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Truth About Syria


Book Review:

The Truth About Syria
Barry Rubin
ISBN-10: 1403982732
Palgrave MacMillan, 2007, $31.00
(At Amazon )

What to do about Syria is, or should be, a major policy concern of the US government, and of most governments in the Middle East. In The Truth About Syria, Professor Barry Rubin takes us inside a modern, if atavistic, mini-USSR, and shows us what it is about and how it works. You do not have to believe every word, though most of what Rubin tells us is well documented and indisputable. It may not be The Truth about Syria. Nobody has a handle on the whole truth. It is certainly a very large part of the Truth about Syria. The truth about Syria is not pleasant. Many U.S. policy makers do not want to hear it. They know the facts. They want to ignore them. They want you to ignore them.

The Truth About Syria opens with two quotes that tell us what it is about, and what Syria is about.

The first quote is from a crucial speech made after the last Lebanese war, in which Syrian President Bashar Assad said, "The great man is the one who surprises his enemies." He was announcing his intention to "surprise" Israel with a 'guerilla' attack transparently manufactured by the Syrian government, in order to 'liberate' the Golan Heights. The idea that such an attack would not be blamed on Syria would seem to be absurd, except that Syria had just accomplished the same thing with the Hezbollah attack on Israel. For about a month, Syrian and Iranian made rockets pounded Israeli cities, Russian arms supplied by Syria were used against Israeli tanks, and more Iranian arms were unloaded at bases in Syria and transported to the Hezbollah, which was fighting a war to entrench Syrian interests in Lebanon. No blame was attached to Syria for this war, and in fact, they were invited by foreign diplomats to help in controlling the arms smuggling!

The second quote is taken from Shakespeare's Henry IV, part two, and it tells us what the Assad regime is about in four lines:

I well might lodge a fear
To be again displaced, which to avoid....
Be it thy course to busy giddy minds
With foreign quarrels.

The Assad family has established a hereditary dynasty shored up by repression within, and confrontation and terror abroad. The rule of the Assads is not aimed at improving the lot of their people or forwarding a particular ideology. They changed ideology from secular Arabism to a seemingly impossible confection of pan-Arabism and Islamist extremism because it was expedient to do so.

Their rule is not about improving living standards for Syria. Syrian living standards have fallen behind the none-too-glamorous ones of Jordan or Egypt. It is not about democracy, a Western luxury Syria can't afford, according to Bashar Assad. The Assad regime is about stability, and it is about money and power for the Assad family. The regime, writes Rubin, is comparable in every way to the fictional Corleone Mafia family. Rubin points out the similarities in numerous details, down to removing henchmen who rebel against the rule of the son..

Hafez Assad came to power following a dizzying succession of coups that had made Syria the most unstable regime in the Middle East. The Assads are seated atop a bucking bronco. They are members of the Allawi religious minority who are usually not even considered to be Muslims. They rule a country of disparate minorities with a potential for chaos almost as great as that of Iraq. The radical Muslim Brotherhood is always there, threatening to take over the country by fair means or foul, and the usual Ba'th party rivalries that have plagued all such regimes are also a threat to Assad family rule.

Staying in the saddle is therefore priority number one for the Assad family.All the actions of the regime serve that imperative. The Assad family cannot make peace. Peace would remove the excuse for the Mukhabarat secret police establishment and the rule of internal terror, which are supposedly needed to combat the machinations of the Western powers and the "Zionists," and to aid in the struggle to regain the Golan heights first, and later, all of "Palestine" (Israel), Lebanon, and Jordan, which Syrian nationalists have always conceived of as part of Syria.

Prosperity and peace would ruin the Assad regime. Therefore, Western assumptions that Syrian leadership must want peace and prosperity are mistaken, and it is pointless to "engage" Syria in dialogue except insofar as it is possible to confront them with their violations and insist that they mend their ways.

The megalomaniac goals and the roster of foreign villains are convenient "to busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels." They are also convenient excuses for discrediting and jailing any reformist opponents as supposed agents of Zionism and the west. The methods should be familiar to students of the former USSR. Syrians have the usual grim, ironical, Soviet era type jokes about the secret police, the personality cult of the rulers, the one-candidate "elections," and other aspects of such repressive regimes.

