Syrian-American Relations: Clean Break Advocates vs. Status Quo Beneficiaries

Although the potential showdown between Syria and the United States seems to have been averted for the time being, as developments in the last few days indicate, many outstanding issues in Syrian–American relations remain unresolved, and have not, in fact, been seriously addressed yet.[1] As such, and with the United States now firmly established in neighboring Iraq, these issues are bound to be revisited in the near future, perhaps as soon as the Syria Accountability Act is debated once more by the U.S. Congress. Due to the apparent inability of the two sides to show the flexibility necessary for reaching workable compromises, the two countries seem to be hurrying along the path toward confrontation. The recent mini-crisis, therefore, seems like a prelude or an opening salvo in an ongoing diplomatic showdown that has all the possibilities of leading to war.

The immediate cause seems to be related to an initial, and admittedly foolish, miscalculation by the Syrian regime. Indeed, it seems that Syria’s rulers have been duped by Iraqi propaganda into thinking that the war there could turn into a rather prolonged affair with popular resistance to the “invaders” having the potential of sealing their fate, just as had happened in Lebanon in 1982. No less a figure than the Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad came out expressing such hopes in the early days of the war. During an interview with the Lebanese newspaper Al-Safir, he actually compared the contemporary situation in Iraq with that in Lebanon in 1982, and categorically stated that the United States and Britain “will not be able to control Iraq.”

Such sentiments could go a long way in explaining why the Syrian regime was so willing to take the foolish step of allowing Arab fighters, including scores of Syrian volunteers, to go to Iraq via Syria to fight alongside Saddam’s troops, and why Syria’s 90-year-old Grand Mufti, Sheik Ahmad Kiftaro, was allowed, at the outset of the war, to issue a call upon the Muslims of the world urging them to carry out ” martyr operations” against U.S. interests.[2] Coupled with allegations that: 1) Syria was involved in smuggling arms to Iraq even as the war unfolded, not to mention the months and years preceding it; 2) it might be helping the Iraqi regime hide its stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons; and 3) it might be harboring some high-ranking Iraqi officials (all of which Syria vehemently denies); the Syrian regime found itself in an unenviable situation as the war in Iraq drew to a close.

On the other hand, one cannot discount the predisposition of many members in the Bush administration, including Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, and their coterie of advisors, such as Richard Perle, Doug Feith, and other “clean break” advocates, to assume a hostile stance vis-à-vis the Syrian regime, as is revealed in many articles, studies, and statements made long before Operation Iraqi Freedom had been launched. Indeed, Syria had already been included by some as an ‘honorary” member of sorts in the “Axis of Evil.”

However, not all U.S. officials seem to have been so willing to pick a fight with Syria at this stage, a stance more related perhaps to the existence of a less-publicized side of Syrian–American relations, rather than some hypothetical deference to international public opinion. We are referring here to the ongoing security cooperation between the two countries, an activity that seems to have intensified in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks. Indeed, the Syrian security apparatus has provided much valuable information to American investigators regarding the activities of Muhammad Atta and others suspected of involvement in plotting the attack and organizing other al-Qaeda activities. Paradoxically enough, there are indications that some members of the Syrian security apparatus shared intelligence reports regarding Iraq’s military readiness and capabilities with their U.S. counterparts over the weeks preceding the attack.

Considering this, it should not be surprising that the ” pro-Syria” faction (or, rather, the “go-soft-on-Syria” faction) in the Bush administration seems to include such figures as Secretary of State Colin Powell, his deputy, Richard Armitage, and National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice, all of whom represent elements in the Bush administration who have developed a much greater affinity for the Syrian political scene over the last two years than their counterparts in the Rumsfeld faction.

This division in the Bush administration with regard to Syria seems to have its parallel in Syria itself, where certain army and intelligence officers are rumored to have developed quite pro-American views in the last few years. Still, if true, this development is better seen more as a reflection of the ongoing power struggle taking place within the ranks of the country’s shadow government, rather than a sign of political open-mindedness and a desire to embrace some long-awaited liberal reforms.

What it means in practical terms

What is one to make of this situation? If I may be so bold, the current situation seems to reflect a conflict between two different kinds of ” mentalities,” ones that seem to have developed for reasons indigenous to both countries and not necessarily related to real differences or “hanging” issues (although there are plenty of them). As such, we seem to have, on the one side, what can be described as a “clean break” mentality exhibited by an important segment of the Bush administration and other U.S. politicians and analysts (and not only with reference to the Arab–Israeli conflict), as opposed to a status quo mentality reflected by the great majority of Syria’s high-ranking officials.

The “New Reality” of which many U.S. officials have been speaking, especially with regard to Syria, was actually first introduced back in the early 1990s with the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Although there are many countries in the world, especially in Eastern Europe and, to a lesser extent, Latin America (though not Venezuela), that have managed not only to absorb and accommodate this new reality, but also, in some instances, to embrace it wholeheartedly, there remain some countries in the world, mostly clustered in the Middle East, where peoples and regimes seem to have a greater difficulty in accepting, not to mention adapting to, this new reality.

Though the situation is not necessarily surprising or unusual, as different parts of the world tend to have different political, economic, and socio-cultural conditions that might either facilitate or impede the adaptation process, it seems to have become anathematic to some U.S. politicians and analysts, possibly because their own conservative views frame U.S. victory in the Cold War in absolutist, quasi-religious terms. For these people, a country like Syria, with its continuing adherence to such outmoded ideologies as socialism and Arab nationalism (no matter how superficial or disingenuous), is bound to stir up suspicion and disdain. Throw in a few serious, outstanding issues in bilateral relations, and it should not be too surprising that the more powerful side (namely the United States) might seek to effect a “clean break” or a “regime change” in the weaker side (Syria). All that is then needed to set matters in motion is an incident serious enough to serve as a convincing casus belli.

