Israel would use this as a pretext to go after Khalid Mashaal and Hamas leadership in Damascus. Israel would turn the lights out in Syria. When I asked him what Israel had to gain from this, he replied in generalities. “Israel would not try to take down the regime, only weaken it severely,” he said. “The West is on the defensive now and pressure is building up in the entire region. Something has to give,” he argued. “Israel will be used as an instrument to try to reverse the balance of power in the region. The West is not strong enough to go after Iran, so it will go after the easier target – Syria.” This was his argument.

I don’t believe this, but he explained it with great conviction and said many were speculating like this in Damascus. He felt the pressure was being raised for a reason and there would be an explosion sooner than later.

I don’t believe Israelis would be so foolish as to think they could control the results of such an assault on Syria. The results would surely be worse than what they have now, etc. This kind of logic is impressing many fewer people here these days. They think Israel may want to ruin Syria’s economy so that Syria would be forced to make deep concessions and “change behavior.” Israel’s stirring of the pot is finally impressing the Syrian intelligentsia. The broader public is still impervious to these speculations, but it would not take much to get them excited and worried as well. All of this could have an impact on investment here, even without an actual war, if the anxiety is raised high enough.

In conclusion, it is hard to assess the real impact of the growing number of Iraqis here. Everyone has a different analysis. Much depends on what happens in Iraq, which no one seems able to control.

Comments (1)


1. Alex said:

They are hoping that among the many Iraqis they are protecting and developing good relations with, one will be a future Iraqi Mashaal and will have a large role to play in the post-American Iraq.

The funny thing about helping Iraqi opposition leaders is that even if they reach power, they might not appreciate your help … depends who helps them reach, and stay in, power. Look at the previous set of Iraqi opposition leaders that Syria hosted for decades … the anti Saddam opposition leaders who took part in governing Iraq the past three years. Many of them became America’s allies and took part in the most vocal anti Syria campaign. Between the Syrian regime, and America, they chose America, thinking America will defeat the Syrians with ease.

Same could happen next time there is change in Baghdada … these opposition leaders might be Tehran’s friends .. Saudi Arabia’s friends …

It is a mistake to over value the “friendship” and to count on future loyalty of politicians… sometimes it works, sometimes it is useless.

Look at our former allies in Lebanon who are now in love with Saudi Arabia, Israel, or America instead.

Hamas on the other hand looked back and realized that Arafat made a mistake by betting against the Syrians. Hamas is not switching sides to anyone.

As for war and peace in the region … I don’t think there is a decision to go to war against Syria .. yet. There are plans, if necessary. What would make it necessary? … Chaos in Lebanon in few months after they have two governments? no new president?

I still believe that delivering a harsh Israeli message to Syria can only be done in Lebanon. A full scale Syria / Israel war is not controllable .. those who would think of starting it can only be of the variety we hear about in conspiracy theories .. the ones who do indeed want to burn the middle east until it breaks down into little sectarian states. The ones who wrote those famous papers in the 90’s about taking down Iraq, then Syria, then Iran …

The question is: since those people are still in power in DC (some of them at least) … Did they change their minds since those studies they published in the 90’s? … did they realize their mistake after the failures in the Iraq war? or did they achieve their goals after the successes in the Iraq war?

To understand what will happen in the Middle East over the next year, you need to know who makes, or influences, final decisions in Washington: Are these people risk-averse when it comes to the Middle East, or not?

Joshua, I believe that the Syrians see their role as something much more significant than everyday politics of the Middle East … they believe they have been forced to play the role that would provide a lesson to the United States and other powerful countries in the future about the limits of their power and military force. after many failed attempts to convince the Americans that Syria wants to cooperate and help, Bashar made up his mind in 2005 when he delivered this speech:

The region is now facing two options alone: either resistance and steadfastness, or anarchy. There is no third option. Resistance prevents anarchy. Resistance has a price, and anarchy has a price, but the price of the resistance and steadfastness is much lower than the price of anarchy.

He knew he will have to make it until 2008… and score a historic victory in the process… surviving not one, but two terms of an actively hostile American administration.

President Bush Jr. remembered how his idol President Reagan stopped negotiating with the soviet Union until it collapsed. He forgets that Hafez Assad, Bahsar’s father, survived in the 80’s with a two-term hawkish Reagan administration that boycotted him ever since he managed to scrap the Israeli invasion’s forced “peace treaty” with Lebanon in 1983.

If you look at the last year of the Reagan administration … even though they knew that they are leaving and Asaad is staying in power … they did not ask Israel to attack Syria.

But the difference is that at the time the Reagan administration was happy with its economic successes in the US and with its defeating the Soviet Empire … they did not feel weak. Today, this administration is in a very different state of mind.

We’ll see.

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July 27th, 2007, 1:59 pm

 

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