Syria's Road to Damascus

By: Dr. Sam Vaknin

Also published by United Press International (UPI)

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Written April 8, 2003

Updated March 7, 2005

Was Saddam Hussein hiding in Syria? DEBKAfile, an Israeli-owned rumor mill thought so two years ago. He was supposed to be in the Mediterranean coast town of Latakia in the Cote d'Azur De Cham Resort, a neighbor of the al-Assads, the indigenous dynastic rulers. Allowing him entry was supposed to be one of a series of manifestly anti-American moves by the Syrian regime.

The Department of Defense has repeatedly accused the country - still on the State Department's list of terror-abetting polities - of shipping weapons and materiel, such as night goggles and jamming systems for satellite global positioning devices, across the border to Hussein's depleted and besieged forces. Arab volunteers, some bent on suicide attacks, have been crossing into Iraq from an accommodating Syria.

Donald Rumsfeld, the American Secretary of Defense, called these unhindered flows "hostile acts". The CNN quoted former CIA director James Woolsey calling the Syrian regime "fascist". Even the docile Colin Powell warned Syria during his tenure that it is facing a "critical choice".

According to the Kuwaiti daily, Al Rai Al Am, in a related incident, U.S. special forces have demolished two years ago a pipeline which delivered more than 200,000 barrels of heavily discounted oil a day from Kirkuk in Iraq to Syria, in defiance of repeated American requests. A railroad link between the neighboring countries was also blown up. Western sources denied both these reports.

Structures within Syria's military and secret services, acting through business fronts, have been implicated in arms trafficking from Syria to Iraq, including, according to the pro-Israeli Forward magazine and the Israeli daily, Ha'aretz, anti-aircraft missiles, rockets and Scud missile guidance systems, tank transporters and antitank missiles from Russia, Yugoslavia, Ukraine, Belarus and Bulgaria.

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a powerful Jewish lobby, intends to capitalize on such bad blood. Its executive director, Howard Kohr, told various media recently that AIPAC will target the transfer of missile technologies from Russia to Syria, Iran and North Korea, two of which are charter members of the "axis of evil" together with Iraq.

On Apruil 2003, repeating accusation aired on December 2002 by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Brigadier General Yossi Kupperwasser, a senior officer in the Israeli intelligence community, told the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee of Israel's Knesset that Syria was harboring Iraqi chemical and biological agents and long-range missiles. Even the Americans found these charges too outlandish to endorse.

Despite fears publicly expressed by Bashar al-Assad and other senior Syrian officials, Syria is unlikely to be the next target of the coalition forces. It is an American strategic asset. An ardent historical foe of Iraq, it joined the American-led coalition in the first Gulf War and the war on terrorism.

Syria also voted for resolution 1441 in the Security Council, calling for Iraq's disarmament under pain of war. It is also indispensable to any lasting Middle East settlement. The administration torpedoed the Syria Accountability Act, a Congressional attempt to impose sanctions on Damascus. According to the official Syrian news agency SANA, Tony Blair called al-Assad to inform him "that Britain disagrees completely with those who promote the targeting of Syria".

At the time, in an interview to the London-based Arabic language al-Hayat newspaper, Powell denied any intention to invade either Syria or Iran. But the conspiracy-minded noted the revival, by Israel, of a plan to carry oil from Mosul to Haifa, through a disused pipeline running via Syrian territory. Hooman Peimani in Asia Times concluded:

"Unless the pipeline were redirected through Jordan, another country bordering Israel and Iraq with normalized relations with Israel, the pipeline project will require a different regime in Syria. In other words, regime change in both Iraq and Syria is the prerequisite for the project. As (Israeli Minister of National Infrastructure, Yosef) Paritzky did not mention a redirecting option, it is safe to suggest that the Israelis are also optimistic about a regime change in Syria in the near future."

The demise of Hussein's pariah regime spells economic trouble for Syria. Still largely a socialist command economy, it has only recently embarked on a hesitant and partial path towards market reforms. Iraq served as both the source of cheap energy and a captive market for shoddy Syrian goods. Bilateral trade, excluding oil, amounted to $2 billion, according to the Khaleej Times, a United Arab Emirates daily.

Syria, itself a fledgling oil producer, re-exported some of the Iraqi crude and much of its own output through a pipeline leading from Kirkuk directly to the port of Banias. It reaped between $500 million to $1 billion annually from such arbitrage. Syria extracts about 400,000 barrels of crude per day and c. 8 billion cubic meters of natural gas a year.

Lebanon is another paradise likely to be lost to Syria in the wake of the Iraq war. The country, largely occupied by the Syrian security apparatus, has been divvied to lucrative fiefdoms controlled by politicians belonging to the late Hafiz al-Assad's old guard.

The Lebanese economy and its financial sector are far superior to Syria's. But the United States is pressing a reluctant Syria to terminate its "occupation" of Lebanon and, thus, to let the West dismantle the infrastructure of terrorist organizations, such as the Iran-backed Hizbullah, that thrive there.

