In Syria, regime change by other means

Posted in Broader Middle East | 16-Sep-05 | Author: Ehsan Ahrari| Source: Asia Times

The United States has not abandoned the option of regime change. This time, the objective is to oust the Bashar Assad regime of Syria, but by using "other" means.

This use of other means includes a combination of old tactics used to topple Saddam Hussein, and also uses a number of new tactics aimed at ensuring that the European Union - or its major members, the ones that were derided in the past by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld as part of "old Europe" - does not oppose it, and that even the United Nations Security Council goes along with it. At least in principle, that is a deft approach.

Why has Syria become the target of America's fury? There are at least two reasons. First, as an immediate neighbor of Iraq, Syria has been increasingly accused by the US of aiding and abetting the Iraqi insurgents. This is not a new reason. However, as the security situation worsens in Iraq, the Bush administration intensifies its rhetoric of the condemnation of Syria.

US ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad said in Washington this

week that "patience is running out with Syria" and that "all options are on the table". The stepped-up warnings came as US-backed Iraqi forces continued efforts to take control of the border town of Tal Afar. US and Iraqi commanders say the town is a staging post for foreign fighters infiltrating from Syria.

Speaking in New York, Khalilzad added: "Our patience is running out, the patience of Iraqis is running out. The time for decision ... has arrived for Damascus." He said that Syria "should not allow youngsters misguided by al-Qaeda, from Saudi Arabia, from Yemen, from North Africa, to fly into Damascus international airport". (The Syrian ambassador to Washington, Imad Mustapha, called Khalilzad's allegations "100% rubbish".)

The second reason Syria has become a US target is Syria's role as a former occupying power in Lebanon still remains a source of contention between Washington and Damascus. Syria was an occupying state of Lebanon when one of its major politicians and a former prime minister, Rafik Hariri, was assassinated. There was a widespread suspicion that Syria was behind it. One story that has been circulating in Lebanon and other Arab states is that Assad himself threatened Hariri with physical harm, if he were to oppose the extension of the term of office of the pro-Syrian president of Lebanon, Emile Lahoud. Not much later after that meeting, Hariri was assassinated.

Assad gave Der Spiegel, a German magazine, an entirely different account of that meeting. He said: "I said to him [Hariri], we want to exert no pressure on you. Go back to Lebanon and inform us then of your decision."

Now the UN inquiry of that event has the backing of the US and France, two countries that strongly disagreed over the entire episode of the American invasion of Iraq. A German prosecutor, Detlev Mehlis, heads that inquiry.

Now, the US appears to be following a well-thought-out campaign of ousting Assad. The first phase of that campaign successfully ended when the UN became involved in the inquiry of the assassination of Hariri. The second phase had also been successfully carried out immediately before the beginning of the UN summit in New York this week.

Assad was planning to make his appearance at the summit as a representative of the new generation of Arab leaders who would transform the region as a promising place of stability and economic progress. He was also to make some promises of initiating Syria's march toward democracy during his speech in New York. That visit was also to mark the end of a long period of isolation of his country.

The Bush administration, on the other hand, wanted to do everything to deny Assad any recognition or accolades from the West. Syria was told that Assad would have no chance of meeting President George W Bush. In addition, Washington systematically persuaded the EU heads to shun Assad. The Syrian president got the message and abandoned his plan to attend the summit.

The third phase of the US regime-change plan involves putting pressure on Mehlis to be proactive in seeking to "interview" a number of Syrian officials, including Assad. Naturally, Syria would not agree to have its president interviewed by a UN prosecutor, a process that even Saddam did not encounter when he was in power.

From the perspectives of psychological warfare, that is also an adroit move. The purpose is to constantly place Assad on the defensive, forcing him between accepting the humiliating option of being himself interviewed by a UN prosecutor, or providing important enough Syrian officials for Mehlis' interviews so that he would not insist on interviewing him. If that measure does not satisfy Mehlis, Assad might meet with him, but only if the meeting were to be labeled as a "courtesy call".

The fourth phase of the impending regime-change plan is to find an alternative ruler for Syria, an "Ahmad Chalabi version", but with a cleaner reputation than the Iraqi exile courted by the US before the fall of Saddam. On this point, the Bush administration is not having much success. One option is to meet with the late Hafez Assad's brother, Riffat, who does not reside in Syria, and extract some sort of commitment from him to democratize Syria if, or when, regime change does take place.

The general thinking in Washington is that the US will not repeat the mistake of heavily relying on Syrian expatriates, who, like their Iraqi counterparts, may have the number one objective of self-promotion and telling the US government what it wants to hear. The top US national security officials remember only too well the fairy tales of rose water and sweets that the American troops were to be offered once they walked into Iraq. However, there is no guarantee that a number of fallacious actions immediately prior to and in the immediate aftermath of the US invasion of Iraq will not be repeated.

In this high-stakes politics, Syria is not without options. It has calculated that it will do nothing to make the US occupation of Iraq a smooth operation, and Assad would have to be persuaded to cooperate - and he has things he wants. First and foremost, he wants the US to pressure Israel in negotiating a withdrawal from the Golan Heights. Second, he wants his regime to be removed from the US list of "bad actors", and be rewarded with economic and other assistance. Syria always feels that the Bush administration has been too harsh toward it and has never manifested a preference for rapprochement. Third, the US toppling of Saddam has created a deep feeling of suspicion in Damascus that its number will be up sooner or later.

After unsuccessfully attempting to arrive at a rapprochement with the US, Assad adopted a policy of benign neglect toward the Iraqi insurgents' use of its territory. He maintained a semblance of being vigilant about their movement, but never really used his well-known brutal power to crush them. As tensions between Syria and the US mounted, those insurgents were envisioned very much like the Hezbollah guerrillas in relation to Israel when Syria was an occupation force of Lebanon. They could be used as a bargaining chip.

No one can say that Syria's options are enviable. A weak power compared to the lone superpower is bound to appear desperate in a situation that Syria is currently encountering. It is good at playing the Machiavellian version of high-stakes politics. But the Bush administration does not want to play. It knows that it is holding a better hand right now. It is building some sort of consensus to tighten the diplomatic screws on Assad, and hoping that it will succeed in persuading the international community for a regime change.

The only unknown part of the Bush administration's regime-change plan is whether any use of military force will take place. If that is the case, another unknown is whether it will seek UN sanctions prior to such an action. Considering that US forces are currently in Iraq, the logistics of conducting a military campaign would be simpler compared to the ones it encountered prior to invading Iraq.

Still, there is no certainty that regime change in Syria will take place. Can Assad still save his regime? The answer is yes, but he has to decide how far he will go in terms of satisfying the Bush administration to save his rule. Democratizing his country would be one precondition. The most immediate measure he must take is to crush the insurgents that are pushing Iraq closer to a miserably failed state. The possibility of Iraq becoming a failed state is as much a grave option for Bush as the loss of power is for Assad. Thus, to save his regime, he must ensure that the Iraqi insurgents get no respite or help from his side of the border.

Ehsan Ahrari is an independent strategic analyst based in Alexandria, VA, US. His columns appear regularly in Asia Times Online. He is also a regular contributor to the Global Beat Syndicate. His website: