Talisman Gate

Thursday, January 06, 2005

The Syrian Blink

Copyright 2005 The New York Sun, One SL, LLC
All Rights Reserved
The New York Sun

January 6, 2005 Thursday


LENGTH: 1616 words

HEADLINE: The Syrian Blink

BYLINE: Nibras Kazimi


The Syrian regime is playing a cynical game of chicken with the Bush administration, but it is already a forgone conclusion that their Soviet-era tractor will end up in the ditch.

The deputy secretary of state, Richard Armitage, was in the Syrian capital just a few days ago. He was supposed to give the leadership in Damascus a dressing-down on their tacit role in helping the murderous terrorists waging a jihadist insurgency in next-door Iraq. But Mr. Armitage is suffering from end-of-term senioritis and didn't flex all his body-built muscles. The Syrians are still shrugging all these criticisms aside, and negotiating. They are waiting for the opening bid that really matters: implicit American support for their autocratic Baathist form of rule.

At best, the Syrians are only turning a blind eye to the financing and orientation of the Iraqi insurgency being operated from their turf. However, they are more likely providing technical and logistical support to the suicide bombers crossing the Syrian-Iraqi border while the exiled Baathist functionaries who escaped the collapse of Saddam's reign are enjoying a well-endowed retirement in the plush neighborhoods of Damascus. These new Iraqi transplants living up the high life are flush with cash, and they are remitting some funds to the insurgents.

To the Syrian authorities watching all this unfold under their very angular noses, this is all a ploy for buying time. The strategic goal for the Syrian Baath Party, which is simply a facade for the minority Alawi power structure, is to stay in power and weather the democratic storm gathering force in the Middle East. There is no mythical polarization between a coterie of reformers huddled around the young President Bashar Al-Assad and his deceased father's old guard; they stand united in trying to survive the next four years of George W. Bush. They hope that all this talk of democracy is a blast of hot air, and that America will compromise when the Syrians make an offer that a beleaguered Bush administration supposedly cannot refuse: Syria as a partner in the war against terror.

Thus, the Alawi-Baathists terror-masters are re-inventing themselves as the anti-terror masters. Although they are involved with Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad, they can claim to have experience on their resume in warding off Islamic fundamentalist insurgency during the late 1970s and early 1980s.They can even give pointers on how to level cities like Fallujah, since they performed the same task 22 years earlier in Hama. The Americans are bound to come to the table, the Syrians are reasoning, since the harder the insurgency in Iraq becomes, the more focused the Americans will get on counterinsurgency measures as a goal in itself rather than democratic reform. And the Syrians will be waiting to roll-up all the human smuggling rings that provide gate-to-car bomb service for young Saudis and other assorted jihadists from the moment of arrival at Damascus airport to fastening the seat-belt on the young man as he drives off in an explosive laden car to kill "infidels" in Baghdad.

T.E. Lawrence of Arabia by way of Britain, did not like the Syrian officers serving alongside him in the Arab Revolt. He once remarked that they were shallow, greedy, and lacked deep thought. He would probably form the same opinion of this Syrian scheme: it is bound to fail because the Alawi-Baathists are playing with fire. The simple underlying fault in their strategy is that what goes boom in Mosul will resound in Aleppo, Syria's second largest city.

The Syrian-Iraqi border, where Washington bureaucrats and military planners are focusing their attention these days, is a figment of some earlier bureaucrat's imagination. The line that takes a 45-degree angle after it skirts the Hawran range and cuts through the Euphrates river at Abu Kamal on the Syrian side and Al-Qa'im on the Iraqi side and then winds around the Sinjar heights has no historical, sociological, or geographical justification. Its only validation was that it all looked very neat on maps as the British and French divided up the Middle Eastern spoils of the Ottoman defeat in World War I. Iraq only really becomes distinctly Mesopotamian when the steppe and desert plateau ends around the Tharthar Valley and follows the course of the Tigris northwards. And Syria only becomes the Levant proper across the straight south-to-north line that connects Damascus to Aleppo through the towns of Hims and Hama. Everything in between, including Iraq's Sunni Triangle and the Sunni heartland of Syria, is connected through millennia of trade, intermarriage, and tribes and clans spanning the current imaginary border.

