Vol. 5 Num 451 Thu. September 01, 2005  

Is Syria next target?

After Iraq and Afgha-nistan whose turn is it, is a moot question being debated about not only in the power corridors of the Middle East but also at the kerb-side tea cafes. Can the United States be really serious when it lists Syria among the states sponsoring terrorism? Admittedly the Baath old guard of Syria is not happy at the prospect of sharing the fate of their peers in Iraq, and the present Baghdad regime's allegations that most foreign terrorists are crossing over from Syria, is anything but exaggeration. Yet it hardly is a sufficient instigation for the US forces to embroil in another country as the political, human, and financial costs of another parallel adventure are domestically indefensible.

Like Saddam in his last days in power, Bashar al Assad is now literally dancing on US beckoning -- withdrawing his country's 29-year military presence in Lebanon on a single phone call -- but trans-border intrusions are totally beyond his control. His own lack of character and cowardice being comparable only to those of Saddam, his border forces lack the will and the capacity to take the militants head on. The professionalism of his troops is restricted to torturing and interrogating intellectuals and human rights activists, that of his intelligence officers to murdering people in Lebanon, and that of his border security guards to gazing at the Israeli girls across the barbed wire. The days of Syria acting as a regional bully are history.

No country in the Middle East can remain immune from the winds of reform. Bashar, therefore, has joined the reform bandwagon, ending up only in reforming the methods of tyranny. Since 2004, which is when the Arab League decided to embark on reforms, fourteen political parties have been banned in Syria, twenty students activists have gone missing from Damascus University (probably never to be seen again), six top leaders of the Kurd minority have been assassinated by state security agencies, the latest being top cleric Sheikh Mashuq al Khaznawi, who reportedly died after extreme torture, not to speak of another six political murders in neighbouring Lebanon in the same period, where among the victims was a personality no less than that of Rafik Hariri.

Like the scions of other despots of the Middle East, Bashar started with a note of optimism and the people were willing to give him a chance. Like Ilham Aliyev did in Azerbaijan and King Mohammad V in Morocco, Bashar started his reign in 1999 by freeing the political prisoners held by his father, and just like the former two, he took no time in adopting the practices of the father with greater ruthlessness. He announced a general amnesty for exiled political dissidents and when the people were duped into coming back, one after another all were arrested and are passing through "interrogations" Syria-style. The seemingly lucky ones who did not return have to be always on their toes fearing for life.

In the beginning, the Bashar regime encouraged forums for debate on national issues and quite a few of them had actually sprouted under his blessing. Today, in less than half a decade, only one is left, namely, Jamal Atassi Forum for National Dialogue. Recently the police arrested all the eight members of the board of the Forum, including two ladies, from their homes in midnight raids. And thus came the sad end of all the debates.

Last year, on the eve of 41st anniversary of the Baath Party's coming to power, a demonstration was held calling for an end of the draconian emergency that is in force since that fateful coup. The security agents at the demonstration outnumbered the activists by three to one. The only banner calling for an end to four decades of emergency and asking for "freedom of conscience" was snatched and torn by the police at the outset. The organizers who had been summoned again and again to the police stations "for questioning," as if they were criminals, in the days leading to the demonstration, were mostly arrested on the day, in spite of the fact that the political event had after all been permitted by the government. Quite undeterred, now 1,000 intellectuals have joined a petition calling for lifting emergency and they are in the process of collecting one million signatures to be submitted to the President.

The President is already in a cul-de-sac; he has an economy in tatters, an army of tin soldiers, a rotten, corrupt, and notoriously inefficient civil service, and a coterie of greedy party old guard. Add to it the wish of the President never to ease the grip on power of his family. He convened a Congress of Baath Party a few weeks back, the first since the death of Assad Senior, only to manipulate a few decisions for his own ends. Black curtained limousines drove past to the conference venue, as the same old politicians, detached from the poor on the streets who were looking askance at the regalia, assembled in the venue to give the obligatory tumultuous applause to Bashar and re-elect him for another five years as the party boss. Bashar addressed them to fulfill his megalomaniac exercise of self-praise and that was all that is mentionable about the Congress. And that is all about reform till the next few years, unless of course, the US invades.

The US decision-makers are not so na´ve not to realize the fact that democracy in Iraq will remain an elusive unless it is firmly rooted in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Syria. The rest of the region will then follow in domino effect. And that it is only for Syria that use of force will be necessary to that end.

Attack or no attack, Syria is to explode any way; the society is bruised and brutalized, fragmented and divided. The animosity between the rich and the poor, haves and have-nots (read: Baath members and non-members), Shiite Alawites and the majority Sunnis and Arabs and Kurds will be at each other's throats sooner than later. Only last year, thirty people were killed and 20 injured when the Kurd and Arab fans clashed in support of their teams in a soccer stadium. The neo-con argument goes like this -- better preempt a full-blown civil war through decisive action now, than let the time take its course with destabilizing effects for the whole region.

The junta in Damascus, much to the satisfaction of the hawks in the Bush administration, has by refusing to mend the ways and fortifying the status quo, by failure to govern, by promoting terrorism elsewhere, and by providing haven to militants in Iraq killing thousands of innocent non-combatant civilians, provided the powers that be with more legal and moral arguments to effect a regime change, than there were, if at all, for removing Saddam Hussain.

If Bush and Blair are sincere in their belief that Saddam's removal was morally justified, then one should rest assured that a Syria expedition is a question of "when" and not "if."

But if the case is otherwise, then the United States and United Kingdom would have to accept that the invasion of Iraq was wrong. And if they leave with the agenda of promoting democracy unfinished, the next half a century or so would be one of turmoil and bloodshed for the Middle East.

The writer is an Oxford-published author and a widely read analyst on politics, law and governance in the Muslim world.