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David Miller Online: Bush’s Syrian Dilemma

David Miller Online

Bush’s Syrian Dilemma

Less than a week after his armies stormed into Baghdad, George W. Bush has turned his sights towards Syria. Not only has he issued warnings that Damascus must co-operate with Washington in preventing members of the Saddam regime from finding refuge there he has now indicated that he believes Syria is developing weapons of mass destruction. There is certainly an element of familiarity in this case as the Bush Administration has either developed a fixation with these weapons or it has become such a useful accusation to have when taking aim at another regime. Whatever the reason, Syria is now in the US firing line.

As usual, the President has left all the tough talking to Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, whom since September 11 has constantly appeared in the media threatening and then explaining a range of US military actions from counter terrorist operations in Afghanistan through to the entering of Baghdad. Mr. Rumsfeld is one of the leading hawks in the Bush Administration and although he has not stated what the US’ response to Syria would be should Saddam surface there, he has made it clear that Damascus would be making a grave error in judgement if it allows that to happen. In other words, “We have overthrown one regime and there is nothing stopping us doing it elsewhere”.

Despite their commitment to the Coalition at the time it liberated Kuwait in 1991, Syria has had an uneasy and often hostile relationship with the United States. Syria remains one of the countries on the State Departments list of terrorist sponsors and President Bashar al-Assad has made it clear that his allegiance in this conflict was with Saddam in spite of their own rivalry and difficulties and his government has called on the Iraqi’s to defeat the American and British forces. The US had accused Syria of allowing military aid to pass into Iraq during the war and if this was the case then Syria may have also acted as a conduit for the supply of Russian equipment.

The fall of Saddam Hussein has not only left a power vacuum inside Iraq but also within the Middle East as a whole. Middle Eastern politics and inter-state relations are fraught with difficulty and tension at the best of times and it was no secret that countries such as Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iran and the Gulf states thought little of Saddam. However, these relationships did form a regional balance of power that Washington has used to its advantage in different ways and at different times since the end of the Second World War to further its interests. This is not an excuse to have left Saddam in power but what it has done is create a hole within this regional system and has drawn the United States much deeper into regional affairs than it would have otherwise gone. Although many of the Middle Eastern states have no love for each other, they have demonstrated a willingness to offer their support for each other when it comes to dealing with the United States and its commitment to the region and there has been evidence of that throughout the last twelve years since the liberation of Kuwait.

The American’s public warning to Syria is ill timed. If it was discovered that Damascus was harbouring Iraqi exiles and even developing chemical weapons then the Bush Administration would have been better served to have engaged in bi-lateral dialogue with the Syrians in which they could have spelt out the consequences of such action and tried to gain Syrian co-operation through that method. The Syrians can offer the US support and the co-operation it needs in its War on Terrorism that is still ongoing even though Iraq is dominating the media headlines as they have ties to militant groups such as Hizbollah and other organisations operating in the region. The best policy for Washington would have been to try and secure an ally rather than placing another regime on notice that if it fails to co-operate then it will face the consequences. Given Syria’s position in relation to Iraq, Iran and the wider region, the best policy would have been to engage the Syrians with a diplomatic solution rather than let Mr. Rumsfeld loose issuing warnings.

With the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq still continuing along with questions still lingering over North Korea and Osama bin Laden, the United States will not stretch its resources by attacking Syria. It is unlikely that Britain or the American people would support such action as they have done in overthrowing Saddam. Nevertheless the stridency and rash behaviour of the Bush Administration has added another serious player into the picture and one that is now ill disposed towards Washington. Although it is unlikely that the US will follow through with any threat of retaliation one should not rule out any possibility in light of the past few weeks.

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