By Michael J. Totten
This week I had the pleasure of interviewing Professor Barry Rubin about his new book The Truth About Syria. The timing of the book’s publication, as well as this interview, could hardly be better.
MJT: Your new book is called The Truth About Syria. For those who haven’t yet read your book, tell us, what’s the truth about Syria? Give us the short version.
Rubin: To begin with, to understand Syria—like other regional forces—one must first examine the nature of the regime and its real interests. The way to do this is not to cite the latest interview or op-eds by Syrian leaders or propagandists in the Western media or what one of them told some naïve Western “useful idiot” who traveled to Damascus but rather to look at what the Syrian rulers say among themselves, what they do, how they structure the regime and perceive of their interests.
Syria is not a radical regime because it has been mistreated by the West or Israel but because the regime needs radicalism to survive. It is a minority dictatorship of a small non-Muslim minority and it offers neither freedoms nor material benefit. It needs demagoguery, the scapegoats of America and Israel, massive loot taken from Lebanon, an Iraq which is either destabilized or a satellite, and so on.
Take the simple issue of the Golan Heights. It is commonplace to say that Syria wants back the Golan Heights. But one need merely ask the simple question: what happens if Syria gets it back? If Syria’s regime made peace with Israel it has no excuse for having a big military, a dictatorship, and a terrible economy. The day after the deal the Syrian people will start demanding change. The regime knows that.
Or economic reform. Again, many in the West take it for granted that the regime wants to take steps to improve the economy. But it would prefer to keep a tight hold on the economy rather than open it up and face enriched Sunni Muslim Arabs who hate the regime both due to their class status and their religious community.
The list goes on. Yet few of these points figure into the debate over Syria where statements like “engagement,” “a common interest in Iraq,” “getting Syria away from Iran,” “the benefits of peace with Israel,” and the reasonableness of Bashar al-Asad get repeated like mantras.
While the Syrian regime poses as being desirous of peace and engagement with the West, in fact its institutions, ideology, propaganda, and activities go in the exact opposite direction. To survive, the minority-dominated, dictatorial, and economically incompetent government needs radicalism, control over Lebanon, regional instability, anti-Americanism, and using Israel as a scapegoat.
Syria is sponsoring a terror war against Iraqi civilians and American forces in Iraq; it is subverting Lebanon, not even stopping at killing the most popular political leaders there; playing the leading role in being the patron of radical Palestinian forces against Israel; promoting anti-Americanism; formulating the new “resistance” strategy which combines radical Arab nationalism and Islamism; being Iran’s main Arab ally; and even being the main Arab state sponsor of revolutionary Islamism.
MJT: The Assad regime, first under Hafez Assad and now under his son Bashar, has been using these tactics for literally decades. The Lebanese are the only people who seem to understand this in full. Why do you suppose the American and Israeli governments are having such a hard time? Is Assad smarter and craftier? Or do you suppose the US and Israel are a bit soft on Syria for public relations’ reasons, having no doubt about its hostility?
Rubin: I think it depends on who you are looking at specifically. Those with little experience of Syria—naïve journalists and politicians rather new to the issue, especially in the United States—simply don’t understand what is happening. What is most disturbing are the statements of former secretaries of state James Baker and Colin Powell, who have been stung by Syria but now seem to forget all the bad interactions and talk as if they had great success in managing Damascus. To hear both of them talk, they persuaded the Syrian regime to close terrorist offices during their tenure but those offices have always remained open. The next U.S. president might try to engage Syria and spend a year or so finding out that it doesn’t work.
Others are acting more from a sense of what I call public relations’ considerations. The Bush administration has made a lot of real mistakes, has also been unfairly criticized, and is under tremendous pressure. So now it wants to show how reasonable it is in giving diplomacy a chance. Perhaps they can succeed in getting Syria to ease up the pressure on Iraq stemming from its sponsorship of the insurgency. Of course, if the Syrians do so they will be acting to get unilateral concessions and to push the United States out faster in order to suit their own interests.
