The Battle for Damascus

Don’t fall for Bashar Assad’s charm offensive.

Syrian President Bashar Assad has spent so much time with the press recently, he might as well be promoting his role in a Jerry Bruckheimer film. And indeed, the story about several Syrian weapons experts being aboard the North Korean train that crashed last month would make a great summer blockbuster.

It’s been a busy year for Assad that started with a war in neighboring Iraq and was capped off last week when President Bush signed an executive order implementing a range of sanctions in accordance with the Syria Accountability Act. Since the United States does little business with Syria to begin with, sanctions against exporting goods and banning direct U.S. flights are mostly symbolic. However, there’s another congressional act in the offing that, as one Syrian analyst writes, could spell a more serious economic blockade against the country unless Damascus stops foreign fighters from crossing its borders into Iraq, ceases its support of terrorist groups, and ends its occupation of Lebanon.

Assad says that there are no Syrians fighting in Iraq, and, besides, it is very difficult to control the country’s borders. The latter is true, which is why the Arab Bedouin tribes in the Syrian desert have historically been allowed to do pretty much whatever they please so long as they let Damascus know precisely who and what is crossing the border. For all their services rendered to the Assad regime—like helping to quell the riots in Qamishli this March, during which 33 Kurds were killed—the Bedouins have rights to Syria’s smuggling franchise, transporting not just foreign fighters, but also drugs and weapons. But Assad says there are no weapons going to Syria either; in fact, he claims, it’s the other way around.

A colleague in Cairo, Raymond Stock, notes an item from the April 23 issue of the Egyptian daily Al Ahram where Assad confessed that “weapons are being smuggled from Iraq into Syria.” This is both very odd and very tantalizing. While it’s unlikely that the president meant to confirm suspicions that Saddam Hussein moved his WMD supply to Syria before the war began last spring, it’s equally unlikely that someone is sneaking arms past the Bedouins and their boss.

So, what’s going on—in Assad’s head and more generally in Syria itself?

The most important thing we know about Syria is that we really don’t know what’s going on in Syria. That’s intentional, of course; the Baathist regime is authoritarian, which means it controls the country’s flow of information. Among other things, that lack of transparency means that there is more room for conjecture, and so a host of U.S. and Western academics, journalists, and government officials are more likely to draw conclusions about Syria based not on fact but rather on their own prejudices.

In Inventing the Axis of Evil (ambitiously subtitled The Truth About North Korea, Iran, and Syria), Israeli Moshe Ma’oz wonders why Washington doesn’t “adopt a totally different strategy toward Damascus—being positive rather than negative, cooperative rather than rejectionist … [and] employ political and diplomatic means to integrate Syria into a new US strategic regional network.”

Actually, Washington did follow such a policy beginning with the first Bush White House; the State Department called it “constructive engagement.” But it didn’t work. Fourteen years later, there is nothing resembling a Syrian-Israeli peace agreement, Syrian troops are still in Lebanon, the regime still provides extensive support to terrorist groups, and, maybe most important, while Hafez Assad backed the United States’ first war on Iraq, his son did his best to subvert this Bush’s war. The White House’s current aggressive stance toward Syria may very well be mistaken, but it’s probably wise to ignore policy recommendations based on assertions like Mo’az’s, that once there is peace with Israel, Syria “should not need its alliances with Hezbollah” or “its relations with Hamas and Islamic Jihad.”

This might be true, but there is no evidence—besides Professor Mo’az saying so—to prove it. Isn’t it worth entertaining the possibility that the regime’s ties to those Islamist groups are at least as important as peace with Israel? After all, in the Middle East, it is dangerous for leaders to make peace with Israel and safe to make common cause with Israel’s enemies.

In fact, almost two decades after his father threw Yasser Arafat out of Syria, last week Bashar invited the chairman’s ruling Fatah movement to reopen its offices in Damascus. Perhaps the recent retirement of Syria’s famously outspoken defense minister Mustafa Tlass helped pave the way for Fatah’s return. The 72-year-old Tlass, who wrote a book explaining how Jews used the blood of Christians to make matzo, once called Arafat the “son of sixty thousand whores.” Since Arab military figures seldom resign of their own accord, Bashar apparently tired of the old man’s one-liners. Gary Gambill, a tough-minded Syria analyst, suggests that maybe the Bush administration strong-armed Assad into forcing Tlass to retire. After all, as Gambill explained to me, Tlass’ son Firas is suspected of smuggling into Iraq much of the materiel that Syria says it never smuggled into Iraq. But as Gambill admits, we really don’t know why Tlass is gone. Maybe, as one commentator suggested, he just wanted time to write another book.

