Syria: The Cuba of the Middle East?
by Daniel Pipes
[N.B.: The following reflects what the author submitted, and not exactly what was published. To obtain the precise text of what was printed, please check the original place of publication.]
When U.S. Navy jet fighters attacked Syrian positions in Lebanon in December 1983, they did so because these were deemed intolerable to vital American interests. Then, in a startling change of heart just seven months later, a senior State Department official condoned the Syrian military presence in Lebanon when he testified before Congress that the U.S. government considered Damascus to be a "helpful player" in Lebanon.
A similar reversal took place concerning the question of Syrian involvement in terrorism. Top officials had reached complete agreement that Syria had a major role in the October 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut. Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger accused the Syrian government of "sponsorship and knowledge and authority" for this crime and Secretary of State George P. Shultz said that "Syria must bear a share of responsibility." President Reagan stated that Syria "facilitates and supplies instruments for terrorist attacks on the people of Lebanon." But a year and a half later, in gratitude for help with the release of American hostages from TWA flight 847, President Reagan conspicuously omitted Syria from a speech about state-sponsored terrorism.
In May 1986, the same pattern emerged again. One day after Deputy Secretary of State John C. Whitehead acknowledged that the United States "has no reason to doubt" Syrian responsibility for an attempt to bomb an El Al plane leaving London, a White House spokesman called this a "premature" conclusion.
The fact that Syria is seen in so inconsistent a manner reflects the odd place of the Middle East in American politics. Americans know that North Korea sides with the Soviet Union and South Korea with the United States, that East and West Germany fit the same pattern, as do Vietnam and Thailand, Nicaragua and El Salvador. Most Great Power alignments are not in dispute; Americans usually understand who is the foe and who the friend.
But not in the Middle East. There the basic question of who is on what side is constantly being argued. Is Jordan a friend of the United States or not? Does Kuwait represent American interests? How close are Algeria, North Yemen, or Iran to the Soviet Union? Middle Eastern states seem to exist, politically, outside the Soviet-American rivalry.
What makes this region even more eccentric is the fact that the lines of the American debate cut across the normal liberal and conservative positions: both Saudi Arabia and Israel, for example, attract support from all areas of the U.S. political spectrum. To make matters even more confusing, liberals not infrequently adopt a conservative position on Middle East issues (as in the case of those liberal Members of Congress who vote against arms sales except to Israel), or the reverse (as in the case of those conservatives who advocate supporting every close ally except Israel).
These inconsistencies result from the fact that U.S. discussion about the Middle East is bound almost exclusively to regional considerations. Where a state such as Egypt stands on the great issues of our time is obscured by the predominance of its relationship with Israel. Financial interests (especially oil), religious concerns, and an obsession with the Arab-Israeli conflict drive the debate. Rarely does one hear about such issues as freedom of speech, democracy, or other of the larger principles of American foreign policy. As a result, American views toward the Middle East develop in an ideological vacuum.
This same inconsistency applies to Syria, the state that has emerged in recent years as the focus of Middle East activity. The regime of Hafiz al-Asad occupies an uncertain place in American eyes. Even a markedly conservative American administration has reached no clear position on the nature of Syrian relations with the U.S.S.R. or the proper U.S. response to them. This explains why high-level officials within the government have a tendency to change their minds and even contradict themselves about Syria. And it points to the need for a closer look where Damascus does stand in international politics - a question that turns out upon inspection to have a strikingly clear answer.
Alliance with the Soviet Union
Syrian leaders themselves avow that the grounds of their agreement with the U.S.S.R. extend far beyond the conflict with Israel. A Syrian newspaper commentary notes that the 1980 Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation, which has anchored the two governments' recent relationship, created a "strategic alliance between the two great forces of socialism and national liberation." So close are Syrian-Soviet ties, other commentaries call them "a bright point in the region's sky" and "an example to be emulated in relations among countries."
What does this exemplary relationship consist of? Political agreement buttressed by military alliance, with terrorism as a side benefit.
Politics. Syrian leaders consistently and closely identify with Soviet goals. Syria is one of very few states freely choosing to vote at the United Nations in favor of Soviet troops in Afghanistan; more generally, it has concurred with the U.S.S.R. on every significant issue facing the General Assembly in recent years. It calls NATO maneuvers in the Mediterranean "provocative" and sees them as preparations for "war and aggression."
Damascus supports all the causes of the Soviet bloc. Two small examples: Not long ago, a high-ranking North Korean official brought a message from Kim Il-sung thanking Syria for its "constant support for the Korean people's just struggle to reunite their homeland." An August 1985 cable from Hafiz al-Asad to Fidel Castro on the twentieth anniversary of diplomatic relations between Syria and Cuba praised the two countries' friendship as beneficial "for the two peoples in their joint struggle against world imperialism and its allies." The Syrian foreign minister's telegram on the same occasion expressed "Syria's admiration for the fraternal Cuban people's great achievements and their firm stands against imperialist aggression on the Latin American people."