At the same time, though, it should be pointed out that the U.S. policy remains mostly tough, especially in terms of advancing the tribunal to investigate the Hariri killing. Generally speaking, the sanctions and the effort to isolate Syria remain in force.
But many academic experts, journalists, government officials, and intellectuals are being fooled by Syria’s propaganda. One can read several such articles or statements every day. And, of course, this has a feedback in Damascus, persuading the regime that the pressure against it will collapse, that it is in effect winning and does not need to change its policy. When I asked a very serious, non-American and non-partisan, student of Syria what he thought that country’s strategy is, he replied, “Waiting for the Democrats.”
Israel’s policy considerations are even more complex. The basic analysis is that Syria wants to negotiate, to take the heat off on other fronts, but not to reach an agreement. So there is a possibility that engaging Syria will achieve some goals even if it does not bring serious progress toward peace. These include a reduced possibility of Syria or Hizballah starting a war. In addition, Israel would be shown to be pursuing peace. And the government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, which is desperate for some sign of success as it is holding on with its fingernails, could claim an achievement.
MJT: Do you think the Syrians are behind the war of the camps raging in Lebanon now, or does this conflict match the timing of the UN tribunal coincidentally?
Rubin: I definitely think the Syrians are behind it. Let’s look at the facts:
Step 1: Syria wants to sponsor violence and terrorism in Lebanon to bring that country back under its control and intimidate the Lebanese from supporting an international tribunal to investigate and punish those responsible for murdering Lebanon’s most popular politician, former prime minister Rafiq Hariri and 22 bystanders on February 14, 2005. Since all the evidence points at Syria’s leaders as the murderers, killing the investigation is their highest priority. The timing of this uprising came at the very moment that the UN Security Council was voting to hold the tribunal
Step 2: Organize and order a shadowy group of terrorists, called Fatah al-Islam, to disrupt Lebanon.
Step 3: And this is the scheme’s most clever part, blame the terrorism on your victim, Lebanon’s own government, and your enemy, the United States. Get some gullible or ideologically inclined journalists to talk to Syrian officials, be fed this line, and then spread it throughout the world.
So how do we know that the uprising in the Palestinian camp of Nahr al-Bared in northern Lebanon, which killed well over 100 people and led the Lebanese army to shell the camp, was a Syrian operation?
Well, first, the group itself Fatah al-Islam, is merely part of an older group, Fatah al-Intifada which has been a Syrian front group for almost 25 years. That is a rather strong hint of whose these people are and from where their pay and arms come. But there is much more.
The leader of this group is a man by the name of Colonel Abu Khaled al-Amleh. And he lives and operates out of Damascus, Syria. The Syrians do not let terrorist groups function in the country unless the regime likes them and finds them useful. That is also a major piece of evidence. But we are just getting started.
The field commander of the group is a man named Shaker al-Absi. He has been working as a Syrian agent since 1983. In 2003, Absi joined the insurgency in Iraq against the Western forces there. Of course, Syria is the insurgency’s main sponsor. Hundreds of fighters cross the Syria-Iraq border, reportedly there is a special government bus that takes them to a good jumping-off point. This record reinforces the idea that Absi is working for Syria.
In Iraq, Absi worked with Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, the head of al-Qaida—Usama bin Ladin’s group—there. There is no inconsistency here. After all, when Syria helps the insurgency, most of the forces they assist are led by al-Qaida. While al-Qaida is by no means controlled by Syria, the radical duo has some common interests.
Mr. Absi was involved in the murder of a U.S. diplomat, Lawrence Foley, in Jordan on October 28, 2003. Naturally, the Jordanians wanted Syria to extradite him so he could be questioned and punished. Syria refused, clearly because its regime would not benefit from having Absi tell what he knew, especially about Syria’s own role in his activities. In 2004, Jordan sentenced Absi to death in absentia.
