Americans usually see the Syrian Arab Republic through the prism of its relations with Israel. Thus, in a typical statement after meeting with Syrian president Hafiz al-Asad, Secretary of State Warren Christopher said he and the president had covered "a wide range of topics, but the great majority of the time was spent discussing progress in the [Syrian-Israeli] peace negotiations. Similarly, every question asked of Presidents Bill Clinton and Asad after their meeting in January 1994 pertained to the peace process.
But seeing Syria only through the prism of relations with Israel ignores many other aspects of its political life, including much that directly concerns Americans. On the positive side, for example, Damascus stands as a Middle Eastern stalwart resisting the surge of fundamentalist Islam; and Syria's oil industry, with 600,000 barrels per day, has recently emerged as a significant producer. On the negative side, Asad's record of repression in Syria deeply offends American sensibilities. His occupation and domination of Lebanon harms American interests and runs counter to U.S. principles. His support for the Worker's Party of Kurdistan (PKK) erodes the stability of Turkey, a NATO ally. His terrorist apparatus, possibly the best in the world, reaches into the United States, while a substantial portion of the hashish and heroin entering the United States comes from territories under Asad's control. He plays an integral role in a potential anti-American grouping that extends from North Korea and the People's Republic of China to Iran and Libya.
However important the Syrian conflict with Israel is to the United States, limiting American interest in Syria to this issue leads to faulty policies. Two examples: First, Syrians are confident that if their government reaches an agreement with Israel, the U.S. government will drop it from the list of states supporting terrorism. But what has one to do with the other? Obviously, the Syrians can continue to sponsor terrorism against Turkey even after closing a deal with Jerusalem. Second, overemphasis on the Israel connection makes everything else wrongly pale in importance. The U.S. government has not even verbally protested Asad's conquest of Lebanon, fearing that to do so would obstruct the negotiations with Israel.
Looking at Syria through the lens of Israeli-Syrian relations leads to a misunderstanding of Syrian strategy and intentions. Rather than concentrate on symptoms--Asad's willingness to allow an Israeli embassy in Damascus or the purposes of his military buildup--analysts would do better to ask more fundamental questions about Asad's views of the world and Syria's place in it. Ask not, "On what terms will Asad make peace with Israel?" or even "Does Asad intend to make peace with Israel?" but "How will Asad cope with the unpleasant realities of the post-Soviet period?"
This wider perspective turns up several important conclusions: (1) Asad's primary goal is survival; he will do whatever he must to keep himself and his fellow 'Alawis in power. (2) Asad consistently and across-the-board avoids committing to a policy; instead, he plays a double game, moving two contrary ways at once. (3) He keeps his options open by both improving relations with the West and keeping open the possibility of non-Western alliance. (4) Damascus's most volatile and dangerous relationship is with Turkey, not Israel. (5) Asad has not decided about making peace with Israel and will avoid committing himself for as long as he can. (6) The U.S. government has a real chance to improve Asad's behavior. (7) To achieve this, U.S. policy toward Syria must get tougher.
The Sectarian Factor
What does Asad ultimately hope to achieve? The answer lies, perhaps surprisingly, in his religious affiliation. For Asad is not a Muslim but an 'Alawi, a member of a small post-Islamic religion that exists almost exclusively in Syria but makes up just 12 percent of that country's population. This makes Asad an outsider in his own country, with profound implications for his rule.
'Alawis are a small, mysterious people. They claim to be Muslims when this is convenient but Sunni and Shi'i Muslims usually do not recognize them as such, and correctly so, for the 'Alawi religion separated from Shi'i Islam nearly a thousand years ago. In 1966, the historically persecuted 'Alawis took advantage of their power in the military effectively to seize power in Syria. Asad then set about to make permanent the 'Alawi hold on power by putting his co-religionists into key positions of power, much to the distress of Syria's Sunni population.
The passage of time has hardened the Sunni-'Alawi divide to the point that it dominates the way Syrians interpret domestic politics. Many Sunnis have grievances against 'Alawi rule and see their government through the lens of ethnicity. They express their unhappiness primarily by joining fundamentalist Muslim organizations like the Muslim Brethren. Although no longer an organized force, these groups continue to exist in Syria, underground, isolated, rabidly anti-'Alawi, and still planning to make a bid for power when Asad dies.
Sunni hostility weighs heavily on the leadership. As a small minority, 'Alawis fear they cannot rule indefinitely against the wishes of almost 70 percent of the population. Their traditionally low place in Syrian society and the undemocratic manner of their ascent make 'Alawi power likely to be transient, though it could remain in place for years to come. Syrians widely assume that once the resentful majority of Sunni Muslims reach power, they will exact a fearsome revenge. Recent wars in Azerbaijan, Yugoslavia, and Rwanda can only reinforce these fears: not only has ethnic carnage become widespread, but the outside world does little to stop it. If massacres begin in Syria, 'Alawis will be on their own.
This is what Asad presumably seeks to prevent, and it inspires his actions. Asad's aspirations have been reduced to two goals: control Syria during his lifetime, then pass power on to his family and his co-religionists after his death. To assure the survival of his community, Asad rules pragmatically. He follows his interests rather than abstract ideals. As a sophisticated practicer of Realpolitik and raison état, he commands from the head, not the heart. Asad can therefore be expected to do whatever is necessary to stay in power. In years past, totalitarian means and alliance with the Soviets presented, in Asad's estimation, a mechanism to survive. If democracy now prevents the persecution of 'Alawis, he will consider it. More plausibly, if keeping himself, his family, and the 'Alawis in power requires becoming an American ally or starting a war with Turkey, so be it. Should circumstances change and anti-Zionism no longer serves his interests, he would make the journey to Jerusalem.
The Art of the Double Game
To understand Asad's approach to ruling requires an appreciation of his habit to take two contrary steps or pursue two policies, usually at the same time, sometimes sequentially.
For thirty years, Asad has talked one ideology (radical Pan-Arab nationalism) but acted on another (Pan-Syrian nationalism). He repeats the hallowed phrases of Pan-Arab nationalism and sometimes explicitly denies he has any Pan-Syrian intentions ("The problem is not that of Greater Syria but action leading to Arab unity"). Then he makes a statement that specifically points to Greater Syria ("Palestine is an integral part of Syria"). This strange, inconsistent policy confuses virtually everyone, especially opponents, and leaves Asad with almost complete ideological latitude.
"Damascus ignited the fire and then operated as the fireman." That's how Michel 'Awn, a Lebanese Maronite leader, explains the Syrian role in Lebanon. The Syrians instigated a problem--smuggling, drug trafficking, ethnic conflict, attacks on Israel--then rushed in with a solution that served their interests. Perhaps the most evident example of this pattern was Asad's complex ploy through the 1980s of gaining freedom for hostages he had caused to be captured in the first place. Hizbullah, a fundamentalist Muslim group reporting ultimately to Damascus, would seize Westerners from parts of Lebanon either occupied by Syrian troops or under their influence, hold them hostage for months or years, and release them when instructed to by the Syrian authorities. The latter would then triumphantly release the hostages in Damascus.
Asad plays an audacious double game with the Arab-Israeli peace process, regarding his own talks and the Palestinian track. On the one hand, he sent diplomats to Washington for official, direct meetings with Israelis. On the other, in December 1993 he voted against a United Nations resolution that expressed the General Assembly's "full support for the achievements of the peace process thus far" and stressed "the need for achieving rapid progress on the other tracks of the Arab-Israeli negotiations"--a reference to the talks with Syria and Lebanon. In effect, he officially condemned his own dealings with Israel!
More broadly, since agreeing to negotiate with Israel in July 1991, Asad has taken a flurry of contradictory steps, moving both toward and away from Israel. On the positive side, the regime has taken modest but real steps to prepare Syrians for accord with Israel: "peace" and its synonyms have replaced "steadfastness" and "confrontation" as leitmotifs of public discourse about Israel. At the same time, Asad's extremely ambitious military buildup appears to be directed against not just the Israel military but also against its civilian population. Syrian media continue to use the term "occupied Palestine" in place of "Israel" and exult at the killing of Israeli citizens. Asad's cramped diplomatic style--using passive constructions, abstractions, and indirectness in his speech--conveys deep reluctance to come to terms with Israel. Asad's cramped diplomatic style--using passive constructions, abstractions, and indirectness in his speech - conveys deep reluctance to come to terms with Israel. It may also indicate an intent not to let go of the rejectionist option.
Asad has developed the double game, a common pattern of Middle Eastern politics, into a fine art. He talks Pan-Arab nationalism but aspires to Greater Syria. He captures Western hostages and releases them. He formally engages in negotiations with Israel and publicly condemns the peace process. He keeps promises and breaks them. Today's policy can be reversed tomorrow; it can be contradicted today; or it may not even exist.