In turn, Syria's cause receives support from the whole Soviet bloc, worded in each case almost identically. During the Lebanese missile crisis of 1981, when an appeal went out from Damascus to "world communist and labor parties and progressive forces" to denounce American plans of hegemony and Israeli aggression, those appealed to responded resoundingly and unoquivocally.
Visits, delegations, and agreements are by no means restricted to the U.S.S.R., but involve the gamut of Soviet clients and allies. To take a single month as an example, during October 1983 one cooperative agreement was signed by Syria with each of Bulgaria, Hungary, East Germany, and Poland, and two with Rumania. Five delegations were exchanged: North Koreans, Poles, and two groups of Soviets to Syria, Syrians to East Germany. Five publicized high-level visits took place, including trips by the Soviet chief of staff to Damascus and Asad to Moscow.
Mongolians, Bulgarians, Cambodians, Angolans - the whole range of the Communist international - have visited the Asad government. Grenada's Communist politicians found time during their brief rule to get to Syria; on leaving, they affirmed that Syria's "courageous stand" against imperialism is backed by "all the world's progressive forces." Babrak Karmal of Afghanistan missed no occasion when he was in power to send fraternal greetings to the Syrian masses. Even Communist parties in the opposition, such as those of Greece, Italy and Chile, show up in Damascus, where they are sure to find a glad hand and a night's lodging. In return, Syrian representatives attend Communist party congresses in Vietnam and elsewhere. Communist parties in the Middle East such as those of Saudi Arabia and Iraq are closely aligned with Damascus. (Nearly all Middle East countries ban and persecute the Communist Party, but in Syria it participates in the ruling coalition.)
Syria and the Soviet Union agree on most issues in the Middle East - given the obvious difference that the former has a regional perspective and the latter has a global one. Both felt betrayed by Anwar as-Sadat, both condemn the U.S.-sponsored peace process, both seek to destroy the pro-Western orientation of Lebanon, both want a high price for oil. The differences that do exist - over Iraq or Yasir 'Arafat for instance - are considerable, but they are well within the bounds of what allies can tolerate; they are far more minor than comparable differences between the United States and the members of NATO. What is more important, the two states' strategic interests coincide, for both oppose the United States and the pro-American governments of the Middle East.
Military. On the military level, the Syrians acquire over 90 percent of their weapons, some of them extremely advanced, from the U.S.S.R. The armed forces have 650 combat aircraft and nearly 4,000 tanks. SA-11s and SA-13s give Syria the most sophisticated and densest Soviet-supplied air defense system outside the U.S.S.R. SS-21s are capable of reaching most of Israel's population centers and military installations from Syria. Delivery in 1985 of an undisclosed number of naval vessels, including patrol boats, attack submarines, and STYX and SEPAL anti-ship missiles, heralded a major Syrian naval expansion. U.S. and Israeli military intelligence predicts that in the course of 1986, Syria will receive MiG-29s (the most sophisticated Soviet aircraft outside the U.S.S.R.). In a very important development, Syrian technicians recently took full control of the SA-5 system installed by the Soviets in early 1983, though four thousand Soviets remain to perform other tasks, more than in any other Third World country. In all, Syria has contracted for $19 billion in Soviet military hardware.
The presence of such advanced weaponry in Syria - where it is exposed to close intelligence gathering efforts by the U.S. and Israel - indicates Moscow's commitment to Syria. Soviet leaders so trust the durability of the alliance with Syria that two Syrians have recently begun training as cosmonauts. With this, Syria joins Cuba, Mongolia, Vietnam, and India in the exclusive privilege of engaging in a "fraternal" space flight.
Defense Minister Mustafa Tallas speaks of acquiring Soviet nuclear weapons. He disclosed in an October 1985 interview that, if Israel resorted to nuclear arms, "we have a guarantee from the Soviet Union that we will have enough means to deter the aggression and the Soviet Union will put nuclear means in our hands." Tallas then boasted: "We in Syria have enough courage to press the button." Other sources quote Tallas as saying that "the U.S.S.R. is moving toward supplying Syria with nuclear weapons" and that the U.S.S.R. trains Syrians to handle nuclear weapons. Although there is reason to doubt the accuracy of Tallas' claims - he is well-known for bombast - they may indicate that steps in this direction have begun. So too may the fact that the badge of the Chemical Warfare Unit shows a mushroom cloud.
In addition to this vast arsenal, Syria has also imported a number of Soviet military customs. For over twenty years, virtually all Syrians sent abroad for military training have gone to the Soviet Bloc and all foreign instructors have come from there. A Soviet style "political department" assures ideological homogeneity among the soldiers and officers. In addition to the usual army, navy, and air force, the Syrian military includes a fourth service, the Air-Defense Command, patterned on the Soviet Troops of Air Defense. The command structure, which used to be modeled on that of France, now resembles that of the U.S.S.R. Some uniforms, such as the army combat clothing, have been changed to resemble Soviet prototypes.
Adopting Soviet structures means adopting Soviet methods too; like their Soviet counterparts, the Syrian armed forces rely on centralized decision-making, numerical superiority, and offensive tactics. One demonstration of this occurred in October 1973 when, according to the authoritative World Armies, the Syrian attack on Israel "slavishly followed Soviet tactical doctrine without the resources and reserves to justify such an all-out offensive strategy, and indeed without the political need to pursue such a strategy."
