Barry Rubin: How Syria uses violence to achieve its goals

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Barry Rubin is author of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan), director of the GLORIA Center, and editor of MERIA Journal.]

In the Middle East, violence is not the result of poor communication but a tool for political gain. Nothing proves that point better than Syria’s successful use of violence and terrorism to promote its interests. No amount of dialogue is going to change that reality.

Now Syria is using a Palestinian front group to start a war inside Lebanon, just as it employed another Lebanese client organization, Hizballah, to battle Israel last year. The Syrian government’s message is simple: Lebanon will know no peace until it again becomes our satellite.

In two years, 15 major terrorist attacks targeted Lebanon’s independent-minded leaders. Most notorious was the assassination of popular former prime minister Rafiq Hariri in February 2005, which also killed 22 bystanders.

In response, the UN set up an international investigation whose interim reports pointed the finger at Syria and even, in unpublished drafts, at Bashar’s closest relatives for the killing. Last week, the United States, Britain, and France introduced a resolution in the UN to set up a tribunal to try the murderers.

Since the tribunal is in cooperation with Lebanon, Syria must ensure that country’s parliament vetoes the plan. Suddenly, bombs start exploding in Beirut and a Syrian-backed Islamist group stages an uprising against the government.

People get the hint. Cross Syria and you get hurt. To hold the tribunal given events in Lebanon, says South African diplomat Dumisani Kumalo, “We would need to have our heads examined. We were for going very slow to start with. Now we are even slower."

What is less understood is how the regime’s radical strategy is used at home and why this makes it impossible to gain anything from engaging with Syria. Like other Middle Eastern dictatorships, Syria’s rulers face a paradox. How to stay in power after failing so completely? The economy is a mess, there is little freedom, and the regime is dominated by a small Alawite minority which is both non-Muslim and historically secular.

Since taking power in 2000 on his father’s death, Bashar has met this challenge. He sends terrorists against Iraq, Israel, Lebanon, and even the U.S. military but nobody retaliates in kind against him. At home, the regime sounds increasingly Islamist; abroad it is the biggest sponsor of radical Islamist groups in the region.

As a result of their interests and as a matter of survival, Syria’s rulers need anti-Americanism and the Arab-Israeli conflict to mobilize support and distract from their failings. For example, when Syrians demanded reforms after Bashar took power, then Vice-President Abd Halim Khaddam told a meeting that nothing could change as long as Israel controlled the Golan Heights. But actually getting back this land would be disastrous for the regime since making peace with Israel would dissolve that excuse but also because it would open massive demands by its own citizens for democracy, prosperity, and reform.

Bashar has even declared a new doctrine he calls “Resistance” which combines Arab nationalism and Islamism. The West’s goal, he claims, is to enslave the Arabs. The mistake made by other Arabs was to abandon war. “The world will not be concerned with us and our interests, feelings, and rights unless we are powerful” and victory requires “adventure and recklessness.” Any who disagree are mere “political mercenaries” and “parasites.”

This mandatory radicalism ensures that Syria interprets Western concessions and confidence-building measures as acts of surrender, proving its strategy is working. Years of dialogue and numerous visits by secretaries of state could not even get Syria to close the terrorist offices in Damascus, much less make any policy changes.

Anwar al-Bunni, a democratic dissident, explained in 2003 that the only thing that held back the regime was fear of America. Only due to “the fright it gave our rulers, that we reformers stand a chance here."

But once U.S. members of Congress flocked to Damascus, offering words of praise and advocating détente, Bunni was proven right. He was sentenced on trumped-up charges to five years’ imprisonment.

Being nice to Syria will lead nowhere because the regime thrives on conflict and its demands—including a recolonized Lebanon--are too much against Western interests to meet. U.S. policy should treat Syria’s regime as a determined adversary whose interests are diametrically opposed to those of America, no matter who sits in the White House.

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Stephen Kislock - 5/24/2007

Syria and the United States both must have the same teacher?

Syria and the US to peas in a pod!