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Syria Feels the Heat

US pressure on Iraq's neighbour has strengthened hardliners and set-back the nascent movement for political opening.
By Alan George

In the second week of the war against Iraq, US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld accused Syria of supplying Iraq with military equipment including night-vision goggles and warned it would be held accountable for its "hostile acts". The following day, Secretary of State Colin Powell warned that Syria would bear the responsibility for its choices - "and for the consequences" of those choices - if it continued "direct support for terrorist groups and the dying regime of Saddam Hussein".


A senior Israeli intelligence officer, Gen. Yossi Kupperwasser, suggested, bizarrely, that the American and British invaders of Iraq had failed to find any weapons of mass destruction because they had been moved into Syria. On April 1, after it emerged that Syria had provided passports to Arab volunteers wishing to fight in Iraq, Israeli Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz described Syria's action as "very grave".


No wonder Syrians fear that they may be next in line for "liberation" and "humanitarian aid". No wonder, too, that the invasion of Iraq should be viewed in Damascus as fitting the agenda of an Israel that has always sought to divide and weaken the Arab world.


Damascus enjoys cordial, if at times uneasy, relations with Washington, and relations with Britain have been strengthening, with President Bashar al-Assad visiting London in December. Yet Damascus did all it could as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council to block British and American efforts to win UN backing for military action. Deeply sceptical of claims about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction, Damascus felt this issue could best be resolved without resorting to war.


Once war was under way, Damascus at first tried to keep a relatively low profile. But quite apart from its own misgivings about the conflict, it could not ignore the mounting fury of Syrians. Spontaneous street demonstrations are rare in Syria but since the outbreak of hostilities they have been frequent. Many of the protestors are active in Syria's civil society movement, which has been demanding the introduction of democracy and the rule of law and which contrasts the regime's nationalist rhetoric with its inaction. To give popular anger a vent, the government has sponsored anti-war demonstrations in which tens of thousands have marched.


The American and Israeli threats added to the rising popular anger and hardened Syria's stance. On March 31 the foreign ministry issued a statement condemning the "illegal invasion" of Iraq. While refraining from mentioning Saddam Hussein, it expressed support for "the fraternal Iraqi people . . . against whom are being committed all sorts of crimes against humanity".


Many Syrians view their regime with deep cynicism. Whatever the ideals of the Ba'athist officers who seized power in 1963, the system they established quickly degenerated into an unprincipled, corrupt and brutal dictatorship. In the last months of President Hafez al-Assad's life, and much more after his son Bashar succeeded him in mid-2000, Syrians hoped that liberalisation was at hand. The second half of 2000 saw a "Damascus Spring" in which political discussion groups mushroomed, the state-run media opened up and hundreds of political prisoners were freed.


In early 2001, however, regime hardliners struck back. Bashar, still dependent on them and keen to maintain unity, had no option but to acquiesce. The discussion groups were shut and civil society activists - including two members of parliament, Riad Seif and Ma'moun Honsi - were jailed. Citing external threats, conservatives claimed it was the wrong time for reforms that might upset domestic unity and stability.


The hardliners were not short of political ammunition. In February 2001 the militarist Ariel Sharon became Israel's prime minister and soon after Israeli warplanes attacked twice Syrian radar stations in Lebanon. Following suicide bombings in Israel, Sharon bloodily reoccupied much of the West Bank in April 2002. The invasion was undertaken with the approval of a United States preoccupied with its global "war on terrorism" and already planning its Iraqi adventure.


Angered by illicit Syrian imports of Iraqi oil and spurred by the powerful pro-Israeli lobby in Washington, the United States early last year started leaning on Syria directly.


On 27 January, even though Syria had been providing Washington with useful information about terrorist groups, the Sixth Fleet intercepted two Syrian cargo ships north of Cyprus as part of the "war on terrorism". Nothing suspicious was found. On May 6, John Bolton, US Under-Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, attacked Syria, Libya and Cuba as "rogue states" which were developing weapons of mass destruction and were only one step removed from the President Bush's "axis of evil" states - Iran, Iraq and North Korea.


On May 22, the State Department named Syria for the eighth year running as a state sponsor of terrorism and barred it, in consequence, from receiving US aid.


Bashar al-Assad's credentials as a liberalising democrat and free marketer should not be overstated. But by spring 2002 he was back-tracking even from such measures as he had . Through its support for an aggressive Israel and its blundering threats against Iraq and Syria, a Western world proclaiming its commitment to democracy, human rights and the rule of law had created conditions in which the most conservative and anti-democratic wing of the Syrian regime had prevailed.


Squeezed between Israel, which remains in occupation of the Syrian Golan Heights, and an emergent pro-American Iraq, Syria today feels more vulnerable than ever. Even if Syria is not invaded in the short-term, it will almost certainly face further pressures that will make it increasingly difficult for it to stay above the fray - and that will ensure that hardliners remain in the ascendant.


Alan George, former assistant director of the Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding, is a long-time journalist covering the Middle East and author of Syria: Neither Bread Nor Freedom.


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