Worse than not knowing is that much of what we believe about Syria is what the regime wants us to believe.

Syrian TV claimed the April 27 terrorist attack on a Damascus building that left four dead, including two of the assailants, was a reprisal for U.S. and Israeli outrages in Iraq and Palestine. But if that were really the case, why did the militants target a building just because it was once used by the United Nations?—hardly Israel’s or the United States’ staunchest supporter in Middle East affairs. A few days before that report, a previously unknown organization calling itself the Martyr Adib al-Kilani Group took responsibility for the operation, claiming it was retaliation for the 1982 devastation of Hama, a Muslim Brotherhood stronghold where Syrian forces killed several thousands of their countrymen. Still other observers maintain it was a government-sponsored operation intended to dupe the United States into thinking that Syria has serious Islamist problems of its own and shouldn’t come under sanctions. As Syria’s ambassador to the United States, Imad Mustafa, said, “We’ve being doing our best against Al-Qaeda. We share the same enemy.”

Many U.S. officials believe that. In a New Yorker article last year, Seymour Hersh quoted several U.S. sources who couldn’t understand why the Bush White House is giving Syria the cold shoulder when the country has shown its willingness to help in the war on terror. The Syrians hadn’t only tipped the United States off to a couple of al-Qaida plots, they were also holding a top-level jihadist in custody and giving U.S. intelligence liaisons regular briefings on the information he provided. But since U.S. agents weren’t allowed to interview him themselves, how would anyone know if Syria was telling the truth about what the jihadist said or if the regime was merely disclosing what it wants the United States to believe? Syrian intelligence probably did what Bashar does: say some things that are true, some that are not, and some that are really cryptic. You don’t fool anyone if you lie all the time.

Counterintelligence is an aspect of intelligence usually considered to be as important as intelligence-gathering itself. It’s quality control. One of the most important questions counterintelligence considers is “who benefits by me believing this particular piece of information?” Evidently, this is not currently a high-priority question for U. S. intelligence. When intelligence officers told the International Committee of the Red Cross that up to 90 percent of all Iraqi prisoners were mistakenly arrested, they were saying that the United States was acting on a lot of information provided by sources who want them to believe some things that aren’t true. If only half the suspects held at Riker’s Island were really innocent, New York City would be in chaos and the NYPD would have to be dissolved. The Syrians know their own turf even better than the NYPD: Their security forces imprison people for many reasons—some might really be terrorists but some are human rights activists—and yet they know precisely who they’re locking away and why. It is the primary business of an authoritarian regime to determine who is serving what interests and why. They not only have the scorecard, they fill out most of it themselves. The U.S. military in Iraq does not have the scorecard; instead, by acting on compromised information, they are helping some Iraqis settle scores against other Iraqis. As one Army officer back from Iraq wrote me, this is yet another reason why we are seen as occupiers, not liberators. We are taking sides.

The biggest problem in controlling the quality of intelligence is simply a function of human nature. Most people more easily accept facts that fit their point of view. So, many people who dislike the Bush administration look at its Syria policy and conclude that it is foolish not to embrace the regime in the war on terror, and they tailor some facts or ignore others to make their case. For example, they argue that Syria, as a secular regime, hates Islamists more than the United States does. “They killed a whole bunch of Muslim Brethren in Hama!” Of course, that’s true; but secular, Baathist Syria is also the preferred point of entry for any Islamist who wants to go fight U.S. crusader forces in Iraq. Other critics of White House policy argue that the young president is trying to reform the country but is caught in a struggle with Syria’s “old guard.” However, whether the United States should engage or ostracize Syria probably ought to be decided apart from that idea. Among other indicators, the retirement of Mustafa Tlass suggests instead that Assad is firmly in control of the state.

The Syrian government has lots and lots of interests, some that we know and some that we don’t. There’s nothing to be learned about Syria, or anything else, by merely starting from the proposition that the White House must be wrong. That’s just taking sides.