Sunday, April 13, 2003

Betting on Saddam
If you're ever in Monte Carlo betting on the numbers, make sure you don't have a Syrian or a Frenchman whispering advice to you, because if their wagering against the U.S. in Iraq was any indicator, you'll be lucky to go home wearing a fig leaf. There's something eerily similar in Syrian and French diplomacy towards the Iraq war: Both countries decided to lead the procession of protest against the U.S, other protestors were happy to let them lead, and all in favor of an Iraqi regime that was obviously on the way out.

The thought came to mind as U.S. defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld declared that several top Iraqi officials had escaped to Syria, though Saddam's half-brother, Watban, was caught before he could make the jump. Another half-brother, Barzan al-Takriti, was killed a few days ago in an American bombing. It was an altogether bad week for half-brothers.

From a Syrian perspective, it's unclear what advantages Bashar Asad will derive from the thugs showing up at his doorstep. Before we underestimate Syrian ingenuity, however, it is conceivable the renegades will be sold back to a new postwar Iraqi government for concessions, including economic concessions. The Syrian regime has never sympathized with its Iraqi counterparts. However, given the militant tone in Damascus these days, kicking the Iraqis back to Baghdad may be a red line Asad won't want to cross, though I wonder why.

Syria has denied it is receiving Iraqi runaways. However, in a statement, Syria's deputy ambassador to the United States, Imad Moustapha, said it was the responsibility of U.S. troops to monitor Iraq's western border with Syria. That seems to be a nice way of saying: "If you can catch them, fine, but if you can't, we'll let them enter Syria." One thing to watch out for, however, is the seniority of officials Syria will allow in. Saddam and his sons are almost surely no-no's. The lowly Muhammad Saeed al-Sahhaf, on the other hand, would be welcomed (perhaps to boost confidence in the Syrian economy). The only problem with that logic is that Watban was pretty high up.

Kidding aside, does Syria really want an Iraqi Baathist exile community in Damascus. Would you?

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