Syria: a time to choose

Syria needs to choose to join the fight against terror or be engulfed by it.

Dateline: 07 October 2005

Syria was perhaps lucky not to have been named in the Axis of Evil with Iran, Iraq and North Korea. With Iraq now an ally of the US, Syria is certainly pushing to be included. While Iran is sponsoring the terrorists in Southern Iraq – much to the chagrin of Iraq’s British allies – the more serious terrorist problems in the central belt, where US forces are based, are sponsored by Syria.

One possible reason the President had for not including Syria in his original Axis of Evil is a desire not to push it too far in the direction of terrorism. Hafez Assad, for years Syria’s Stalinist hatchet man and terrorist in chief, is dead, and his son Bashar Assad rules in his place. We still have not got the measure of the younger Assad. He has been removing from power the father’s cronies and replacing them with figures loyal to the son. The question remains, why? It is time for Syria to answer that question.

It is possible that Assad plans to switch policies and engage in democratic and market reform while becoming, if not a US ally, at least a non-aggressor. If so, he is wise to remove possible enemies from positions of power first. He needs to guard his back. But if this is his plan, he needs to move soon.

Syria harbors the terrorists destabilizing both Iraq and Lebanon. But Iraq and Lebanon can do the same to Syria. As the Iraqi government gains more control of its territory, it can, and should, pursue retreating terrorists across the border – a policy known as hot pursuit. It is entitled to ask for the support of its American allies to do so. Air cover, even boots on the ground, are entirely legitimate. Iraq can also supply Syrian dissidents with support – and so can its allies.

A few hundred CIA and special forces operatives were able to exploit divisions within Afghanistan to bring down Mohammed Omar’s Taliban. Syria would be tougher, but it would not be necessary to bring the regime down, just to destabilize it, and force it to stop sponsoring terrorism abroad.

But there is another model available to Assad. He could imitate Pervez Musharraf, the canny President of Pakistan. Pakistan was one of only a handful of countries which recognized the loathesome Taliban at the time of 9/11. But Musharraf’s government had been slowly edging Pakistan towards the west and reform. He faced – and still faces – resistance from Islamist elements in the military and the secret service, both of which were taken over by Islamists during the dictatorship of Zia ul Haq. But Musharraf recognized the world changing significance of 9/11, withdrew recognition from the Taliban, and began helping the CIA to deal with the terrorists in the border region.

The help goes both ways. Musharraf has a great many enemies in Pakistan. No doubt the CIA is helping him to eliminate them before they eliminate him. Musharraf proclaims his intention to return Pakistan to democracy, but is under no pressure from his western allies to hurry the process.

There is a story of two people who are surprised by a lion. They run, but one says to the other: “what are we doing? We can’t outrun a lion.” The other replies: “I am not trying to outrun the lion. I am trying to outrun you”. Democracy is the lion which will, eventually, devour all the dictatorships in the middle east. At the moment, Musharraf is outrunning Assad.

Copyright © Quentin Langley 07 October 2005

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