Since the Arab summit in Beirut last winter, the Baathist leadership of Damascus has deployed all possible efforts to shield its sister regime in Baghdad. The Assad and Saddam regimes, two clones of one Pan-Arab Socialist ideology were at odds for decades. Both raced for Arab leadership. Both raced for anti-Zionism. Both claimed to be the saviors. One had to go for the other to prevail in the eyes of the region's masses.
But the war between sister regimes was superceded by a wider concern. For it is one thing if Saddam falls to the Syrian Baath, and another thing if it falls to an anti-Baath faction, especially if that "opposition" is backed by the United States. In the minds of the Damascus rulers, the logical next step would be to move on Syria's Baath. Hence, the Assad (father and son) regime's most rational choice is to fight against a "regime change" in Baghdad as a first defense against a future regime change in Damascus.
Back in the summer of 1990, Syria obtained a green light from the Bush I administration to finish off the Lebanese resistance in return for its support against the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait. It was just that: Get Saddam out of Kuwait, but no more than that; leave Saddam in power. That became Syrian policy through the 1990s. Hafez Assad, the sophisticated geo-politician, wanted to focus on digesting Lebanon and isolating its Christian community, supporting pro-Iranian Hezbollah, and crushing peace deals with Israel by means of Palestinian suicide bombings. Changing Saddam Hussein with a peacemaker was out of the question. Hafez died in June 2000, when his strategy had reached an apex. He wasn't able to harvest the ultimate fruit of his patience: Seeing Israel sinking under the Aqsa Intifada. But he also wasn't there when September 11 changed the face of the world.
The chain of events was fast. The United States was swift in responding to terrorism. Not only was al Qaeda uprooted from Afghanistan, but also three protected of the Assad regime were now listed as wanted: the Syrian-harbored Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and the Syrian-supported Hezbollah. The fast pace of all of this got the Syrian command worried, especially since Vice President Cheney was making the rounds trying to drum up support for an invasion of Iraq. "Everything that would happen in Baghdad could happen in Damascus" seemed to be the thinking in Syria. Hence, the Assad II regime devised a dual-containment plan, to borrow the words of Mideast expert Fouad Ajami. The idea was to give something to the Americans to quench their thirst to defeat terrorism, while building a regional-international shield over Iraq.
After the fall of Tora Bora, Syria established a "working relationship" with Washington to deal with al Qaeda. It apparently passed on "important information" about the bin Laden groups to the U.S. It was said that a number of al Qaeda exiles from Afghanistan were arrested in Syrian-occupied Lebanon. However, not much transpired with these arrests.
While Damascus was given credit by Washington's officials for whatever it was "offering" on the terror front, Syria's geostrategic weight was thrown fully against U.S. intentions to move on Saddam. As Cheney was trying to convince Arabs to rally against the Baath of Baghdad, the Baath of Damascus were rallying Arabs against the Bush II administration. Using Lebanon's state-controlled media to mobilize the region against "any form of intervention in Iraq," Syria was setting the stage in the streets of the Arab world.
Along with al-Jazeera, dozens of TV, radio, and print media out of Syrian-controlled Beirut were beating the drums of anti-Americanism. The campaign peaked at the Arab League summit last winter, when, under Syrian auspices, the #2 of the Baghdad regime was embraced by Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. From that moment on, Syria positioned itself as the defender of Arab unity and spokesman for the League. It sent its own diplomats around the world, and used Lebanon's (its occupied neighbor) foreign relations to mount a campaign against Washington. It counted on U.S. public opinion to protect its role at the U.N. Security Council. But after November's elections in America, Damascus had to change its game plan. The battlefield is now in New York, inside the U.N. Security Council.
Many didn't understand Syria's vote on Iraq a few weeks ago. In fact it was a coup de maitre. By voting for the resolution, Assad was highly credited for his international good behavior. But he will use these brownie points to fight the details of the resolution. And in Mideast politics, the devil is in the details. Once the U.S. perceived the "unanimous" vote including Syria as a victory, it moved faster on the U.N. track. The inspections became the terrain of interest. Did Syria lure Washington into the maze of the regime of inspections to deflect it from regime change? Apparently it did. Now the ball is in Saddam's court. Acting more like a sophisticated Assad, the Saddam's Baath regime threw a sort of "1001 Baghdad Nights" report on the U.N.
Obviously, the game was well devised between the two twins. Syria is the shield and Iraq is the sword. Damascus works on the outer rings paralyzing the international coalition and Baghdad works on the inner rings suppressing and intimidating the opposition. Saddam may have lost his Republican Guard in Basra, but the Syrian Republic guards his regime in New York.
*The National Review, Friday December 20, 2002.
Walid Phares is an associate professor of Middle East Studies and Ethnic and Religious Conflict, in the Department of Political Science at Florida Atlantic University. He is the author of eight books on the Middle East in Arabic, French, and English and more then 200 articles.