In emergencies, Soviet personnel have taken over military operations within Syria. During the 1973 war, the headquarters staff of a Soviet airborne division was reportedly flown to Damascus to prepare for the defense of that city. When Syria needed military help in 1973 and 1974, Cuba provided tank operators, MiG pilots, and helicopter pilots. Soviet pilots apparently operate a reconnaissance squadron of MiG-25s in 1976-77.
The Soviet Union also supplies Asad with internal protection. In mid-1980, at the peak of a revolt by the Muslim Brethren, 500 KGB advisers were training Syrian intelligence officers at an army base south of Damascus. Other Syrians went to the U.S.S.R. for similar training. A few days after the rebellion in Hama erupted in 1982, the chief of Syrian internal security, 'Ali Duba, requested help from the Soviets. Twelve Soviet officers, experts in street fighting, went to Hama, where three of them were killed.
The U.S.S.R. derives many military benefits from close relations with Damascus. For example, Syrian use of Soviet arms against Israel provides an invaluable opportunity to assess Soviet material in combat conditions; in mid-1981, joint exercises on a large-scale were conducted by the two countries. But two benefits stand out: Syria provides an eastern Mediterranean base and an air defense link.
Soviet troops and equipment are both located in Syria in significant numbers. Soviet submarines operating in the Mediterranean are based primarily at Tartus and their naval airplanes have access to the Tiyas field. SA-5s, surface-to-sea missiles, and Soviet aircraft in Syria cover significant portions of Turkey and the eastern Mediterranean, endangering the U.S. Sixth Fleet and NATO forces in those regions. Syria also offers the Soviets a pivotal location from which to involve itself in other parts of the Middle East, such as the Persian Gulf.
The air-defense network in Syria is linked electronically to stations in the U.S.S.R. and to Soviet ships in the Mediterranean Sea, making Syria an integral part of the Soviet security apparatus. The Soviets have "hands on" control of air activity based in Syria: according to a U.S. intelligence source quoted in The Los Angeles Times, "all of the radar data, missile readiness status, interceptor aircraft conditions - such as fuel and armaments - and other battle information that is fed into central command posts in Syria will also be displayed for Soviet generals in the Soviet Union via space relayed transmissions."
Terrorism. Finally, Syria serves as perhaps the most crucial link in the Soviet Union's global network of terrorism. Almost every significant group operating in the Middle East or West Europe has a connection to Syria, as do some groups from other regions as well. These connections are made either through the provision of training facilities or cooperation with Libya and Iran.
Lebanon serves as the international headquarters for terrorists, for this is one country where anything goes and no government need take responsibility. The Syrian government, which controls most of Lebanon, exploits this freedom to sponsor a variety of terrorist organizations which use training facilities in the Bekaa Valley. These include a large number of Palestinian groups, the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA), the Popular Front for the Liberation of Oman, the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Somalia, and the Eritrean Liberation Front.
Mehmet Ali Ağca, the Pope's assailant, testified at his trial in Rome that he and other members of the Grey Wolves, an extremist Turkish gang, received training in Latakia, Syria, where they were taught by Bulgarian and Czech experts. Most Iranian-backed fundamentalist Muslim terrorists - whose attacks take place anywhere between Copenhagen and Kuwait - work out of Lebanon.
A number of European terrorists, including members of the Baader-Meinhof gang and the Red Brigades, have spent time in Syrian-controlled Lebanese camps. Ağca has said that he trained alongside gangs from France, Italy, Germany, and Spain. Press accounts have repeatedly connected Syrian leaders with "Carlos," the phantom international terrorist. Further afield, such extremist groups as the Tamil United Liberation Front of Sri Lanka and the Moro National Liberation Front of the Philippines have received training and aid from Syria.
To extend his reach, Asad often coordinates with Libya or Iran or both. The two states have license to make mischief in Lebanon, and both sponsor organizations with Damascus. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, headed by Ahmad Jibril, receives support from Syria and Libya. ASALA and the Abu Nidal gang appear to receive help from all participants of this anti-American triad.
Little terrorism takes place in the Middle East without some connection to Damascus; and almost all of it serves Soviet ends. For all these reasons, the Department of Defense was right to conclude that "the Syrian-Soviet relationship remains the centerpiece of Soviet Middle East policy," and Defense Secretary Weinberger was right to call Syria "just another outpost of the Soviet Union."
Hostility Toward the United States
The Syrian government stakes out an ideological position toward the United States that very closely matches the Soviet line. According to Damascus, the U.S. pursues a "general strategy of world imperialism" in a "colonialist" effort to control economic resources. Its goal in the Middle East is to set up military bases for two reasons: to "tighten" control over the oil regions and to threaten the Soviet Union.
Syrian media discern an American hand behind many of the region's troubles. According to them, Washington "sent the U.S. war machine to kill Palestinians and Lebanese citizens. It undertook a fascist military adventure against the Iranian revolution and then instigated Saddam's regime [in Iraq] to wage a war on its behalf against the Iranian revolution." President Asad reminds Syrians that the goal of all this is "to occupy our territory and exploit our masses," rendering the Arabs nothing but "puppets" and "slaves."