Observers say that the subtraction of the Iraqi and Lebanese windfalls is a blessing in disguise. It will force Syria to modernize, reform its bloated public sector, restructure or genuinely privatize its numerous state-owned enterprises, develop its energy sector and introduce the rudiments of a monetary policy and a banking system. Syrian manufacturers have already begun to develop markets in other Arab countries and in East Europe.

Not all is lost. Syria, a largely agricultural country, enjoyed bumper crops in 2003-4. Its ports inevitably serve as the entry points for goods used in Iraq's reconstruction. Such traffic is a boon to its budding service industries.

Nor is Syria as isolated as the United States and Israel might wish it were.

In April 2003, Jordan and Syria signed an agreement to construct the $87 million Al Wihda dam on the northern Yarmuk River which flows from Syria to its neighbor. It will add 80 million cubic meters of drinking and irrigation water to Jordan's dilapidated supplies. The facility will be erected by Ozaltin, a Turkish construction firm, and financed by Jordan with loans from the Abu Dhabi Development Fund and the Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development.

Turkey has also been reaching out to Syria and Iran in a belated effort to counter an emerging Kurdish polity within a federated postwar Iraq. This rapprochment started prior to the latest Iraq war, days after Colin Powell departed Turkey in the belief that fences have been mended. Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi visited Ankara and Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul embarked on a trip to Syria.

Iran's President Mohammad Khatami traveled to Syria and Lebanon in early May 2003. President Bashar al-Assad briefly stopped in Tehran in March 2003 to discuss the brewing crisis in Iraq. A common statement of mutual defense against "common enemies" was signed last month (February 2005) .

This flurry of summits indicates the formation of a broad front aimed at countering certain American allies - notably the Kurds. The participants also aspire to affect the future shape of their region. It is a tall order and they may well be too late.

As Richard Murphy, US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs from 1983 to 1989, recently told the Daily Telegraph:

"There's a perception that the time has come to spread democracy in the Middle East. Their view is that the US paid heavily on September 11 for having not stood by its principles in dealing with autocracies in the Middle East."

Interview granted to Digital Journal, September 3, 2013

1.     First of all. I’d like to ask all of you how you look at the credibility of this claim made by the Obama administration that the Syrian government has used chemical weapons against the anti-government fighters?

If true, it indicates the disintegration of central authority in Syria. Al-Assad is losing his grip on power and local commanders are taking matters into their own hands, forming militias, and carving out territories. Syria is becoming a second Lebanon. It would defy logic for the increasingly more victorious Assad regime to hand such a trump card (chemical warfare attack) to the rebels. If it did happen, it must have been a local initiative.


2.     Do you see a US-or UN-led war as inevitable here? (please comment on why or why not it is necessary? Also, are egos involved here?)

A US punitive mission is inevitable, but it will be short and ineffective. I do not foresee any war.


3.     What is your assessment of this scenario? Given that there are widespread speculations that the Obama admin has joined hands with Al-Qaeda to fight this war which has this sectarian element to it, do you see any connection between the Obama admin’s position against Syria, given that Obama admin is silent over the atrocities or anti-government protest groups in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Bahrain?

To suggest that any American administration would be collaborating with al-Qaida on any issue is to profess to profound ignorance on Middle-East affairs. This is not about atrocities. It is about stabilizing a critical flank of the region in order to be able to concentrate on the far more threatening descent of Egypt into chaos. Removing or considerably weakening Assad will create a stalemate in Syria and remove the danger of a spillover war between Israel (and its pro-Western  tacit Sunni allies, including Turkey and Saudi Arabia) and its neighbors. It will allow the US and Israel to tackle Hamas and to prevent it from weaponizing the civil war in Egypt. Syria is a meaningless nuisance that is distracting the West from dealing with the real menace of Egypt and North Africa.


4.     Before I move to Frank, I would like to know what all of you think about how this war will benefit anyone? (who if any will benefit from it in any way – financial, political, etc.)

What war? There is no war. There is no talk of war. There is a debate regarding a limited punitive mission, no more.


5.     Russia and China both have opposed Obama’s plan to strike at Syria, Russia particularly in pretty strong words. And Russia actually is a military ally of Syria. How alarming is this opposition from other militarily strong powers siding with Syria?

Russia is not a strong power, though it likes to think of itself this way. It is a dilapidated shadow of its former self, the megalomania of its narcissistic and coarse leader, Putin, notwithstanding. China has no meaningful military presence in the Middle East (or elsewhere, for that matter.) They can block a UN resolution, but this is just about the extent of their “power”. There is only 1 player on stage: the USA. All the others are minions, wannabes, and cronies. France and Israel may act as proxies for the USA and the UK in this conflict.

Also Read:

Syria's Sunshine Policy

God's Diplomacy and Human Conflicts

The Economies of the Middle East

Turkey's Jewish Friend

Israel - The Next Target

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