To bolster popularity at home, the Assads have always projected the image of championing the fight against imperialism and Zionism, vying for leadership of the Arab/Muslim world. "Honor," they have convinced their subjects, is more important than democracy and prosperity. To this end, they foster terror in Lebanon, in the Palestinian territories and in Iraq, providing arms for terrorist groups, a base for Iraqi insurgents, and shelters and headquarters for the Hamas. All the while, they have managed to project a very different image to successive US diplomats, as a "responsible" regime that is an ally in the war on terror. They do so by such gestures as arresting minor terrorists from time to time, and promising repeatedly to close the headquarters of terrorist organizations, without actually doing so.

As Rubin explains, the Assads rule by controlling the Syrian economy, managing and allocating corruption rather than fighting it. They keep the lion's share (Assad means "lion") for themselves, and dole out portions to friends of the regime. Aside from Syria's dwindling oil reserves, major industries include drug smuggling and counterfeiting, and labor exported to work in Lebanon. The Assads cannot allow economic reform and prosperity. Reform would take the Syrian economy out of their hands. It would foster the rise of an independent reformist, liberal middle class that would insist on democratic institutions.

The risks of war and confrontation are minimal for the Assad regime, while the constant confrontation bolsters their image as defenders of the faith and the people. The risks of angering western powers are minimal because those, especially the US, have shown a strange willingness to ignore or react minimally to almost every Syrian provocation, ranging from their acknowledged role, along with Iran, in fomenting the Lebanese civil war, to their role in the terror bombings of the US marines, to attacks on Jordanian diplomats and US embassies, to the assassination of Rafiq Hariri in Lebanon, and especially to documented Syrian involvement in the Iraq insurgency.

The method, Rubin explains, is to create an impossible situation and to explain that the problem, as in Iraq or Lebanon, can only be solved with Syrian help. It is an old Mafia trick:

"Accidents could happen, to you or your family. You need protection."

"From whom do I need protection?"

"From us."

It works every time, as US and European diplomats and politicians buy the Syrian line that Syria has been "wronged" somehow, and rush off anxiously to Damascus to engage the Syrians. They win lip-service assurances that Syria is opposed to terror and Syria wants peace, while all the while the business of the regime goes on as usual.

As for Israel, the West and the UN, as well as Israeli war-weariness, can be counted on to contain Israeli reactions to minimal proportions, and to shift the blame for violence on Israel, as was done this past summer in the Lebanese war.

The physical risks of confrontation are minimal for Syria, because it generally manages to fight its wars on foreign ground, and in any case, even the most disastrous defeats are turned into glorious victories by the Assad propaganda apparatus. That is what happened after the 1973 Yom Kippur war, it is what happened again this summer after Israel inflicted billions of dollars of damage and over a thousand casualties in the Lebanese war adventure of the Hezbollah. Assad managed to take credit for a "victory" without any overt Syrian involvement, though many of the rockets falling on Israel were made in Syria, and captured arms bore the markings of their Syrian and Iranian makers. At the same time, the Hezbollah "victory" put Assad on the spot. While Lebanon mourned its dead, Syria celebrated the "victory" of the Hezbollah over Israel.

The real risk of this war, was that it was Hezbollah and Iran, and not Syria, that were viewed as the leaders of the struggle against the west and the "Zionists." Assad cannot afford to be second in that department. Perhaps that is why he announced, in a speech on August 15, 2006, his intention to use the method of "resistance" to retrieve the Golan Heights. The war with Israel would be a replay of the war with Lebanon. A bogus "resistance" group will create a provocation along the border, Israel will respond with ineffective strategic bombing, and Syria will respond with massive rocket attacks. Syrians explained that the method works because Israel has little tolerance for casualties, while Syria is "steadfast" and poor as well, and is able to rebuild following the war or do without.

At the same time, Syria has been carrying on with its announcements about willingness to negotiate with Israel, which turn out to be conditioned on US mediation. It is the same old method, "If you want to solve the problem, you have to deal with me." But dealing with the Assad regime never solves the problem. It just wins more concessions for Syria and creates new problems.