It is crucial to note that the United States is seen to have its own goals in the Middle East-"imperialist hegemony over the Arab homeland" and support of Israel is regarded not as a cause of this but a consequence. Israel, indeed, has no real autonomy; the U.S. can order Israel to do its bidding. Syria's prime minister says that "Israel is a U.S. base," Asad calls it an American "tool", and the newspaper Tishrin terms it the "big stick" of the United States. Israel's expansionism serves to soften up the Arabs, to discourage them, and render them ready to capitulate to American wishes. "It has become obvious," the same Syrian daily concludes, "that the Zionist entity implements aggressive and expansionist action in the region only after total agreement with the U.S. administration." In Syrian parlance, Zionism is but a symptom of imperialism, and they are but "two sides of one coin." In the final analysis, Israel threatens because of its links to the U.S. Were the American influence in the Middle East eliminated, the Israeli challenge would be greatly reduced, if not ended.
Ironically, Syrian leaders understand Israel's value to the United States better than do many Americans. Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister 'Abd al-Halim Khaddam explains: "There is a deep and organic link between the United States and Israel. We are under no illusions about this. The link is not due to the 'Zionist lobby' in the United States but to the fact that it is the only friend of the United States in the area and because it represents a major base for protecting U.S. interests." True, this formula is sometimes turned around when Syrian leaders hope to affect American policy; then they speak of a conspiracy carried out by "world Zionism." But there is no argument from Syria, as, say, from Saudi Arabia, that the U.S. is backing the wrong side in the Middle East.
Syrian leaders sharply disagree with those who see the main Arab problem as Zionism, which they see as no more than a screen for American intentions. "No matter how skillful Washington is in maneuvering and applying pressures, it will not succeed in convincing the Arabs that Israel [instead of the U.S.] is the one which occupies Arab territories." After the 1982 conflict in Lebanon, the Syrian prime minister stressed that "the war was not merely between Syria and Israel, but between Syria and those behind Israel." The U.S., not Israel, is the "essence of evil," and Syrian leaders imply that an agreement between them and Israel is ultimately impossible not because of dispute over the Palestinians or other local issues but because of Israel's role as an agent for the United States. Enmity toward the United States drives the animosity with Israel more than the other way around. Of course, all this precisely fits the Soviet agenda.
In the view of the Syrian rulers, Israel is by no means the only American lackey in the Middle East. When the Muslim Brethren revolted in 1980, American agents were blamed: "The weapons are Israeli, the ammunition from Sadat, the training is Jordanian, and the moral support is from other parties well known for their loyalty to imperialism." More recently, the Syrians identified a "reactionary axis" of Arabs working for the U.S. - 'Arafat, Jordan, Egypt, and Iraq. To these are sometimes added Somalia, Sudan and Oman.
The language against these purported clients can become wildly abusive, resembling Mu'ammar al-Qadhdhafi's. A radio commentary of January 1981 accused "the gang of CIA agents in Amman" - meaning the Jordanian monarchy - of foisting on Jordanian citizens "the cud of all the byproducts of the Zionist and imperialist psychological war machine." When Sadat was killed, Syrian radio broadcast a speech celebrating this event and calling for the death of other Arab traitors, including King Husayn of Jordan and Saddam Husayn of Iraq.
Even though Israel and some Arab governments are both seen to be working for the U.S., a basic difference separates them. Because their state was created for imperialistic purposes, Israelis as a people are irredeemably pro-American. In contrast, the Arab masses are spontaneously pro-Soviet. What are called "puppet and collaborating" regimes can force the latter to turn toward the United States, but this is an aberration. Accordingly, Syrian rulers always profess friendship for Arab peoples even while reviling their leaders; in contrast, they condemn the Israeli people as well as their government.
The Asad government, having rejected Camp David, faces Washington's anger. The newspaper Tishrin argues that
the United States is directing all its psychological, economic, political, and diplomatic resources for war against Syria, using all its agents, hirelings, lackeys, and mercenaries.... The United States believes - and it has the right to do so - that the elimination of Syrian steadfastness against imperialism and Zionism and their plots of dragging the region to the colonialist camp, means the collapse of Arab steadfastness.
The U.S. confronts Syria with a stark choice: accept Camp David, the symbol of defeatism in Syrian rhetoric, or the U.S. will "topple the Syrian regime and replace it with a fascist one."
More broadly, the Arabs face a choice: either "submit to a hostile United States or choose a strategic alliance with the friendly Soviet Union." Syrian rhetoric discounts the possibility that the Arabs can stand up to the "U.S. onslaught" alone. But "feverish and venomous" efforts against the Arabs will fail so long as Syria, backed by the Soviet Union, resists them. Syrian rulers present themselves as the vanguard of a "struggle against U.S. domination of the Middle East," and welcome the special American enmity that this entails.
