Under American pressure, Damascus whistles in a graveyard
The news out of Tehran on Tuesday was a refreshing departure from what has been a string of depressing event in the Middle East. The British, French and German foreign ministers extracted a promise from the Islamic Republic that it would suspend its enrichment of uranium and implement the terms of an additional protocol to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty even before the agreement has been ratified. The negotiations resulted in a palpable defusing of tensions, a fact that has to be viewed positively by everyone in the region except Syria. That country is now more exposed than ever, a situation made all the more perilous by what looks like its government’s failure to recognize the danger.
George W. Bush has a series of problems on his plate. His promise to remain engaged in the Palestinian-Israeli peace process lies in ruins, his adventure in Iraq sinks deeper into the morass with each passing day, US relations with the United Nations and other countries are a shambles, his government has set a new record for deficit spending, the American economic recovery is exceedingly fragile, and he has to face the voters in a little more than a year. Should one or more of these factors continue to erode his standing in the polls, the temptation to rally Americans around a new overseas military campaign will be great. Until now, the hawks in Washington have been divided over who should be “next” after Iraq: Iran or Syria. If EU intervention has indeed ended the Iranian nuclear standoff, those who advocate “regime change” in Damascus can only be strengthened.
The most alarming aspect of this looming crisis is that the Syrian government remains blissfully unconcerned. Having determined that dialogue with America is futile, the leadership has reverted to tired slogans that are useless at best and disastrous at worst. Without Hafez Assad at the helm, Damascus has been visibly adrift for much of the past three years. But only now is it becoming clear just how vulnerable Syria is without him. Without his charisma, experience and savvy, those who try to emulate him by wearing the same ideological goggles are only blinding themselves to an unprecedented threat to their very existence.
The Bush administration has amply demonstrated its willingness to disregard the concerns of the international community and take military action without the consent of the UN Security Council. One faction in Washington has been determined since the mid-1990s and doubly so since Sept. 11, 2001 to further Israeli ambitions by overthrowing the Syrian government. The accusations leveled at Tehran and Damascus have been chillingly reminiscent of those directed at Baghdad before the invasion. Iran is taking action to keep itself out of the American noose, but Syria acts as though it might be more worried about a trade dispute with Andorra. This is uncharted territory, so there are no traditional rules governing the next step for Syrian diplomacy. The only certainty is that the current course is the wrong one.