Hafez Assad was wily, experienced and in his way, responsible. He took care to have deniability for almost all the moves of the Syrian regime, especially following the disaster of the 1973 Yom Kippur war. Syria adhered scrupulously to the letter of armistice agreements with Israel following the 1973 war. Hafez took care to have at least minimal deniability for his adventures abroad. He did not confront the United States openly, and even took advantage of U.S. offers of alliance. He used the aid won for Syria's minor role in the 1991 war against Iraq to rearm and to arm the Hezbollah.

Syria's foreign policy was always based on an exact calculus of how much Syria could get away with, carefully balancing all the factors. Syria can get away with a great deal, because the United States is well aware of the dangers of weakening the regime and allowing Syria to fall into the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood, or to disintegrate into an Iraq or Lebanon.

Rubin shows how, by carefully playing off the different powers against each other, probing their weaknesses and telling them what they want to hear, the Assad family has always been able to gain enormous foreign policy leverage, despite the fact that Syria is materially a non-entity that has no physical means or military resources that could be used to stop a serious assault by Israel or any western power.

The one instance when Syria backed down in the past, was in their support for Kurdish insurgents in Turkey. When Turkey made it clear that Syria would have a war on its hands if it did not desist, Hafez Assad gave up the fight.

As Rubin points out, Bashar Assad is brash and inexperienced and was initially unsure of himself. To stabilize his rule, he embarked on sham liberalization at home, and on adventurism abroad. The vigorous secular stance of the Hafez Assad regime has been relaxed. Women are allowed to wear traditional clothing, and the religious establishment was coopted to support a new blend of Islamic Arabism or Arab-flavored Islamism. Repression is generally maintained not by arrests, but by threat of loss of livelihood. Syrian sources indicate that compared to the rule of Hafez, Bashar's rule is "liberal," causing a degree of satisfaction, because Muslim Brotherhood adherents and religious elements have more freedom. Bashar pursues a program of vigorous repression of liberal reformists, but, as these are a tiny minority, most people don't care.

Abroad, Bashar cooperated with Saddam Hussein against the United States, importing Iraqi oil under the noses of US intelligence and journalists, and the US did nothing. The deal was profitable for both dictators. When Iraq fell, he stepped up the Syrian alliance with Iran. Syria had always been the only Arab country that was close to Iran, a strange alliance of supposedly secular Bathists and fundamentalist Shi'a.

Bashar Assad allows the operation of insurgency units based in Syria, and the flow of arms, protesting that he cannot control his borders, while allowing the insurgents to bank Iraqi funds in Syria and fund their activities. Amazingly, all this activity incurred almost no danger to Syria. It was hardly mentioned in the egregiously superficial report of the Iraq Study Group. On the contrary, Syrian mischief won Assad's regime a seat as an honored guest at negotiations aimed at "stabilizing" Iraq. Competition among the Western powers, as well as their interest in weaning Assad away from his alliance with Iran, guarantee that Syria will not be left without support.

Assad the son, drew the conclusion, perhaps mistaken, that there is almost no limit to what he can do. In Lebanon, he made one mistake - the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, which set the Arab world against him, and even France. To regain favor in the Arab world and bolster his regime at home, Assad is apparently counting on a war with Israel. Or perhaps, he is counting on the threat of this war, to force Israel to beg the United States to return to mediating discussions. These discussions will inevitably bring up demands to legitimize Syrian presence in Lebanon, to stop the investigation of the Hariri murder and grant other concessions, and like the previous "peace process" they are unlikely to lead to real peace. As Rubin explains, and as backed by the account of Dennis Ross, Israel offered to return all the land of the Golan that belonged to Syria before the 1948 war. Hafez Assad, in the final negotiations in which he humiliated the United States one more time, insisted on freedom of navigation in the sea of Galilee, which Syria had not had before 1967, and on legitimizing the acquisition of territories it had conquered by force in 1948. The difference in area between the Israeli and Syrian proposals was tiny for Syria, though all-important for Israel, but the Syrians needed an excuse to perpetuate the conflict.