On a macro level, the September 11 attacks provided a casus belli for effecting a regime change in Afghanistan, but did not prove to be sufficient to lead to a similar situation in Iraq. This necessitated recourse to a long prelude involving the UN and the reintroduction of concerns over Iraqi WMD capacity as a casus belli. This notwithstanding, arguments made by the United States were not convincing, and the war proceeded in the face of international popular outrage.

The situation is even more complex in the case of Syria, due to the intricate nature of Syria’s relations with the United States (and with the European Union as well), with a full-fledged association agreement on schedule to be signed between the two sides later this year. A more specific incident will, therefore, need to be invented here. A potential scenario could run as follows: the United States presents documents proving that certain high-ranking Syrian officials have been involved in arms smuggling to Iraq, but the Syrian regime fails to hand over these officials to the United States, giving U.S. clean break advocates the necessary excuse to isolate and perhaps invade Syria from bases in Iraq.

Many variations of this scenario could be elaborated, but the main point here is that the recent failure of the Rumsfeld faction to garner support for invading Syria seems to be related in no small part to the absence of a direct and convincing casus belli, to at least win over or marginalize the Powell faction once again.[3]

In the meantime, the Syrian status quo beneficiaries seem to be firmly in control of the situation and have ample reason not to seek any major internal or foreign policy changes. Syria has long been a cash cow for these people, and the system that has been elaborated over the preceding years and decades seems to be functioning perfectly well as far as they are concerned. Besides, most of the decision makers involved have neither the vision, nor the skills, nor the know-how to invent a new system or function in a more open one, a fact of which they seem to be quite aware.

Indeed, if the last three years prove anything it is that the majority of Syria’s decision makers seem to be convinced that a far-reaching reform process could seriously jeopardize their hold on power—on the political and economic reins of the country. As such, the survival instincts of Syria’s rulers seem to dissuade them from embarking on a major reform process.

Even the so-called reformers seem to be mostly comprised of younger officials who simply want a greater share of the pie, and whose own tactics make it virtually impossible for serious and sincere reformers to effect any significant changes. Change from within in these circumstances seems highly unlikely, an observation that holds true as well for certain foreign policy issues, especially with regard to Syrian–Israeli relations and the Arab–Israeli conflict, where the maintenance of a ” populist” stand remains a major, if not the only, source of legitimacy for the rulers.

As such, it is highly unlikely that the Syrian regime will voluntarily effect any major changes in its general structure or its modus operandi. Half-hearted pressures on it to do so will probably not be enough. Still, a full-scale invasion with the goal of effecting a regime change, even with a good casus belli in hand, will most likely prove too problematic at this stage.[4] Syria has a relatively new president who has been received with all due honors by many world leaders, including Spanish Prime Minister José Maria Aznar, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, German Prime Minister Gerhardt Schroeder, and French President Jacques Chirac. Syria’s relations with the world community are much more intricate and ambivalent than those of the Taliban or the Saddam regime, as we have noted earlier. The case against Syria will never be as clear-cut as that against Afghanistan or Iraq. A full-scale invasion of Syria would seem to require a U.S. administration that is even more oblivious to the rest of the world than the current Bush administration seems to be.

Moreover, even the plausible casus belli envisioned above, that is, the failure of the Syrian government to hand over certain wanted officials, might still not be enough to garner sufficient internal, not to mention international, support to invade Syria. This leaves only one potential avenue for future intervention: a series of diplomatic, rather than military, surgical strikes—that is, a series of seemingly minor diplomatic crises resulting in specific compromises that could produce the desired change over time and have the aggregate effect of a major, internal shakedown. A small stick and big carrot approach might indeed prove the more efficient way to deal with the Syrian regime, and might save us all from the clutches of both roughshod clean break advocates and diehard status quo beneficiaries.

Another consideration that might help in avoiding conflict is the strong potential for Israeli involvement. Israel might want the Syrian regime weakened and humiliated, and to see the end of its support of Hezbollah, but it is highly unlikely that Israel would willingly participate in an all-out confrontation with Syria. Such a development might prove too costly, materially and humanly, for the Jewish state, especially since the possibility of WMD use might be more real here than it was in the war against the Iraqi regime.

Just as Israel might have its apprehensions vis-à-vis an all-out conflict with Syria, so might Turkey, with its endemic Kurdish problem and continuing inability to explore any realistic solutions for it.

Regardless of the dismissive attitude of the Bush administration with regard to international opinion and the anxieties of certain EU countries, it is highly unlikely (and quite unadvisable), that the United States ignore the wishes of its long-time, vital, regional allies. Smart diplomacy needs to prevail over smart bombs in the Syrian case.


1. We are referring here to issues such as: Syria’s military intervention in Lebanon and its continued support of Hezbollah there, its alleged involvement in the 1982 suicide attack against the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut (resulting in the death of 241 U.S. soldiers), its continued support of various ” outlawed” Palestinian groups, the failure of the Syrian–Israeli peace track, and the country’s allegedly growing stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons, coupled with its potential ability to deliver them by means of short-range missiles (thus posing a potential threat to the security of the state of Israel, as some observers would contend).

2. The call, however, did not receive much coverage in the Syrian press, and some observers attributed it to the growing senility of the man rather than official approval.

3. The rest of the world, even the United Kingdom, does not seem to matter much for the Rumsfeld faction.

4. And the necessary prelude needed to prepare world opinion, even if it was initially opposed to such a move, for eventual acceptance of the consequences of war.

This paper was presented during a multilateral meeting in Europe.