The double game brings benefits. An air of mystery enhances Asad's reputation and causes enemies to fear him. Words only vaguely point to what he thinks; and actions only suggest what he actually intends. Creative ambiguity fools enemies and friends alike, winning maximum room to maneuver without making fundamental changes in policy. The double game also permits flexibility of action. Asad can avoid choosing between stark alternatives and instead take two or more roads at once. Open up Syria or keep it isolated? The double game would have Asad opening up slightly, at the margins, while making no basic changes. Peace with Israel or war? By simultaneously negotiating with Israel and building up his military machine against it, Asad assures himself the possibility to "move in any direction." Join the Western camp or oppose it? Asad finds a third way, remaining a rogue state, retaining his non-Western ties, yet inching far enough in the West's direction to win its forbearance and even goodwill. Asad's complex foreign policy brings him closer to the West while maintaining his distance from it. In all, Asad pursues a foreign policy that allows him either to go West or to join an anti-Western alliance.
Asad continues many of his most reprehensible habits of years past: among other activities, his regime sponsors terrorist organizations, provides sanctuary to Western criminals, traffics in drugs, and forges dollar bills. At the same time, Syria is engaged in perhaps the most massive military build-up of Asad's reign.
Rogue activities. The U.S. government in 1979 made Syria a charter member of its list of states that support terrorism, where it yet remains. Indeed, Syria serves as terror central. According to Paul Bremer, head of counterterrorism for the Department of State in 1986-89, "Five or six of the world's most dangerous terrorist groups have their headquarters in Damascus." Abdullah Öcalan, the PKK leader (who lives in Syria), stated in 1991 that Damascus supports some seventy-two other organizations such as his own; a year later, he said there were seventy organizations in Lebanon and fifty in Syria. Since 1991, Asad has slightly reduced the terrorist apparatus, but the groups' bases continue to operate and the whole infrastructure remains in place. This points to relatively good Syrian behavior at present, with the possibility of reopening any of the terrorist dossiers when needed in the future.
Asad's Syria frequently offers save haven for Western criminals, with a specialization in politically extremist Germans. Aloïs Brunner--Adolph Eichmann's closest collaborator, JPIE inventor of the mobile extermination unit, a man held responsible for implementing the deaths of at least 120,000 Jews plus others, Bunte and in Simon Wiesenthal's estimation "the worst ever" of the Third Reich criminals --is the most infamous of this group, having lived in Damascus since 1954. Other criminals include Ilich Ramírez Sánchez ("Carlos the Jackal"), who arrived in Syria sometime in 1984-85 and was expelled in 1993-94; his wife, Magdelena Kopp of the Baader-Meinhof gang; his associates, Bruno Bréguet and Johannes Weinrich; Frédéric Oriach of Action Direct; Kozo Okamoto of the Japanese Red Army; and Murtaza Bhutto of Zulfikar.
As with terrorism, the Syrian republic belongs to a select list of states singled out by the U.S. government as unhelpful in prosecuting the campaign against drug trafficking. In cooperation with the Iranian authorities, Syrians are producing and distributing counterfeit U.S. currency.
Military buildup. Activity is hectic to build the Syrian arsenal. Planes and tanks are pouring into Syria from around the world. Missiles can now reach most of Israel's population. Damascus has thousands of chemical bombs and warheads, appears to be near making weapons of deadly poisonous anthrax viral agents, and is starting nuclear research. As in years past, the Asad regime spends over half of its budget and most of its foreign aid on military-related items. The new development is that Damascus now benefits from some $2 to $3 billion annually of hard currency in oil sales. Eisenstadt 40 Further, that amount is increasing. Syrian forces have engaged in impressive military buildups several times before (after the 1967, 1973, and 1982 wars, for instance) but the post-1991 effort has been unprecedented in terms of size, quality, and reach; for the first time, Syrian armaments challenge not just the Israel Defense Forces but Israel's civilian population. Israeli analysts concluded by late 1991 that the Syrian military arm had attained a stronger position vis-à-vis Israel than ever before. There is every reason to think that Syrian force projection will grow so long as Asad remains in power.
But why? What does this do for Asad? The military buildup appears to serve three complementary purposes. (1) It provides Asad with an alternative to going the Western route, for by working together with other anti-Western states, he retains a military option. (2) It makes Syria a major power in its region. This muscle provides Asad with a military option--especially vis-à-vis his weaker neighbors (Lebanon, Jordan) but also with regard to his more powerful ones (Iraq, Turkey). (3) It even keeps alive the military option against Israel. A protracted war with Israel is probably more than the Syrians could handle, but they could mount a limited strike to seize the Golan Heights from Israeli control, as they nearly did in 1973.
No less than in the days when he served as a Soviet client, Asad continues to engage in a range of aggressive policies against four out of his five neighbors: Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, and Israel. Only Iraq--perhaps because it is ruled by a despot just as tough and a lot more unpredictable than Asad--gets largely left alone.
