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November 29, 2006

Syria: Completing the Axis of Evil Triad


The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 has achieved mixed results. Most obviously, on the one hand, it eliminated Saddam Hussein’s tyrannical regime, bringing him and his henchmen to justice or to the grave. It also led to the establishment of one of the Middle East’s rare democracies, and the subsequent trend of both negligible and significant democratic initiatives in Arab countries from Lebanon, to Egypt and even the Gulf states.


On the other hand, the invasion and the poorly executed effort to secure Iraq has gotten the United States and the United Kingdom stuck in an unstable country teetering on the brink of a civil war. The country’s power shift in the favor of Shiites has further caused problems, with Iran exhibiting a strong influence on its neighbor and the two main religious sects in Iraq struggling for the upper hand in the country’s politics.


Yet this struggle has paved the way for another important, yet overlooked, development – the initiation of Syria into the Axis of Evil. The liberation of Iraq left a gap in the axis that needed to be filled. With Hussein’s removal, someone had to take the reins as the Arab world’s most dangerous anti-American leader. Syrian leader Bashar Al-Assad has happily taken on that role, and has so far been quite effective.


What is most extraordinary about the Syrian problem is the inability of the United States to effectively take advantage of the fact that all four democratic nations in the Middle East are both American allies and conveniently border on Syria, almost completely surrounding it. Whether through diplomatic or economic pressure, or even with the use of military threat, the United States had the opportunity to turn the Arab world’s most dangerous state into a democracy, and by default an ally.


While a look at Iraq and Lebanon, Syria’s two democratic Arab neighbors, does suggest either a severe political crisis or a full-blown civil war waiting to happen, this situation should not lead to the conclusion that the democratic structures in the two countries were too weak to aid in U.S. pressure on the Syrian government. If anything, the deteriorating state of affairs in Iraq and Lebanon could very well be a demonstration that the West failed to deal with Syria effectively in the precious aftermath of the Iraq War and through the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon.


In what could have been the alternative scenario, the Syrian people would have looked to the successful elections to their east and the peaceful revolution to their west, and accordingly given their own democratic forces a boost. The added influence of other countries such as Egypt, Jordan and even Kuwait gradually liberalizing their governments would have turned more attention to Syria. Cut off from many of its former friends, the Syrian government could have very well cracked under enough U.S. pressure, not excluding military threats in the case of its continued refusal to cooperate in Iraq.


Alas, the exact opposite happened. The initial flow into Iraq of foreign terrorists and militants from Syria caused enough instability in the opening months of U.S. control in Iraq to open the gates to the hell that Iraq currently finds itself in. If more troops had been brought in to secure the border, or even better, if the coalition had dealt with the Syrians more tenaciously, the plausibility exists that Iraq would have been stable enough to play a supporting role against Syria.


Dealing with Syria in proportion to the threat it represented would have also proven beneficial in Lebanon, where the Syrian-backed Hezbollah first dragged the country in a painful conflict with Israel, only to subsequently launch a domestic political war with the democratically elected leadership, threatening the government’s survival. A related situation prevails in the Palestinian territories, where Syrian support for terrorism has again served as an obstacle to both Palestinian statehood and peace with Israel.


The Syrian government’s sponsorship of violent elements in the Middle East, in addition to its own terrorist actions (such as last week’s assassination of a prominent Lebanese Christian politician), create an even further concern when one takes into consideration the frightening reality that its actions are currently taking place largely in coordination with Iranian interests.


In light of the increasingly observable developments in the Sunni-Shiite divide in the Middle East, it is most ironic that the overwhelmingly Sunni Syria continues to be led by an Alawite establishment that is friendly to Iran. As the tension increases in coming years and decades, it is inevitable that change will occur in Syria, in some way and at some point.


One can only wonder how a regime change in Syria would impact the country’s alliance with Iran, as well as the Syrian interest in sowing discord in Iraq and sponsoring the Shiite Hezbollah in Lebanon. As the United States considers soliciting Syrian help to end the chaos in Iraq, it could not hurt to ponder how many birds would be killed with one stone thrown at the Syrian regime.


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This is Column # PI32. Request permission to publish here.