Analysis: For Assad, conflict is a raison d'etre

Syria's approach in Iraq offers a prime example of diplomacy, Assad-style.

Bashar Assad 224.88 (photo credit: AP)
Bashar Assad 224.88
(photo credit: AP)
The Baghdad government's assertion of Syrian responsibility for the explosions which killed more than 100 people in Iraq on August 19 has refocused attention to Syrian policy vis-a-vis its eastern neighbor. Syria's approach in Iraq offers a prime example of diplomacy, Assad-style. For this reason, among others, Damascus's Iraq policy should be closely studied - particularly by advocates of the broader stance of engagement with the various elements of the Iran-led regional alliance. The specific advantage of the Syrian relationship with Iraqi Ba'athists and jihadists lies precisely in its murkiness and ambiguity ( in contrast to Damascus's relations with other local Islamist elements such as Hizbullah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad). So the question of whether the bombings were committed by Iraqi Ba'athists, Iraqi Islamists or some combination thereof may never be known. Iraqi officials believe that the late claim of responsibility by an al-Qaida-linked group was an attempt to divert attention from the Syria-Ba'athist link. But the fact that Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri alMaliki's accusations could feasibly be asserted highlights a number of important facts. Syria has over the last six years played a vital role in nurturing and harboring the Iraqi Sunni Islamist and Ba'athist insurgencies. Maliki, in pointing the finger at Syria, angrily claimed that 90 percent of the terrorists entering Iraq to take part in the insurgency smuggled themselves into the country by way of Syria. Following the invasion of Iraq by US and allied forces, and the toppling of the Saddam Hussein regime, Damascus offered shelter to former officials of the Iraqi Ba'ath party. With the beginnings of insurgency in Iraq, Syria hosted the key line for young Sunni jihadists looking to fight the Americans in central Iraq. The aspiring insurgents would arrive at Damascus airport, and be funneled directly to the border and then across it. The Iraqi Ba'athists, who are deeply engaged in the insurgency, are still in Syria. The border remains unsealed. The direct involvement of Damascus in aiding the Sunni insurgency was a key factor leading to the crisis in US-Syrian relations six years ago. Since coming to power seven months ago, the Obama administration has been involved in a cautious but energetic attempt to engage Syria. The American desire to mend fences with Damascus derives from Syria's importance in the totality of Obama's apparently very considerable Middle East ambitions. The Syrians have a carefully nurtured client system which enables them to frustrate progress in a number of conflict zones - including the Israeli-Palestinian arena and Lebanon. But since Obama wants to withdraw from Iraq, and since the Syrians have played a direct role in aiding anti-US forces in that country, it is in Iraq that Washington most urgently requires Syrian cooperation. The US has indicated that it is willing to make gestures to coax Syrian compliance. Six visits by senior US officials have taken place in recent months; Washington has announced that it will return an ambassador to Damascus; important elements of the US-sanctions policy toward Syria - regarding the supplying of export licenses for aircraft parts - have been quietly waived. The result so far may be seen in the Baghdad explosions and Maliki's furious accusations against the Damascus regime. Of course, for seasoned watchers of the Middle East in general and Syria in particular, the logic is not hard to infer. Why on earth should Syria give up such a useful tool of pressure on the United States and on Iraq as the fostering of insurgency? It appears to be producing dividends, and its value will only rise as the US withdrawal from Iraq continues. And it apparently costs nothing. So - best to keep the Americans and Iraqis on their toes, while at the same time professing a commitment to dialogue. Assad's characterization of Maliki's accusations as " immoral" is a classic example of the Syrian Ba'athist style: de facto intimidation coupled with prim indignation that anyone could suspect them of such a thing. This textbook case of Syrian behavior should serve as a warning to the US administration. We are told that Obama is about to launch a comprehensive attempt to solve a series of interlinked problems and conflicts in the Middle East. The current outreach to Syria is no doubt intended to bring the Syrians " on-side," because of their unique capacity for frustrating all attempts at progress in key areas of regional strife, if and when they choose to do so. The Americans want " solutions." They believe in " end-games." The trajectory of events in Iraq should indicate to the administration that for Syria, the game has no end. Conflict provides the regime's raison d'etre, its means of rule, and the way it communicates with its neighbors. Regional stability can perhaps make progress in spite of the Syrians, when they are sufficiently intimidated (see Lebanon, 2005). Trying to make Syria a partner in the search for peace and stability in the region will guarantee the failure of the quest.