"Did Syria Take Colin Powell for a Diplomatic Ride?"
Posted by Amir Taheri
Wednesday, June 04, 2003

Editor's Note: Amir Taheri appears on ChronWatch courtesy of Eleana Benador of Benador & Associates.
When the United Nations Security Council voted on a U.S./UK-sponsored resolution on May 22, one member was absent: Syria. And yet a couple of weeks before the vote, Syria had assured Colin Powell, the U.S. secretary of state, on a visit to Damascus, of its full cooperation on Iraq. Hours after the Security Council vote, the Syrian media began to boast about "our courageous stance" and "President Bashar al-Assad's rejection of aggression against Iraq."   What happened?  Had the Syrians taken Powell for a ride?

According to the American media, Powell visited Syria to deliver a warning to Assad not to meddle in Iraq, not to support terrorists, not to develop weapons of mass destruction, and not to try to sabotage the new "roadmap" for Israeli-Palestinian peace. This was not how the Syrian media, owned and controlled by the state or the ruling Ba'ath party, presented the visit.   To them Powell had gone to Damascus for "an audience" with Assad to hear the latter's admonitions and to apologise for "a campaign of denigration waged by Zionists against Syria." The newspaper Al-Ba'ath, an organ of the ruling party, told its leaders that the U.S. would have to "force Israel to change its policies and behaviour" before the peace process could be revived.

The daily Tishirin, another party organ, praised Powell as "the man who understands Syrian positions," and told its readers that the American visitor had come to "hear what the US needs to do to win Syria's cooperation on issues of bilateral concern."  Another government-owned paper, Al-Thawrah, claimed that Powell had come to hear Syrian views on the future of Iraq. Syria's radio and television covered Powell's visit in the style of the Arabian Nights: a distant and weak king (in this case George W) sending an envoy to a powerful ruler (Bashar al-Assad) to present gifts and demand pardon for unspecified sins.   Syrians were told that the president lectured the American visitor for a full two hours.  What an education!

It is no exaggeration to say that the visit was a disaster, both for the United States and for the pro-reform Syrians. The reason for Powell's failure lies in a fact that successive American administrations have refused to acknowledge.  There are cases when the problems that the U.S. might have with a particular regime is due not to certain aspects of the latter's behaviour but to its very nature.  A scorpion's sting is not a matter of behaviour but an existential reality.

The Syrian regime cannot stop using terrorism as a routine part of policy.  It cannot stop violating the human rights of its citizens.  To urge the Syrian regime to end its military occupation of Lebanon is like asking a confirmed alcoholic to give up the bottle.  Syria, a one-party dictatorship, cannot but sabotage the development of a democratic system in Iraq.  The Ba'athist regime in Damascus is more comfortable in saying "no" to any peace plan, thus maintaining a pseudo-heroic posture, than risk being labelled a "traitor" by other Arabs.  

Also, Syria under Ba'ath cannot abandon its quest for weapons of mass destruction because it has always based its world vision on a negative philosophy of force. Like other radical regimes in the region and elsewhere, the Syrian set-up under Ba'ath is an "all or nothing" system.   Convinced that it cannot have it all, it prefers to have nothing, and to nurse its chagrin, rather than become involved in a process of give-and-take that some Arabs regard as treason.

To be sure, the Syrian Ba'ath, especially under the late President Hafez al-Assad, was pragmatic enough not to believe its own slogans. The late al-Assad ate humble pie each time he had to.  But he was always given an opportunity by successive American administrations, not to speak of the Europeans, to disguise his humiliation as diplomatic successes.  (For example he managed to get ''summits'' with all American presidents from Nixon to Clinton!)

The Syrian Ba'ath regime has also been successful in exploiting the most sinister aspects of Arab psychology.  For more than 30 years it has used the fiction of its "struggle against the Zionist enemy" as an excuse for its failures and crimes. Many in the West might find it strange but a part of the Arab intellectual elite prefers to live in a world of lies and illusions for as long as it can flatter itself for having "preserved the Arab honour," whatever that means.      

Hafez al-Assad became a hero for part of the Arab elite largely because he appeared to say "no" to any peace with Israel.  The rest didn't really matter.  That Syria today has no national economy to speak of, and is poorer than it was 30 years ago, is of no consequence.  Nor should one bother about the fact that Syria under Ba'ath has become a cultural desert.  And what about Syrian military and security chiefs plundering occupied Lebanon?  Well, that, too, is of no importance as long as Damascus continues to "resist Zionists and their American Imperialist backers."

In dealing with radical Arab regimes, and the Khomeinist set-up in Tehran, the US has been twice a loser.  It has helped legitimise largely illegitimate regimes in exchange for minor concessions that could be, and have often been, withdrawn at the first opportunity.  At the same time the U.S. has alienated the democratic and pro-reform forces that represent its strategic allies in the Middle East. Unlike Saddam Hussein's Ba'athist regime that could not get off its suicidal path, the Syrian Ba'athist set-up can and will alter its behaviour to escape possible military action by the U.S.  In the final analysis, however, a regime like that of Syria today cannot, even if its leaders wanted, deliver what Washington demands: i.e. an end to terrorism, peace with Israel, support for the democratisation of Iraq, and a strategic partnership with the U.S.

Twenty-four hours after Powell had humiliated himself by going to Damascus, the Syrians were unrolling the red carpet for Iran's President Muhammad Khatami who had rushed in to call for "a unified front to fight the American Imperialists."The U.S. cannot get what it wants in the Middle East unless it allies itself with the region's democratic forces against the despotic regimes in place. And that requires a complete rethink of American strategy.  The Middle East needs the same kind of historic change that transformed the Soviet Union and its satellites into at least potential friends of the U.S. rather than strategic enemies.
Amir Taheri is an Iranian author of 10 books on the Middle East and Islam. 
He's available through www.benadorassociates.com.