So instead of turning him over to Jordan, the Syrian authorities announced that they were going to punish Absi themselves. Accordingly, they claimed Absi was sentenced to three years imprisonment for his violent actions in their own country. Three years is a joke. Those terrorists who attack the Syrian regime are given a death sentence or very long sentences, though often they happen to die conveniently in a manner that used to be described as “trying to escape.”
And of course there is no evidence that Absi was ever in prison and certainly not for three years since only two years later he is back in business as a terrorist. For all we know during this period in between he was living very nicely and engaged in training himself and others.
On being “released,” in November 2005, Absi comes back to Syria and goes to Lebanon. Again, if the Syrian government thought he would do anything against their interests there he would not have been allowed to go so easily and conveniently. Immediately, Absi “split” his old group and began Fatah al-Islam. The ideology of the group, merging Arab nationalism and Islamism, is very much in line with Syria’s current political doctrine.
Within Lebanon today, independent and pro-government newspapers have run detailed articles about Absi, his Syrian credentials, and the motives of Damascus for bashing Lebanon. Since Hariri’s murder three years ago, there have been 15 major terrorist attacks, mostly aimed at assassinating critics of Syrian attempts to dominate Lebanon. There is a pattern here.
Meanwhile, Syrian officials have been briefing some Western journalists, who know no Arabic and have no serious background in studying the Middle East. They tell these people that Fatah al-Islam is a front for Lebanon’s government and even the United States. There is no evidence that this is true. What is telling is that the articles published use precisely the same phrases employed by Syrian officials about 48 hours earlier.
The situation in Lebanon is complicated. But the majority of Lebanese want their country to be independent. They suffered under 20 years of Syrian occupation which looted the country and repressed its people systematically. The moderate, democratic leadership needs and deserves Western support against a terrorist offensive directed by the neighboring dictatorship. It would be a pity to be fooled, by such transparent schemes as the Fatah al-Islam affair, into supporting the oppressors.
MJT: It looks like Fatah Al Islam is also connected with Al Qaida in some ways and, if not, that they are similar enough in ideology and method that it may not make any difference if they are formally aligned or not. What long or even medium term effects do you think this will have on Syria’s Lebanese allies? Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement can’t be happy about this and I doubt Hezbollah is either.
Rubin: An important point is that having links with both al-Qaida and Syria is by no means impossible. We know that there is a clear link between them. In my view, though, Fatah al-Islam is in reality a Syrian client with links to al-Qaida rather than the other way around.
You are right. Hizballah is not happy with this but remember the Syrians need to strengthen their links to Lebanese Sunni, which are very weak at present, and this does not impinge directly on Hizballah’s turf. Moreover, this is a small group and it is likely to prove of relatively temporary importance. I don’t think other Syrian allies will desert because of this.
Mr. Aoun seems to have cast his lot with the Syrians due to his ambition to be president and he has swallowed so much already I don’t think this is going to bother him. If anything will make him break with Syria it would be knowing that most of his past supporters have deserted him in disgust.
MJT: Assad is terrified of the UN tribunal. On the one hand it makes sense: a Chapter 7 resolution that abrogates Syrian sovereignty theoretically threatens his regime. Yet there is no appetite for any military action against Syria in either the US or Israel. If Assad refuses to cooperate with the tribunal and the UN, which he has promised to do, no one is likely to do anything to him. Rogue states defy the UN all the time without suffering consequences. Is he paranoid and over-reacting, or am I missing something here?
Rubin: What you say is partly true but does not seem to be the way they think in Damascus. Moreover, having your regime and some of its highest leaders—not to mention possibly even Bashar’s relatives—indicted for murder is a pretty serious matter, isn’t it? Syria could become a real pariah, and note that the Europeans seem to be on board for this so far. It would be a major humiliation. And they might well think that the United States would use this as a “pretext” for some very tough actions. They also cannot forget about France’s hostility toward them. And in such a hostile posture, they could forget about their ambitions toward Lebanon. He is right to be worried though the regime could find some consolation in the points you raise.