The peace process dominates Syrian concerns when it comes to Jordan; Asad does not like King Husayn's separate deal with Israel. But the Jordanians, finding themselves possibly locked out of the benefits of peace agreements, went ahead anyway: against Asad's wishes, they reached a set of understandings with Israel between June and October 1994, culminating in a peace treaty signed with much celebration at their mutual border, with President Clinton and thousands of other witnesses in attendance. Damascus communicated its displeasure in a host of small ways but did not make a serious effort to sabotage the agreement. While it appears that Asad has reconciled himself to a Jordanian-Israeli peace, he could still try to sabotage this agreement.
Syrian soldiers entered Lebanon in large numbers in 1976 toward the start of the Lebanese civil war; despite the war's end and repeated promises to leave, tens of thousands of them yet remain in Lebanon because ruling Lebanon serves Asad's purposes. It marks a significant step toward bringing all of Greater Syria under his direct control. It permits the Syrians to eliminate the press criticism and political intriguing once coming out of Beirut. It provides Syrian officials with a huge income from drug trafficking. It offers a convenient venue for terrorist bases, outside of direct Syrian responsibility. It also makes life in Lebanon less attractive to the Christian population there, and especially to the Maronites who are the heart and soul of independent Lebanon. Syrianization makes it likely they will abandon their ancestral home in ever-increasing numbers. Should they do so, Damascus will have cleared from Lebanon the major obstacle to its permanent colonization of that country.
Asad and Arafat have competed for decades and famously despise each other. As long ago as 1966, Asad arrested Arafat and jailed him for more than a month. Since then, Asad has often tried to undercut the PLO. Yasir Arafat responds in kind, calling the Syrian leadership "Zionists who speak Arabic." Against this backdrop of hostility, it may come as a surprise to learn that Asad and Arafat have had extensive contacts, nearly all cordial, since the Kuwait war ended. Arafat's aides often discuss and coordinate policies with Syrians, most notably as concerns their negotiations with Israel. Arafat himself traveled in January 1994 to Qardaha, Asad's home town, to offer his condolences on the death of Asad's son Basil. Arafat spoke of "the long-standing, strong relationship [with Hafiz al-Asad] . . . a brotherly relation between us that developed thirty years ago."
Negotiations with Israel
Before 1991, Syria consistently had the toughest policy of Israel's four neighbors, defined by a series of no's: no talks before withdrawal, no direct negotiations with Israel, no partial solutions, no separate deal for the Golan Heights, and no formal peace treaty. A major shift took place in the aftermath of the Kuwait war, when Asad accepted a joint Russian-American invitation to join Arab-Israeli peace negotiations. This move instantly negated two of the no's (no talks before withdrawal, no direct negotiations with Israel). Talks between Damascus and Jerusalem began with the Madrid peace conference in October 1991 and have continued intermittently until the present. The negotiations fall into five distinct periods; Likud in office (October 1991 to June 1992), Labor taking over (July 1992 to August 1993), the Israel-PLO Declaration of Principles (September 1993 to March 1994), getting down to substance (April to July 1994), and selling the deal (August 1994 on).
Negotiations did not flourish during Likud's tenure. For eight months, Syrian and Israeli diplomats both gave the impression they were in Washington for negotiations more to please the U.S. government than to conduct business. In effect, Damascus and the Likud Party tacitly agreed to mark time together. The mood changed dramatically when Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres came to office, eager to reach agreements with the Syrians and Palestinians as quickly as possible. Faced with an Israeli government willing to make concessions, Asad had to do likewise, or else he would look bad in American eyes. A basic difference in outlook quickly emerged: whereas Israelis now saw the negotiations as a means to achieve peace with Syria, Asad saw them as a means to an improved standing in the West.
To Rabin's statement that he would countenance withdrawal "on the Golan Heights," not "from" them (i.e., a partial withdrawal), Asad responded with an offer of "the peace of the brave, the peace of the knights" with Israel. Though welcome to Israeli ears, this was not nearly specific enough. When Asad offered "full peace for full withdrawal," Jerusalem responded with cheers for this formulation but again asked for more details. What is the nature of "full peace"--what the United States has with Canada or with Cuba? Something in between? An impasse resulted and it occasioned near-insults. Still, the two sides made progress. Between February and August 1993, Asad implicitly stopped insisting on three more of his traditional no's: no partial solutions, no separate deal, and no peace treaty.