Although the Asad regime derives its position toward the United States from positions generated in Moscow, it is considerably more strident. Thus, the foreign minister calls the United States an "enemy like Israel" and Asad is quoted as saying that "the United States is the primary enemy."
Syrian rulers explicitly threaten the United States from time to time, as when a newspaper editorial called on the Arabs "to strike at every type of U.S. interest, to behead the snake." More significantly, the prime minister asserted in 1980, "If I were able to strike at Washington I would do so." These threats are not idle. There have been repeated attacks against American soldiers and diplomats, perhaps most spectacular being the Katyusha artillery rocket barrage in May 1983 on Secretary of State Shultz as he spent the night in the U.S. Ambassador's residence in Beirut. This incident may have been the first time a Soviet ally has aimed its guns on an American secretary of state.
A leading Syrian politician observed in 1980 that "the United States is the United States whether Carter goes or Reagan comes," while another commentary noted that "the departure of one person [as president of the U.S.] and the arrival of another will make no difference." In short, the Syrian leadership contends that its conflict with the United States results from structural reasons and will continue for many years - which is, again, the Soviet viewpoint.
Aggression against Neighbors
The Syrian government's alignment with the Soviet Union is reflected not just in its policy vis-à-vis the Great Powers but in its behavior toward neighboring countries.
Expansionist states around the world look to the U.S.S.R. for support of aggression against their neighbors. Just as the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, so Vietnam attacked Cambodia, Libya attacked Chad, Nicaragua attacked El Salvador, and North Korea has designs on South Korea-and Damascus, conforming to this pattern in spades, has hostile relations with all five of its neighbors and also aims to dominate the PLO. With regard to four of those neighbors - Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey - its ambitions fit in well with Soviet policies.
The Syrian intent of "liquidating the Zionist presence" has great value to Moscow. If Asad did not keep the Arab conflict with Israel alive militarily, this might turn into a diplomatic dispute; and then the Soviet role in the Middle East would greatly diminish, for the U.S.S.R. has little to offer besides arms. Moscow relies on Syrian intransigence toward Israel to maintain its place in Middle East politics.
And the Syrian government is intransigent, rejecting any accommodation of Israel's existence, either by its own citizens or other Arabs. "The most hostile" of Israel's neighbors (according to Israel's Defense Minister Yitzhak Rabin), Syria led the opposition to Egypt's peace treaty with Israel in 1979 and worked against Jordanian acceptance of the 1982 Reagan Plan. It forced the Lebanese government to abrogate the May 1983 agreement with Israel and split the PLO when 'Arafat showed interest in negotiations in early 1983.
Asad defines his goal as "strategic parity" with Israel, so that Syria can take Israel on in a one-on-one confrontation. Toward this end, he has increased the regular army from fewer than 300,000 troops in mid-1982 to 500,000 in 1986, and the number of divisions from six to nine. While this ambition is deadly serious, there is another, and usually overlooked, purpose to the Syrian military buildup. Attaining parity with Israel, the strongest state in the region, translates into decisive power over Jordan and the other Arab states, as well as the PLO.
As Secretary of State Shultz noted in 1985 Congressional testimony, "Syria holds major quantitative advantages over Jordan in personnel (5 to 1), tanks (4 to 1), armored personnel carriers (2.5 to 1), artillery (4 to 1), and combat aircraft (5 to 1)." Asad uses this strength to intimidate the Jordanian government. Syrian troops are deployed along the Jordanian border in times of crisis and sometimes sent into action. In December 1980, Syrian jets attacked locations in central Jordan with impunity. At other times, Asad provided aid to anti-government elements within Jordan, for example encouraging a group of officers in July 1985 to stage a coup d'état.
Asad has succeeded in extending Syria's control to most of the territory of Lebanon. This process began in the early 1970s and received a boost with the outbreak of Lebanon's civil war in 1975. In June 1976, Syrian forces entered Lebanon, establishing control over most of the country. Damascus is presently attempting to bring the remaining portions of Lebanon under its dominion.
Notwithstanding its initial opposition to Syrian expansion into Lebanon, the Soviet Union gains from it in several ways. First, this opens Lebanon to Soviet encroachment; delegations of up to a dozen Soviet military officers have been sighted as far as Shuwayr, just 16 miles from Beirut. Second, as has been noted, a wide range of pro-Soviet terrorist groups receive training in the regions under Syrian control, especially the Bekaa Valley. Finally, Damascus supports a coalition of pro-Soviet forces gaining power in Lebanon.
With respect to Syria's northern neighbor, Turkey, Damascus makes trouble in a number of small ways. It encourages agitation in Hatay, a province of Turkey that borders on Syria and is shown on official Syrian maps as part of Syria. The government also lays claim to other parts of Turkey. In 1980, the foreign minister, 'Abd al-Halim Khaddam, reminded the Turks that 54,000 square miles - an area larger than England - had been "usurped" by Turkey from Syria. Syria disputes Turkey's right to control its river waters. Damascus supports the terrorist Grey Wolves and ASALA, an organization that guns down Turkish diplomats around the world. All these activities threatening Turkish security are clearly welcome to the leaders of the Warsaw Pact.