The remarkable part of the Syria story is not the behavior of the Assads and their regime, which is par for the course for such dictatorships. Rather, it is the degree to which the United States and other Western countries, and to some extent Israel, have been willing to tolerate the antics of the Syrian regime and to do nothing about them. Most of the evidence that Rubin brings us is gathered from public news stories and statements of the leaders of the regime. The information is there for all to see. Syrian involvement in Iraq, in Lebanon, with the Hezbollah, with the Hamas, and in plots against Jordan are all well known. Syrian repression of civil liberties internally is likewise acknowledged by all. Yet nobody is willing to confront this regime, and even the Bush administration seems to be pursuing the folly of "engagement" and accepting insult upon injury with a smile.

On the contrary, much of the US Middle East "establishment," the State Department and Middle East Studies Association experts, the current and former diplomats, professors and consultants, vigorously deny any real wrongdoing to Syria. They attribute allegations that Syria and Iran control the Iraq insurgency, the Lebanese chaos, the Hamas and the Hezbollah to "Zionist" and "neocon" propaganda. While Syria was fomenting violence in Iraq and Lebanon, and vigorously carrying out a program of regime change in Lebanon, the establishment of foreign policy "experts" continue to insist that the United States and the "Zionists" are plotting regime change against Syria. Since regime change would very likely bring the Muslim Brotherhood to power, it is unlikely that Israel or the United States have any such plans. Israel was very careful not to involve Syria in the Lebanon war, despite the massive arms flow from Syria to the Hezbollah, and despite the active aid given to Hezbollah through the Russian operated Syrian electronic listening post. Analysis of the reaction of the United States and other western powers to Syria would require another book.

Accounts by Syrians, and developments since the publication of the book, bear out the main points of Rubin's thesis. Bashar is "advancing" on all fronts. In Lebanon, he has promoted a stalemate that is strangling the Lebanese government, in order to stop the investigation into the murder of Hariri. Anti-Syrian politicians are assassinated regularly, but Syria incurs no opprobrium. Assad opened a new front by "allowing" or encouraging the operations of the radical, al-Qaeda oriented Fateh al-Islam group, while piously denying any connection with them. Defeated in a bloody refugee camp war, the group, or a different branch, recently launched rockets against Israel, and then apparently perpetrated a bloody attack on UNIFIL forces.

Syrians are busy smuggling large quantities of arms to their Hezbollah clients in Lebanon, to be used either against the Lebanese government or against Israel. The smuggling is admitted and documented by the UN, but strangely, nobody is willing to take any action to stop it.

At home, Syria celebrated the "victory" of Assad in uncontested elections, which reportedly had the participation of about 6% of the population, while the regime simultaneously ignored the anniversary of Syria's defeat in the Six Day War.

Syrian officials have not denied that they are preparing for war with Israel. Forgetting Assad's speech of last August, the Syrians claim instead that Israel is preparing for war against Syria, though the Olmert government took care to underline that it has no interest in war. At the same time, Syrian Deputy Foreign Minister Miqdad announced, in an official government press report, that Syria's priorities are recovering the Golan and the "Occupied Arab territories."

In preparation for war, Syria has been purchasing large quantities of Russian arms. Recent purchases include Pantsir S-1 anti-aircraft batteries, long-range Iskander-E ground-to-ground missiles, SU-30 and MiG-29 jets, and state-of-the-art anti-tank missiles. The last were a staple of the Hezbollah war against Israel. A more recent report rekindle negotiations with Syria. Israel needs to pursue the possibility of peace with Syria, because the lack or failure of such negotiations will surely be the centerpiece of any post-war recriminations, and would also jeopardize international support during the war. On the other hand, given Syrian insistence that such negotiations must be conducted through American mediation, and US refusal to get involved, the chances of such negotiations taking place are virtually nil. Given the record, the chances that such talks would lead anywhere are even slimmer. Syria will always set the threshold just beyond what could conceivably be acceptable to Israel. Syria denied several times that it had received Israeli invitations to talks, and then issued an appeal for talks, apparently to be mediated by the US. Nothing has come of that.