The Mosul-Aleppo case highlights this loose and grey kinship. The men of Mosul had been conducting a centuries-old experiment in genetic improvement by marrying the legendary beauties of Aleppo until Britain and France decided to create the national states of Iraq and Syria. But the reality is that tribes that control the smuggling of human time-bombs could reverse the flow and therefore terrorists could detonate in Aleppo just as easily as they are wreaking havoc in Mosul. The same is true across the Iraqi Sunni Triangle; it is only a matter of time until the jihadists turn their sights to the capital of the first Islamic Empire, Damascus, and liberate it from the "heathen" Alawis.

This had been tried before by some of the radicalized Muslim Brotherhood wings in Syria (later named the Islamic Front) as they set out to murder and detonate their way into power. The Alawis, who only comprise an eighth of the population, were badly shaken and had to fight out a bitter urban war until they regained balance. Their secretive beliefs are rooted in heterodox offshoots of Shia Islamic tenets meshed with pre-Islamic pagan, probably ancient Kurdish, beliefs, and had been longtime victims of Sunni Islam. They survived far off in the fastness of the mountains that hug the Mediterranean coast. By a fluke of history and an agent of peasant poverty, they dominated the local militias set up by the French to augment their colonial rule. They were even given regional autonomy, but lost it when they were incorporated into independent Syria after World War II. But not all was lost; their martial expertise carried into the newly formed Syrian army, and through successive military coups they supplanted the old urban power structures of the 50 Sunni Arab notable and wealthy families that had run things since independence. Suddenly, and with their Alawite heresy whitewashed and made mainstream through adoption of secular Baathist ideology, they found themselves in power some three decades ago. And they would like to keep it that way. So for the time being they allow things like this to happen: the Saudi-owned daily Asharq Al-Awsat printed a story last Monday about a Saudi family that got a phone call telling them that their son had been "martyred" in Iraq in a suicide mission. The son, Ahmed Said Ahmed Al-Ghamidi, 20, left his medical studies in the Sudan and closed out his bank account on December 16th. He apparently traveled to Syria and found his way to Mosul. In five days, he was ready, according to the report, to blow up an army mess tent and kill 19 American soldiers. The Syrians would shrug and say, "how could we have known? But we will try harder next time."

The Syrians are taking their own sweet time in combating terror in a gambit to buy time for their dictatorship's survival. They want to cut a deal with the Bush administration: Don't hurry us on democracy and freedom, and we will do you favors in the war on terror a la the Jordanian model. The Americans would then focus on keeping the officers of the Syrian intelligence service happy rather than standing up for regular Syrian citizens. Mr. Bush should stand firm with Syria, since its dictatorial leadership has more to lose as the insurgency in Iraq's Sunni Triangle flares up and sends sparks back across the border into Syria itself. Their cynical game of chicken cannot be sustained, and they are only an eye twitch away from a full-blown blink.


Evil men trampled on one of God's flowers that had been planted in His good earth. Sheikh Haithem Nayif Ahmed Al-Ansari, 33, was walking to Friday prayers from his Baghdad home on December 31, when a gray BMW slowed down and sprayed him with a machine gun. One of the assailants then disembarked and hunched over the writhing body while emptying the rest of the magazine into my friend's head.

Haithem was both kindred spirit and close friend to me. His political affiliations were contradictory, and many sides will claim him as one of their own. Good, many sides will be out to avenge him. The crime of his murder has many possible leads, and that is due to the list of enemies Haithem chose to keep: Baathists, Wahhabis, and assorted regional intelligence services. A lamb in demeanor and a lion at heart, his loss made Iraq less of a home for me to get back to. Tall, thin, his movie-star face was ignited by fiery green eyes and offset by the sweet melancholy smile of a mystic. Since we had met and began working together three years ago, our conversations invariably started with "Is it possible that you are still alive? God must have a sense of humor." Haithem was a hero, and it may still be early to recount publicly his victories against evil. He was a Shia mullah grappling with existential issues of personal faith in God, but he had no illusions about fighting evil in all its guises. What a horrible loss. Haithem, in your release from the hard circumstances of the battles you chose to fight, has your spirit made it to Paris? He had wanted to see Paris before he died.