By contrast, Syrian hostility toward the PLO and Iraq - which complicates diplomacy and weakens the anti-American front - must surely annoy the Soviet leaders. But even here, Syrian aggressiveness brings benefits. 'Arafat might act more flexibly on the question of recognizing Israel (and thereby enter negotiations with the U.S.) if he did not have Asad insisting otherwise. When Damascus calls 'Arafat a "deviationist" and "a U.S. tool" for even considering negotiations with Israel, this reinforces parallel Soviet pressures. So does the accusation that 'Arafat has fallen into "a swamp of treason [and] capitulation" and adopted "conspiratorial methods against the Palestine question." As for recent joint PLO-Jordanian diplomacy, when President Hafiz al-Asad called Yasir 'Arafat and King Husayn "the staunchest agents of imperialism and Zionism" his declaration exactly fit Soviet purposes. Tensions with Iraq provide the U.S.S.R. with an additional source of leverage over this wayward ally.
Just as the democracies are the only true, long-term allies of the United States, so the Soviet Union develops its deepest ties with totalitarian governments. That the Asad years have witnessed a turn away from authoritarianism (government control of politics) and toward totalitarianism (government control of everything) is apparent from changes that have occurred in the economic, social, and cultural realms. Although the Syrian government yet lacks the all-encompassing institutions of state control of the U.S.S.R., the trend is clearly in that direction.
The Syrian economy has come increasingly under bureaucratic jurisdiction. In agriculture, the government has reduced the proportion of private farms from 82 percent in 1972 to 66 percent in 1982, while increasing the proportion of state-controlled cooperatives. In manufacturing, the state owns all of what are called "strategic industries." Besides the obvious ones, this also includes such enterprises as sugar refining and wool spinning. Attendant on this has been a Soviet-style inefficiency, drop in quality, and mis-distribution of goods.
Asad gains direct influence over many Syrians by having them work for him. Civilian employment by the government rose from 12 percent of total employment in 1973 to 22 percent in 1983. Growth in military employment has been even more dramatic, rising from 6 percent of adult males in 1968 to 15 percent in 1982.
As in most Soviet-bloc countries, Syria's leaders devote an extraordinary proportion of their country's resources to military strength. According to highly-placed officials, the Syrian government earmarked 60 percent of its budget in 1980 for military expenditures, 70 percent in 1981, and 60 percent in 1986. Outside sources estimate this to be 30 percent of the country's GNP. Such expenditures give the Syrian military a prominence that matches its Soviet counterpart. Its activities permeate the country's life. The military, for example, freely requisitions land and material resources, interferes in private life via the intelligence services, takes up large portions of the school day for pre-military training, and owns one-third of the motor vehicles in Syria. When added to the "strategic industries" and the vast resources devoted to military power, the picture emerges of a society dominated by Soviet-style militarism.
To offset its economic burden, the Syrian government receives a large percentage of Soviet bloc economic aid, with the U.S.S.R. providing about half and the states of East Europe the other half. This money mostly goes for infrastructure projects such as railroads, ports, dams, land reclamation, and oil refineries. It is spent in such a way as to assure Soviet-style control of the economy as well as dependence on Soviet parts and technicians. Over 1,000 Soviet economic advisors work in Syria. Unofficial estimates place the military debt to the U.S.S.R. at $14 billion.
Soviet-style media have emerged in Asad's Syria. Soviet movies and television - which never attract an audience if an alternative is available - play frequently in Syria. In its official pronouncements, Damascus uses boilerplate leftist language with the numbing regularity of all Soviet-bloc regimes. According to the World Press Encyclopedia, Syrian media, "like the nation, speaks with one voice,... a de facto state-mobilized press exists." The same reference work points out that the two leading papers, Ath-Thawra and Al-Ba'th, published respectively by the Ministry of Information and the Ba'th Party, serve as the Izvestia and Pravda of Syria.
Foreign journalists find that, as in the Soviet bloc, citizens are scared to talk to them about politics. But the Syrian regime has gone farther than the Soviet prototype in that it forbids Western journalists to take up residence in Syria. This means that they are prevented from cultivating personal contacts, and must rely almost entirely on official sources. Following Soviet practice, even the most innocuous military information is deemed a state secret.
The similarities to the Soviet Union do not end with this, however, but extend to the repression of citizens. Like all Soviet-bloc regimes, Syria disregards the rule of law, controls speech, persecutes religion, and engages in torture. Reports of brutality are numerous. One day after an attempt on Hafiz al-Asad's life in July 1980, 600 to 1,000 political prisoners held in a jail in Palmyra were massacred. According to an eye witness, the prisoners were lined up against walls and machine-gunned until all were killed; in reward each of the soldiers was given 100 Syrian pounds.
The regime's violence has been greatest in the city of Hama, which was three times the scene of massacres - in April 1980, April 1981, and February 1982. The last occasion was the largest-scale killing of civilians in the Middle East in many years; 12,000 troops attacked opposition strongholds with field artillery, tanks, and air force helicopters, killing about 24,000 citizens. In addition, 6,000 soldiers lost their lives and most of the 10,000 inhabitants of Hama who were jailed then disappeared. In all, one-tenth of Hama's population died.
