How Syria avoided 'axis of evil' membership
Syrian diplomacy has apparently averted a public row between Damascus and Washington. The fact that Syria wasn't included among the countries making up US President George W. Bush's "axis of evil" was highly significant. There are many reasons why Washington has been dealing with Damascus in a positive manner recently:
1. Syria's rapid condemnation of the Sept. 11 attacks.
2. Syrian cooperation with the US regarding security and intelligence sharing.
3. Damascus' readiness to share the experience it gained in fighting Islamist terror between 1976 and 1982.
4. Syria's declaration that both Washington and Damascus were confronting the same enemy: Islamic terrorism.
5. Syria's continued commitment to the Middle East peace process and to the principle of negotiations with Israel.
6. The fact that Syria has been keeping Hizbullah on a tight leash in recent months and has avoided exacerbating tensions in the Middle East.
7. Damascus' cooperation with Washington in maintaining partial control over Hamas and Islamic Jihad prior to US special envoy Anthony Zinni's last trip to the Middle East. The two Palestinian organizations subscribed to the unilateral cease-fire declared by the Palestinian Authority.
8. Most US congressmen and diplomats who visited Damascus last month were able to meet with Syrian President Bashshar Assad.
9. Washington itself is interested in seeing a stable Syria and in supporting the reformist current led by Assad.
Yet the fact that Syria didn't figure in the short list of nations making up what Bush called the "axis of evil" Iraq, Iran and North Korean doesn't make the future of Syrian-American relations any more trouble-free: Iraq and Iran, the two most important countries in the Middle East from Syria's point of view, are classed by the White House as rogue or outlaw states.
That Iraq was included in the "axis of evil" was only to be expected. After all, the Bush administration declared upon coming to power last year that Iraq was "a priority for US policy in the Middle East." Since George W. came to the White House, there has always been speculation over when he would "finish the job" his father started in 1991. With the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, Bush finally got the chance he was waiting for to fulfill his plans for Iraq. He has had to be patient these last several months because he didn't want to anger the Arab and Muslim world by attacking Iraq while military operations were going on in Afghanistan.
With this mission accomplished, the US has begun preparing the ground for a "change of regime" in Baghdad. In fact, CIA director George Tenet has already spoken of a "relationship" existing between Al-Qaeda and Iraq, and American intelligence officials are searching for an "Iraqi Hamid Karzai" a pro-American Iraqi figure who belongs to a well-known family but whose history isn't tainted by belonging to any political party taking part in the war to oust Saddam Hussein.
This theoretical "Iraqi Karzai," who is supposed to muster the support of most, if not all, forces within Iraq, thus has to be a Sunni Arab from within the current regime, but whose hands haven't been tainted with too much blood. He has to be a son of the ruling Baath political and military apparatus who also has the respect of the Kurds and the Shiites but without being one of either.
To succeed, this blueprint has to have the support of Iraq's neighbors especially Iran and Syria. This goes some way towards explaining why Washington has now changed its position vis-a-vis Tehran. Iran was one of the first countries to condemn the events of Sept. 11. The Bush administration even "dispatched" British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw to Tehran in order to broker a dialogue between the US and Iran. While nothing public came out of this initiative, subsequent information revealed that Iran played a significant role in cooperating with the Americans in the Afghan war by supporting the anti-Taleban Northern Alliance. Iran has also been hosting to up to 2 million Afghan refugees; it didn't obstruct the formation of Karzai's transitional administration and donated $500 million to rebuild Afghanistan.
This Iranian behavior was expected to make the Americans happy. But it seems other factors came into play that caused Washington to change its mind, including:
1. Washington wanted to deter Tehran from trying to spread its influence in Central Asia, whose vast energy resources the Americans want to tap.
2. The Bush administration succumbed to the demands of its more hawkish members, who exploited the issue of the Karine A (the vessel intercepted by the Israelis in the Red Sea, allegedly full of Iranian-made weapons bound for Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority, and not to Hamas or Islamic Jihad, whom Iran supports. The Palestinian president, by the way, has long been seen as a political enemy of Tehran).
3. The Americans want to guarantee that Iran will not obstruct the process of change, which it has in mind for Iraq.
Washington wasn't pleased with the recent improvement in relations between Iraq and Iran, because such a rapprochement would strengthen the hand of Saddam Hussein. In other words, Tehran prefers to have Saddam in power in Iraq rather than a pro-American regime. Should that happen, Iran would be squeezed between the Afghan Karzai and his Iraqi equivalent. Like other countries in the region, Iran has been sending out feelers to see what the future holds. Seif Allahi, supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's adviser on Iraq, secretly traveled to Damascus three weeks ago on a visit that irritated the Bush administration.
But what is the significance of Iraq and Iran to Syria?
Relations among these three states have always been troubled, with good ties being the exception rather than the rule. Iraq and Syria have been ruled for almost four decades by rival wings of the Baath Party. Soon after the Iranian Islamic revolution triumphed in 1979, the eight-year Iran-Iraq war broke out, and Syria sided with Iran. In 1991, both Iran and Syria supported the "international coalition" that drove invading Iraqi forces out of Kuwait.
But there are also points of agreement between the three countries: They are all to varying degrees politically opposed to Israel. The degree of enmity varies with different geographic realities: Syria, eager to regain its occupied Golan Heights from Israel, had to enter into peace talks with the Jewish state much to the displeasure of Tehran.
The military alliance between Turkey and Israel, which came to light in 1996, marked a turning point. It was then that Syria felt threatened both from the north and south, prompting the late Hafez Assad to consider opening up to Baghdad despite his personal distaste for Saddam. Assad planned to bring Iraq into the Syrian-Iranian "strategic partnership," which also involved joint influence in Lebanon and mutual backing for the Shiite Hizbullah.
But although it has been five years since Syria and Iraq patched up their differences, it is still too soon to speak of the formation of the tripartite pact Hafez Assad envisaged. Nevertheless, the three countries are feeling more relaxed in the sense that they no longer pose a threat to each other. In fact, they are considering setting up joint economic projects, such as building railroads. Iraq has already opened its airspace to Iranian flights.
Such cooperation among the three "hard-line" states worries Israel and Turkey and by extension the United States especially at this point in time when the "axis of evil" is about to bear the full brunt of the "war on terror."
The situation is very serious, requiring deft handling on Syria's part to avoid a major crisis in the near future. The Syrians should make use, of their membership of the UN Security Council to push for dialogue between Iraq and the UN that would enable the weapons inspectors to return to Iraq, and to extend the "oil-for-food" deal. Baghdad must be persuaded to cooperate with the UN in order to deny Washington the pretext it is looking for to execute its schemes and thus embarrass Iraq's two "allies" Syria and Iran.
Ibrahim Hamidi is a Damascus-based journalist specializing in Syrian current affairs. He wrote this commentary for the Lebanese newspaper The Daily Star
Topics: Damascus, Foreign Policy, George W. Bush, Iran, Iraq, Syria