SYRIA'S President Hafez al- Assad is on the move again. With Lebanon firmly in his sphere of power, Mr. Assad has turned his attention toward Iraq.
A late-March report in the Lebanese daily An Nahar revealed that Iraqi technicians have visited Damascus for discussions concerning the opening of an important oil pipeline that runs 650 miles from Kirkuk in Iraqi Kurdistan to the Syrian port of Baniyas and has been closed since 1982. Furthermore, trade between the two countries has resumed, beginning last December with an Iraqi shipment of petrochemicals worth $15 million. These developments are the first steps in a long process by which Assad aims to b uild on his Gulf-war gains and influence events in neighboring Iraq.
Saddam Hussein's vulnerability provides his Syrian counterpart with more room for maneuver in the region. While in one sense the Syrian regime was dismayed at the way the allied coalition walked through the Iraqi Army, in another sense it rejoiced at the destruction of its most dangerous Arab competitor. Syrian anxiety about its eastern flank has been eased significantly.
The destruction of Iraq's offensive military capabilities and Saddam's uncertain political position have thrown open the door for Assad to pressure the Iraqi regime. Unable to introduce 40,000 troops into Iraq as he did with Lebanon, the Iraqi plan calls for Assad to use more subtle measures. His latest move might reflect an effort to exploit Iraq's desperate economic situation by providing an economic opening, and thereby establish and expand political clout.
Although United States policy dictates that maximum pressure be applied on Iraq from all quarters, increased Syrian leverage along the Tigris and Euphrates presents serious problems for US interests in the long run. While Assad has been careful not to cause displeasure in Washington, long-term US strategy based on a "moderated" Syrian regime would be a grave error. Recent history suggests that Assad is not a solid investment when it comes to Middle East stability.
There are compelling reasons to believe that Syria's recent shift to the West is tactical, not strategic. Assad has a history of reversing policy quickly when his interests so dictate. The current opening to Iraq, based on ulterior motives, is but one example of this tendency. In 1976, Assad entered Lebanon on behalf of that country's Christian minority, but in October 1990 with Lebanon under his control, Assad massacred his former allies. In the intervening years, Assad supported almost every different faction vying for Lebanon. Once toeing the US line no longer serves his interests, Assad will ignore that line.
A CONTINUALLY overlooked fact, and more striking than Assad's capricious tendencies, was Syria's limited participation in the allied coalition against Iraq in Desert Storm. Allied air forces were not allowed to traverse Syrian airspace, and during the runup to the allied invasion, Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa emphasized that Syrian forces would "under no circumstances ... enter Iraq or participate in an offensive against Iraq."
Assad himself declared "any harm that befalls Iraq will in the end harm Syria and the Arab nation in one way or another." No doubt trying to improve his pan-Arabist credentials, Assad was also sending a message to the Iraqis, especially the Iraqi military, that Syria's quarrel was with with Saddam not Iraq.
Increased influence in a post-Saddam Iraq will place Assad in a better position to play Persian Gulf politics. He laid the foundation with a recent and unusual visit to the Gulf states. Assad strikes fear into the hearts of Gulf leaders, who view him with suspicion because of his support for Iran in its struggle with Iraq in the 1980s. This distrust continued even after the Gulf war, when the Gulf Cooperation Council abrogated the Damascus Declaration shortly after it was signed in March 1991. The Emirat es' unease was based on a provision for a permanent contingent of Syrian and Egyptian troops as part of a collective security arrangement for the Gulf.
One year after the Gulf war, Syria is continuing to build on its political and public-relations gains. Warmer relations with Washington have allowed Assad to act with virtual impunity in dominating Lebanon, acquiring ballistic missiles, modernizing the Syrian military, as well as affecting the tone of the Middle East peace talks. Successive US administrations have failed to grasp the complexity and fluid nature of Middle East politics, and they have gotten burned. For the Bush administration, the rising Syrian phoenix does not bode well for a stable Middle East.