In Gaza, the bloody Hamas coup bears all the marks of Syrian and Iranian involvement. It had to have been done with the approval of Damascus based Khaled Meshal, the actual leader of the Hamas. The coup was a predictable master stroke that sabotages US, Saudi and Egyptian peace efforts. The Arab world was deeply shaken by the coup, and of course, Israel, the Palestinian government and the United States are more or less in a state of shock. Yet nobody is willing to point the finger and to make Syria suffer the consequences. Once again, Israel is being blamed and is being called upon to make concessions, and the Hamas rule over Gaza is being accepted with few questions. On the contrary, Egypt's President Mubarak is urging a reluctant Mahmoud Abbas to enter into negotiations for restoring "unity" with the Hamas.

Everyone who wants to understand the Middle East should be reading "The Truth About Syria." Nothing that is happening in the various crisis spots of the Middle East makes sense if you don't take Syrian involvement into consideration. Israelis should be reading it so that if and when the war comes, we can better understand what hit us. Iraq policy gurus need to read it. Nancy Pelosi and Arlen Specter should have read Professor Rubin's book about Syria before going off to visit with President Bashar Assad. At least, it would have been a welcome dose of reality as an antidote to the reams of fatuous commentary by Assad family sycophants. ruth About Syria has won plaudits from Lebanese and others who understand the regime. Unfortunately, Rubin's thesis will surely be dismissed or minimalized by the establishment in charge of making foreign policy in the United States, and of handing it down to Israel. As Rubin is an Israeli, it is convenient to label his veridical picture of Assad's Syria as the work of neocon Zionists intent on "regime change." Meanwhile, Assad himself, and his sidekicks in Tehran, are the only one in the Middle East engaged in regime change business in the Middle East.

Of course, if a Syrian had written the book, it would have been more convincing. But a Syrian could not write this book and stay alive.

Ami Isseroff

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Replies: 2 comments

Regarding the United States knowledge of Syrian agression against our military in Iraq and elsewhere; It is very difficult to persuade the American public to accept any act of force against any government since the Bush administration openly lied to the people of the United States and the world about Iraq's eminate threat and weapons of mass distruction. We require undisputable proof, which is almost impossible to have since the very people who would provide that "proof" are known liars. Also documents such as "A Clean Break" signed by David Wurmser and Douglas Feith does not help the situation at hand as it lends to the theory that the United States is coupled with Israel in a regional war that is costing the lives of American soldiers for the sole benefit of Israel.

Personally, I think if Syria was rendered impotent it would leave hezbollah and other smaller organizations in the region completely exposed to eliminatino by moderate governments. It is a long haul from Iran to Lebanon. United States involvement in this conflict however must be warranted. The United States is not Israel. What does the United States have to gain from nation building instead of independance of foriegn fuels? What does the middle east have to offer the United States other than oil? I don't mean to sound harsh, but why should we help Israel and it's neighbors? Sure it would be nice if the world was lolli-pops and cotton candy and everyone was happy and played nice. Sadly that is not reality, we are a separate people, your intrests are not ours. Why should we spill our blood for another nation? That is what all of this boils down to. The article points out that we Americans ignore the acts of agression by Syria upon our troops. Why are we there at all? Syria is not coming here and attacking us. They never will. The United States should not involve themselves in the affairs of other nations, period. I wish Israel, the Palestinian people, and the people of Lebanon the best, but your lack of ability to agree and live peacfully with your neighbors does not warrant our involvement.

Posted by OMFG @ 06/29/2007 07:40 PM CST

Unfortunately weapons of mass destruction are unlike conventional weapons. The United States has to do everything it can to prevent a situation where it can be held hostage by a dictator with such weapons. That is why it went to Iraq. It is not its fault that the weapons were never actually found. Saddam made the world believe that he had them and he is not somebody that deserves the benefit of doubt.

Obviously the behaviour of Iran or Syria is important when its troops are still stationed in Iraq.

Posted by David Shamgar Jeeves @ 07/08/2007 01:54 PM CST

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