Saturday, March 29, 2003

Father knew best
Secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld has accused Syria of sending sophisticated military material, including night-vision goggles, to Iraq, and of allowing people through its border who want to fight the Americans. Rumsfeld described this as "hostile acts." The story was the headline here in the leading Lebanese paper, Al-Nahar, as well as the London-based Al-Hayat.

The Syrian denial was couched thus: "What Donald Rumsfeld said about the transportation of equipment from Syria to Iraq is an attempt to cover up what his forces have been committing against civilians in Iraq."

If the story is true, however, this would represent a remarkable risk for Syrian president Bashar Asad. The Syrian regime is indeed very worried about a U.S. force sitting on its eastern border, and when I was in Damascus a few months ago the mood was one of anxiety that "Syria would be second" after Iraq. Rumsfeld's comments will not help reassure the Syrians. However, I get a sense that Syrian policy is being driven by the die-hards who have largely transformed Bashar into a lowest common denominator of agreement between Syria's various power centers: the myriad intelligence services, the Baath party apparatchiks, the old elite, etc.

It is very possible that he would have approved a decision to send military material, and one cannot ignore that Bashar often believes in his militant rhetoric. However, I get a nagging sense that the idea may not have originated with him, but with those who fear (or should fear) a U.S. victory much more than he--the security apparatchiks whose raison d'etre would dissolve if the U.S. were successful in establishing themselves in Iraq and shaping events in the region.

I also get a nagging sense that Hafez Asad, Bashar's father, would have played this differently: he would have let the U.S. hang itself with its own rope, and the he would have entered the fray when he could negotiate something advantageous to himself, using U.S. difficulties as leverage. All Bashar has done is guarantee U.S. enmity, weakening his future bargaining hand.

His dilemma is this: he often has to be more radical than anyone in order to survive politically; but by raising the stakes, Bashar's strategy can mean his fall is that much harder if he fails. And if Bashar comes to be perceived as dangerously inexperienced because of his mistakes, his position in Syria could deteriorate.

Incidentally, you might want to read this version of the story on Israel's Ha'aretz site, which suggests that the U.S. attack on a Syrian bus several days ago (when several Syrian civilians were killed) might not have been unintentional after all.

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