Then came news of the Israeli-PLO Declaration of Principles and the budding progress stopped cold. Israeli absorption with the new track, massive international attention to it, including a White House ceremony on September 13, 1993, and Asad's pique at being outmaneuvered (imagine, Arafat on the White House guest list, Asad on the State Department terrorism and drug-trafficking lists) relegated Syrian-Israeli diplomacy to the side. Negotiations then stalled for eight months. During this time, the Washington-based direct talks virtually ended, replaced by U.S. mediation. Two notable side-events to the negotiations occurred during this period. Presidents Asad and Clinton met in Geneva on January 16, 1994, and after the meeting, Asad went so far as to state publicly, "in honor we shall make peace" with Israel. The next day, Rabin committed himself to a national referendum (possibly an election) before agreeing to a significant withdrawal of forces from the Golan Heights or to dismantle the settlements there, a clever move that compels Asad to offer a deal that would win over more than half of the Israeli electorate.
Negotiations resumed in a serious (but now indirect) fashion in April 1994, when the Israelis responded with two initiatives: Rabin told a closed session of Israel's parliament on the nineteenth that he accepted a full military withdrawal from the Golan, including the evacuation of all thirty-two Israeli settlements; and a few days later, he presented Secretary of State Christopher with a "peace package" to take to Damascus. According to press reports, Rabin offered that Israel would:
- Recognize the Syria-Palestine border in place during the Mandatory period (slightly preferably to Israel than the pre-1967 border) as Israel's future border with Syria;
- Withdraw to this border in three stages over a five-to-eight-year period, with the first stage to last three years and include the transfer of three Druze villages (Majd ash-Shams, Buq'ata, and Sa'da) but no Israel settlements report on Rabin to cabinet, to Syrian control (accordingly, the plan is sometimes called Majd ash-Shams First); and:
- Dismantle the thirty-two Israeli settlements on the Golan Heights with 13,000 residents, also in stages.
In return, he asked that the Syrians:
- Demilitarize the Golan Heights and the nearby region within Syria;
- Disarm Hizbullah;
- Accept American monitoring of their military;
- Accede to Israeli electronic monitors on the Golan Heights and a lookout post on Mt. Hermon;
- Guarantee that Israel continue, via the Sea of Galilee, to receive its share of Golan waters;
- Agree to full normalization after the first stage of withdrawal, which Rabin later explained as "an Israeli Embassy in Damascus, a Syrian Embassy in Israel, an Egged [i.e., Israeli] bus traveling to Aleppo, Israeli tourists in Homs, Israeli ships at Tartus, El Al planes landing, and commercial and cultural ties--everything, and in both directions."
By bundling together its offer as a package, Jerusalem hoped to steer the Syrians away from picking and choosing what they liked, but to no avail. Foreign Minister Shar' publicly called parts of the plan "silly" and "absurd." Rabin said he would make no more offers but await a positive reaction from Asad. He still waits.
In the most recent stage, the Syrian leadership has appeared to have shifted tactics, trying to win over Israeli public opinion instead of vilifying the the Jewish state. An American official called this "the most significant shift in Assad's public posture since [his deciding to go to] the Madrid conference." At the same time, Asad has not offered any specifics about the nature of "full peace."
Two basic differences separate Jerusalem and Damascus. First, Israel's position capitalizes on its military victory in 1967, while Syria's seeks to ignore that victory and stress the justice of its cause ("The Golan has been Syrian territory since time immemorial"). Second, as is usually the case when a democracy and an autocracy begin bargaining, the Israeli side betrays impatience with its talk of wrapping up a deal in so many weeks or months while the Syrians indicate they have all the time in the world.
Asad has overseen an evolution in Syrian policy from outright military confrontation to a more nuanced conflict involving diplomacy as well as armed force. The difficulty lies in establishing exactly what this means. Does it portend a gradual acceptance of Israel? Or is it a more subtle way of trying to eliminate the Jewish state? Are Asad's changes strategic or tactical? The evidence is unclear and lends itself to contrary interpretations. Further, it may well be that Asad himself has not made up his mind; having entered into negotiations as a means to improve relations with Washington, he presumably has no real sense of their outcome. If forced to predict, the safest bet is that he will try something down the middle, a semi-hostile semi-peace.
Confrontation with Turkey
Syria and Turkey differ over a wide range of issues. The Asad regime has two primary grudges against the Republic of Turkey: it claims the Turkish province of Hatay and it wants to prevent Turks from controlling Euphrates River waters. For their part, Turks worry mainly about Syrian support of terrorist groups.
Damascus foremost claims the Turkish province of Hatay (formerly known as Alexandretta), a region that became Turkish in 1939 as the result of a Franco-Turkish deal on the eve of World War II, when the French controlled Syria. Though theoretical and distant, this claim underlies tensions between Syria and Turkey, and specifically the Syrian campaign of terrorism.