Amnesty International's report on Syria in 1983 stated:
Syrian security forces have practiced systematic violations of human rights, including torture and political killings, and have been operating with impunity under the country's emergency laws. There is overwhelming evidence that thousands of Syrians not involved in violence have been harassed and wrongfully detained without chance of appeal and in some cases have been tortured; others are reported to have 'disappeared' or to have been the victims of extrajudicial killings carried out by the security forces.
The Department of State concurs. Its annual review of human rights practices regularly points to Syrian government offenses. It stated in 1983 that "activities which the regime considers to be a threat to its security can lead to detention without charge, severe prison sentences, mistreatment, torture, or execution." The authorities "pursued dissident elements, carried out cordon-and-search operations without judicial safeguards against invasion of the home, carried out arrests, in many cases causing persons to 'disappear,' and engaged in torture and other brutal practices." More recently, the State Department has noted that "while the more public forms of repression have diminished in the past 3 years, there have been no indications of a trend toward a more open political system or greater respect for the integrity of the person." Stalin's methods, in other words, have been replaced by Brezhnev's.
Although the Syrian government denies these accusations, it publicly celebrates brutality. For example, in October 1983 (according to a report in The Jerusalem Post), Syrian television showed
16-year-old girls - trainees in the Syrian Ba'ath Party militia - fondling live snakes as President Hafez Assad and other Syrian leaders looked on approvingly. Martial music reached a crescendo as the girls suddenly bit the snakes with their teeth, repeatedly tore off flesh and spat it out as blood ran down their chins. As the leaders applauded, the girls then attached the snakes to sticks and grilled them over the fire, eating them triumphantly.
After this, militiamen "strangled puppies and drank their blood." Such demonstrations are clearly intended to send a message to the regime's domestic opponents.
These internal developments are not in of themselves unusual in the Middle East, nor do they require close ties to the Soviet Union. But when combined with close relations with the U.S.S.R., hostility to the U.S., and aggression toward neighbors, they contribute in an important way to the regime's overall Soviet orientation.
"Helping American Hostages: A Special Case
There is a prominent anomaly in Hafiz al-Asad's pattern of alignment with the Soviet Union: the Syrian government has repeatedly helped return American hostages - or their remains - from the Middle East. On five separate occasions since 1983, Asad has gone out of his way to make this gesture. The acting president of the American University of Beirut, David S. Dodge, was released from a year's captivity with Syrian assistance. Syrian forces shot down U.S. Navy pilot Lieut. Robert O. Goodman over Lebanon on 4 December 1983 and released him a month later. Jeremy Levin, a correspondent for CNN, escaped his Lebanese captors by fleeing to Syrian-controlled territory, from where he was returned to the U.S. During the hijacking of a TWA airline in June 1985, the Syrian government positioned itself as an intermediary between the United States and the Shi'i radicals. When the body of Leon Klinghoffer, the invalid killed on the Achille Lauro, washed up on the Syrian coast, it was immediately turned over to American authorities. In addition Damascus has offered to help win the freedom of American hostages held in Lebanon.
While Asad has undeniably been helpful, three considerations diminish the political significance of his acts. First, in many of these cases the regime played a double game. David Dodge was abducted with Syrian complicity, for how else could he have been taken from Beirut to Iran? In the effort to win release of the TWA passengers, Asad stressed his agreement with the hostage-holders' goals ("We stand with them firmly, and they admit our support is basic"), but appealed for the release of the hostages on tactical guards; holding the Americans was counterproductive because it might provoke the United States to a major strike in Lebanon. In the Jeremy Levin case, Damascus first said that it had won Levin's release through negotiations, only to retract this claim later when the falsehood became evident.
Second, these acts are transparent attempts to improve Asad's image. The White House had to issue a statement that the U.S. was "grateful" to Hafiz al-Asad and his brother for their "humanitarian" efforts on David Dodge's behalf. Lieutenant Goodman was delivered to the Reverend Jesse Jackson, a presidential candidate at the time and a leading critic of the U.S. policy of confronting Syria. By getting involved in a U.S. political campaign, Asad garnered enormous favorable publicity. Though the Syrian government lied about its role in Jeremy Levine's escape, President Reagan nevertheless called Asad to express his gratitude and a State Department spokesman thanked Damascus for its "positive role" in this affair. Syrian help with the TWA hijacking won it exclusion from President Reagan's listing of states that sponsor terrorism; as a ranking White House aide explained, "Obviously you don't return a favor with harsh language."
These efforts have had a wide effect: many Americans view the Syrian regime as one not unfriendly to the United States and very few associate it with terrorism. According to a New York Times/CBS News poll taken in February 1986, whereas 29 percent of Americans associate Libya with state-sponsored terrorism, a mere 3 percent mentioned Syria in this connection.