MJT: What do you suggest the US and France do at this point? The tribunal is important, but clearly not enough by itself. Syrian terrorism in Lebanon is only escalating — and severely at that — and it will take years before the tribunal renders its verdict. Syria may have Iraqified Lebanon by then and no one will care anymore about a single assassination from years ago. I don’t see anything short of at least threatening Assad with force as being effective, but I would love to be wrong. I don’t have any appetite for war with Syria either, and a post-Assad Syria really does look like a nightmare.
Rubin: It certainly is a tough situation, isn’t it? I believe that the West must give the strongest possible support to the Lebanese government, including diplomatic, material and if appropriate military aid supplies. I think it is extremely important that both the Lebanese government and Syria understand that the West backs Lebanon’s sovereignty and will put in sanctions and isolation in response to Syria’s subversion there. Obviously, these are very delicate and complex matters. But unless you have the basic confidence on the part of Lebanon’s government and fear or whatever you want to call it on the part of Syria’s nothing can be accomplished.
Obviously, military action by the West or United States against Syria is out of the question but Damascus must know that its behavior will cost it dearly. And that means no unilateral concessions, no negotiations’ process unless there is a change in Syria’s behavior regarding Lebanon, Iraq, and Israel, as well as its sponsorship of terrorism.
If Syria were to again order or inspire an attack on Israel, direct military retaliation would be a definite possibility. One might well argue that this is what should have happened in the summer of 2006 though this is a debate which should be carried out fully.
But I call the approach I favour tough diplomacy and it is the true form of Realism in international affairs. It is also called deterrence. There are lots of options between war and appeasement. This requires patience and steadfastness.
Yet it is surprising—and it would be amusing if it were not so tragic—that many cannot see any option other than engagement—which the regime views as a surrender and thus a reason to be more aggressive—and armed attack. This problem is part of the current intellectual poverty when discussing international affairs.
It would be nice if the Assad regime were to collapse and be replaced by a more moderate regime. We know, however, that first the regime is not about to collapse and second a replacement might well be Islamist or, at best, another Ba’thist regime with a simple change in the names of its leaders.
But this difficult situation must be the starting point of any discussion of policy toward Syria. What is worst is what often happens: the regime gets away with everything it does, teaching it contempt for a West which can be either frightened or fooled so easily.
MJT: Some foreign policy hands hope they can “flip” Syria from its alliance with Iran. Do you think this is possible in the long term if not in the short term?
Rubin: This is absurd and I discuss it at length in my new book, The Truth About Syria. Briefly, Iran supplies Syria with a strategic ally and protector, a lot of money, an Islamist and Islamic cover, and much more. The two countries may not have identical interests but they are close: making Iraq into a member of their alliance; dominating Lebanon; driving out U.S. and Western influence; destroying Israel; backing Hizballah and Hamas; and so on. What can the West possibly offer Syria to replace that? High-tech military weapons? Lebanon and Iraq as satellites? To discuss the issues is to show how ridiculous the idea of splitting the alliance is in practice.
MJT: Anything else to add?
Rubin: Lots! That’s what happens when you write a book on a subject. There are lots of surrealistic elements to this story. In a sense, Syria’s strategy—and those who fall for it—has a lot of humor. The basic line is: Do what we want or we will kill you. Yet at the same time they hold out the bait of great progress if only their demands are met. They play the West at times like a master fisherman reeling in his victim. Yet at other times the regime is incredibly inept and mafia-like. It is such a fascinating story.
How does a basically atheistic regime run by non-Muslims reinvent itself as Islamist? How does a government which has failed so badly for almost forty years maintain support through demagoguery and a structure copied from the USSR? And then there are the amazing parallels to the “Godfather” films. No fictional writer would dare make up the story of the Assads and their regime.
The Truth About Syria, By Barry Rubin, Palgrave-Macmillan, 2007
Click here for more information.
Barry Rubin is the director of the Global Research for International Affairs Center of the Interdisciplinary Center in Hertzliya, Israel. He is the author of 16 books, including The Truth About Syria, and is the editor of Middle East Review of International Affairs.
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