When the Atatürk Dam, the fifth-largest dam in the world and the capstone of Turkey's giant Southeast Anatolia Development Project (GAP), began filling in November 1989 and the turbines started in July 1992, the Turkish government gained the ability to control how much of the Euphrates River waters would flow into Syria (and beyond it to Iraq). Ankara had committed itself in 1987 to provide at least 500 cubic meters of water a second and it scrupulously fulfilled this obligation. Even so, the Syrian government tends to blame most of its economic problems on the Turkish dams. The dams also constitute a new lever of power with major political implications. Simply put, Ankara can now threaten to withhold water from Syria.
Turning to Turkish problems with Syria, Damascus has relied on several ethnic groups to prosecute its campaign of intimidation against Turkey, including Turks, Greeks, Greek Cypriots, Palestinians, and Armenians. But Kurds have had pride of place in Syrian efforts against Turkey. By the early 1980s, the PKK, a Marxist-Leninist organization of Turkish Kurds, had become the single greatest menace to Turkish domestic security. Today, after more than ten thousand deaths, it controls substantial parts of eastern Turkey, especially at night.
The PKK has relied heavily on Syrian help since 1979. Until 1987, Syrian authorities absolutely denied PKK leader Öcalan's presence in their country. Only when the Turks made clear how much they knew (including the address of his domicile in Damascus) did the Syrians acknowledge his presence. Then the real games began. The two governments in July 1987 signed a security protocol in which they promised to "obstruct groups engaged in destructive activities directed against one another on their own territory and would not turn a blind eye to them in any way." Instead, the Syrian authorities moved Öcalan to new residences and relocated most PKK facilities from Lebanon to Syria. A pattern evolved over the next years: Turkish threats, a lull, a new round of attacks; then threats and the cycle repeated itself.
In early 1992, Ankara became so upset about PKK assaults that it effectively reduced the bilateral relationship to behavior connected to the PKK. The Turkish interior minister took four bulging files of evidence with him to Damascus and demanded a cessation of the support for the PKK. The Syrians got the message and responded by signing a second security protocol. In Ankara's understanding, the Syrians agreed to declare "the PKK a terrorist organization that is illegal in Syria, that they will constantly monitor the activities in Syria of organizations that perpetuate terrorist activities against Turkey, and that they will arrest and try the members of that murderous gang when apprehended."
For a while PKK terrorism apparently came to a halt, only to begin anew. In late 1993, Turks got thoroughly fed up with Syrian mischief. Prime Minister Tansu Çiller's adviser on foreign affairs traveled to Damascus in November and delivered what was said to be an unusually strong statement. As ever, Damascus replied with the requisite words. On November 20, 1993, a Syrian major general from the Interior Ministry traveled to Ankara and signed an agreement promising that Syria would not serve as a "shelter" or a "passage" for anti-Turkish elements. He also assured the Turks that, if caught, Öcalan would be returned to Turkey. The Syrians also declared the PKK "illegal in Syria." In the aftermath of these iron-clad assurances, Turkish media reported that Öcalan had been arrested or expelled from Syria. But, again, the issue did not die; already in January 1994, Turkey's interior minister publicly took issue with the Syrians' claim that Öcalan had left their country.
Since then, the Syrians have again said what Turks want to hear, but seven years of all talk and no action leaves the Turks skeptical, frustrated, and angry. Turkish writers now openly articulate previously forbidden thoughts. Fatih Cekirge proposed blocking the Euphrates waters; or trying "methods used by Israel" and dispatching units to destroy the PKK camps and even Öcalan. Evren Deger stated baldly that Jamil al-Asad, a brother of the Syrian president, protected Öcalan, and pointed out that Turkish forces could strike the PKK's camps in Lebanon "whenever they want to do so." Gungor Mengi called for a cut-off of Euphrates waters, an attack on PKK bases in Lebanon, and "all-out war against Syria."
There are some reasons to be optimistic about Turkish-Syrian relations, with visits back and forth, plenty of communications, and a mutual interest in keeping up appearances. The two sides have lived with each other in peace since Syrian independence, and both governments know that more is to be lost from fighting than gained by it. Common bonds forged by history and religion should temper future problems. The two states actively cooperate vis-à-vis Iraq, with their foreign ministers meeting several times a year to discuss strategy. Also, Turkey's leverage from its water projects may lead to a greater degree of Syrian caution. Still, not all recent trends point to better Syrian-Turkish relations, and a host of bilateral tensions will keep relations simmering. The two states differ on a wide range of issues, violence flares up frequently between them, and matters appear to be getting worse. Years of dispute and the absence of a negotiating process imbue their problems with an explosive potential. The Turkish position has gradually hardened as the leadership feels itself made a fool of by Asad, and it may not be willing indefinitely to accept this treatment. Asad may be playing a double game with an opponent unwilling to go along with his fine points. The Turkish-Syrian border could unexpectedly and rapidly become a crisis point. Indeed, a former Syrian official now studying in the United States, Murhaf Jouejati, has publicly speculated that "the two [states] are on a collision course" unless they can resolve their differences. He said resolve the water issue.