Third, the promise to help release the American hostages in Lebanon effectively prevents the United States from confronting Syria. David Dodge was freed just when Washington was most angry about Syrian rejection of the U.S.-arranged accord between Israel and Lebanon. Asad released Lieutenant Goodman to prevent further Navy attacks on his positions. Damascus placed itself an intermediary between the United States and the Shi'i radicals who held the TWA airliner in order to prevent an American attack. The October 1986 conviction of Nizar al-Hindawi in London for attempting to bomb an El Al plane led to the immediate release of an American, David Jacobsen, from Lebanon.
Syrian intermediation is taken so seriously that such high-ranking officials as Vernon Walters, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, have gone to Damascus to discuss the hostages with President Asad. Whispered promises of help from Asad undercut any possibility of U.S. sanctions against Syria. (This partially explains why the Libyan role in the Rome and Vienna airport massacres was played up, while the Syrian role was ignored.)
Though certainly welcome in a small way, the help Asad provides must be seen for what it is; a public-relations gesture which at no cost to himself aims to confuse American public opinion about the true relations of the two states and undercuts strong measures by the U.S. government. This minor matter should not obscure perceptions of the damage Asad does to American objectives - no more than the release of Anatoly Shcharansky should alter one's understanding of Soviet goals.
U.S. Attitudes toward Syria
In the end, confusion about Syria's true position has less to do with hostages than with a habit of seeing it exclusively in terms of Middle East politics. Preoccupation with the Arab-Israeli conflict tends to obscure Syria's membership in the Soviet bloc. Once we extract Syria from the regional issues of the Middle East and viewing it through the prism of international relations, two points become clear.
First, the Syrian government is a full-fledged ally of the U.S.S.R. The relationship between these two countries is not a marriage of convenience but a close alignment. It results not from transitory considerations but is based on a wide-ranging and long-term reciprocity of interests. Syrian foreign policy agrees on all essential matters with Moscow's, while its domestic life increasingly resembles the Soviet prototype. True, the rulers of Syria are not Communists, but this hardly diminishes Syria's nexus of their relations with Moscow. Indeed, the voluntary quality makes this alliance with Moscow all the more dangerous, for it indicates that Syrian rulers profit from the relationship and sustain it out of self-interest, not compulsion.
Earlier efforts to balance relations with the Great Powers ended completely in 1982; since then, Syria's position vis-à-vis the Soviet Union increasingly resembles that of Cuba, Nicaragua, or Vietnam; it is becoming a functional member of the Soviet bloc. The plain truth is that Syria is the leading Soviet ally and the outstanding U.S. enemy in the Middle East. It deserves to be acknowledged as such, and the knowledge deserves to be acted upon.
Second, seeing Syria as a Soviet ally reveals that the opinions Americans hold on Syria, usually deemed pro-Arab or pro-Israel, are actually better seen as liberal and conservative positions. The liberal viewpoint translates into a policy of conciliating the Syrian government, the conservative view implies an anti-Syrian policy.
Four main assumptions guide liberal policy: that the U.S.S.R., its clients, and its allies are status-quo oriented; that these governments seek good relations with the West; that the West shares responsibility with them for existing international problems; and that concessions by the West are the key to an improvement in relations. The key characteristic of the liberal approach is a tendency to blame the West and a willingness to give the Soviet bloc the benefit of the doubt.
Applied to Syria, this approach translates into a belief that Hafiz al-Asad seeks good relations with the United States but is prevented from achieving them by American actions. Typical is the view expressed by an unidentified diplomat to The Christian Science Monitor: "The Syrians would like to get out of their marriage to the Soviets." If only the U.S. would pressure its allies - Israel especially, also Jordan and the pro-Western Lebanese - into making concessions to Syria, relations would improve; failing this, Damascus turns to the U.S.S.R. But its ties to the Soviet Union will remain strong only so long as the United States ignores Syrian needs. As with Cuba, Angola, and other Soviet-backed states, Syria can be detached from the Soviet connection and the U.S. should do this by satisfying its grievances, for example by pressuring Israel to return the Golan Heights or extending trade credits. In brief, Syria receives about the same portion of liberal good will as does Nicaragua.
Conservatives disagree with all four of the liberals' premises and therefore reach an opposite conclusion. They hold that Soviet-bloc governments are by their nature must be hostile to the West and must be aggressive. They believe that the Soviet bloc is alone to blame for tensions and that Western assertiveness, not accommodation, improves relations.
With reference to Syria, the conservative approach holds that the Syrian government has close and lasting ties to Moscow and conversely, that the animosity to the United states runs deep. It assumes that Syrian expansionism is endemic and can only be stopped by supporting Syrian's enemies. Wooing Syria from the U.S.S.R. is next to impossible, for Asad has a wide range of needs - everything from internal security to advanced missiles - that only the Soviets will provide. Therefore, favors are pointless; to the contrary, the United States should seek to contain and isolate Damascus. This can be done by supporting American allies in the region, especially Turkey and Israel. The U.S. should consider exacerbating Syrian problems by working with the regime's enemies in Lebanon and inside Syria itself.
Although the pro-Syrian position is in effect a liberal viewpoint and the anti-Syrian position is conservative, the confusion that surrounds the Middle East leads many conservatives to adopt a liberal position and vice-versa.
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