Syria's face-off with Turkey may present more explosive dangers than that with Israel. Consider these differences:
- The conflict with Israel is an old one, which Damascus long ago lost and militarily can have few expectations of winning in the future. In contrast, the conflict with Turkey is yet mounting, with new issues (such as the PKK) supplementing old ones (Hatay).
- The world so closely follows the conflict with Israel, for Damascus to choose war against Israel would be tantamount to renouncing its campaign to win Western favor. But the conflict with Turkey is obscure, so fighting presumably would not much affect Asad's standing in the West.
- The U.S. government would likely assist Israel in the case of war with Syria. Although Turkey is a NATO ally, American assistance against Damascus seems unreliable at best, in part because of German reluctance to have NATO help Turkey.
Turkish impatience has potentially ominous implications for Damascus. Although Syrian military strength is considerable, it is heavily deployed in Lebanon and versus Israel and Iraq, leaving little to spare for the north. Only slightly exaggerating, a former U.S. ambassador to Damascus has observed that "the only thing that would delay the Turks in an invasion of Syria would be the need to stop and drink tea."
Conciliation with the United States
Asad's represses his own people with a brutality second in the Middle East only to Saddam Husayn. Like Saddam, Mu'ammar al-Qadhdhafi, and the Iranian mullahs, he aggresses against neighbors, sponsors terrorism, and seeks to build weapons of mass destruction. But, thanks to Asad's political skills, he gets away with the sort of malign policies that land lesser leaders in trouble. If Qadhdhafi is a loadmouth and Saddam a fool, Asad is a knave. In contrast to Saddam and Qadhdhafi, which it sees as beyond hope, Washington aims to redeem Asad. Since December 1983, when the Navy lost two jets in a skirmish with Syrian forces over Lebanon, Washington has pursued a more-in-sorrow-than-in-anger policy toward Damascus. This difference has enormous implications. While American politicians seek to isolate Iran, Iraq, and Libya, they woo Syria to become respectable and join the "family of nations." The former are shunned diplomatically, subjected to United Nations sanctions, and hit by American military forces; Syria suffers none of these tribulations.
Asad eludes the harsh treatment meted out to the other rogue states not because he's more moral or less violent but because he is smarter. Appropriate and well-timed gestures on his part encourage American leaders into thinking he can be shown the error of his ways. Even more important, Asad comes up with one gambit after another to persuade the U.S. government he must be treated gently. From January 1984 until August 1990, he held out the lure of being weaned away from the Soviets. As the Soviet threat lost its bite, Asad hopped sides and joined the anti-Iraq coalition; providing it with political cover from August 1990 until March 1991 made him a good citizen. In the short but important period of March-July 1991, he made himself available to be wooed into the peace process. Since July 1991, he has been humored for reasons related to negotiations with Jerusalem, one moment to stay in, another to participate constructively. In addition, a host of lesser but emotional issues--getting American hostages out of Lebanon or Jews out of Syria--provide more reasons for American officials to seek Syrian cooperation.
The decision to enter negotiations with Israel has had particular importance. It assures Asad virtual freedom of action in all other spheres. The U.S. government responded mildly to Asad's virtual annexation of Lebanon in May 1991, in part because it feared that criticizing him would harm the peace process. The State Department did no more than warn Damascus that it expected Syrian troops to be withdrawn from parts of Lebanon in September 1992, as stipulated by the Ta'if accords. Well, September 1992 came and went, and neither the Bush nor the Clinton administration said a peep. Why not? They did not want anything to obstruct the peace process.
Also, talking to Israel serves Asad as a shield against virtually any criticism. When Clinton's national security advisor Anthony Lake listed five "backlash" states, he included North Korea, Cuba, Iran, Iraq, and Libya but not Syria. Asked about this omission, Lake replied that he specifically left Damascus off the list because of its participation in the peace process.
But treating Asad gently has not worked. The key problems remain in place: he rules with totalitarian ruthlessness at home and engages in an aggressive foreign policy. Ten years of carrots has produced nothing more than some vague promises and reversible improvements. American officials need fundamentally to alter the way they approach Damascus.
What does this mean? Should Washington seek to undermine the Asad regime or to improve it? This author for some years saw Asad as Syria's worst possible ruler, from both the Syrian and American viewpoints, and so favored steps to end his rule. But times have changed. Two major developments have turned international politics in the Middle East on their head: the leftist threat has nearly abated with the collapse of the Soviet bloc, while fundamentalist Islam has become the region's greatest threat. Practically overnight, right and left have changed places.
This reversal has profound implications for American policy. As one aggressive, authoritarian alliance (that of Marxist-Leninist regimes) is replaced by another one (those of fundamentalist Muslims), priorities change. In days past, when faced with hostile communist regimes, Washington cooperated with right-wing regimes against them. This made good sense, for while the leftists posed a serious threat to our interests, the rightists did not. Roles having reversed, when faced with hostile fundamentalists, the U.S. government should now work with the isolated and less threatening left-wing regimes.
Global changes have transformed Asad from a leading figure in the Soviet alliance to someone who can potentially help resist the surge of fundamentalism. They have made Asad less of an opponent and more of an ally. Hüsamettin Çindoruk, speaker of the Turkish parliament, captured precisely this point when he observed about the Syria of Hafiz al-Asad and the Iraq of Saddam Husayn: We must endeavor to tolerate those regimes. Otherwise, we face fundamentalist regimes. Is that better?
Of course, always playing the double game, Asad is not in every way a foe of fundamentalist Islam. He is an important, long-term ally of Iran, he helps sponsor Hizbullah in Lebanon, cooperates with Islamic Jihad in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, and has invited Hamas to make its headquarters in Damascus. But Asad does the most important thing right: he stands resolutely against fundamentalist Islamic rule in Syria, even if he achieves this through repression and murder. In days past, when faced with hostile communist regimes, Washington cooperated with right-wing regimes against them. This made good sense, for while the leftists posed a serious threat to our interests, the rightists did not.
U.S. policy should not aim at undermining his rule but improving it. "Improving" means constructively pressuring the leaders in Damascus to deal with its most serious domestic and foreign problems: open up the political system and reduce Syrian bellicosity abroad. The West should press Asad to decide on a single, Western-oriented course, especially in the country's foreign relations. Given Syria's weakness, this ought not be difficult to achieve; but it does mean a dramatic reversal from the soft policies of recent years.
The policy should consist of a stark choice for Asad: "You're with us or against us." He can work with the West or enter on a collision course with it; make basic changes or stick with the policies of the last quarter century. The choice, Asad must understand, is his, and he cannot evade it.
Asad will probably rephrase the ultimatum in his own terms: Which route better assures him and his co-religionists, the 'Alawis, continued domination of Syrian politics? In the end, Asad will probably decide that while the Iranian route attracts him, the American one serves him better. As a canny and disciplined pragmatist, he will likely do what he has to do, even if distasteful. To press Asad to make the right decisions, the U.S. government should establish to Asad how it is in his interests to adopt the correct policies. That means adopting a wholly new approach to Damascus, one that both looks beyond Syrian negotiations with Israel and jibes more with American policies toward rogue states.
- Put the ball in the Syrian court. Perhaps the most profound change would be from American eagerness to American diffidence. American officials must always remember that Asad needs the West far more than the West needs him. Asad needs to worry about the United States, not the reverse.
- See Syria as a whole. The Israeli prism is too narrow for the United States. However important, the peace process is not the be-all of American interests in Syria and progress there must not come at the expense of other issues concerning Syria. Syrian good behavior toward Israel does not suffice to find a friend in Washington.
- Get tough. A despot like Asad responds to pressures, not to goodwill gestures. Appeasement cannot work because Asad, like tyrants everywhere, cannot understand enlightened self-interest. He misinterprets gentleness as a sign of weakness and benevolence as a lack of will.
- Box him in. Asad must be shown that unless he's ready to end up like Saddam or Castro, he has no real alternative to going the Western route. This means constantly pressing Asad to adopt policies that benefit him as well as the United States.
The ideal, if not the likely, conclusion to this policy would be an Asad who commits to doing what the West wants. The fourteen million inhabitants of Syria would be the primary but not the only beneficiaries of such an outcome. Much of the Middle East would also gain. Syria's acceptance of the Jewish state would mean Israel no longer faces an existential threat from its neighbors. For Turkey, a breakthrough with Syria means a severe weakening of the PKK and a major boost in the country's security. For Lebanon, it means a chance at independence again. For the PLO, it means a better chance of prevailing against the anti-DoP elements. Further, it would mean that the Middle East's league of rogue states (Libya, Sudan, Iraq, Iran) loses a charter member and becomes correspondingly far less powerful. This would tilt the Middle East balance of power further in the West's favor, much to the advantage of both the Middle East and the West.
Daniel Pipes is editor of the Middle East Quarterly. This article derives from Syria Beyond the Peace Process, a book-length study to be published by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.