Syria: Shift Toward More Serious Anti-War Activity?

Stratfor Intelligence
Mar 27, 2003


The Syrian government may be shifting its heretofore passive position concerning the war against Iraq, placing mounting emphasis on anti-war rhetoric and even picking diplomatic spats with other Arab states. Although Damascus' motivations are unclear, given the heightened tensions in the region, the consequences could be dear.


Syria has demonstrated strange behavior and an aggressively anti-war stance in recent days -- with officials taking pot shots at Egypt and allegedly allowing busloads of Syrians to head to Iraq to fight against U.S. and British forces. On March 27, the country's most senior mufti called for suicide strikes against allied forces in Iraq, and Syrian President Bashar Assad said in an interview with a Lebanese daily that the country would not wait until it becomes the next U.S. target.

Stratfor has written extensively on the Syrian position regarding the war in Iraq. Until recently, Damascus has shown passive acceptance of military action there: Its United Nations delegate voted in favor of Security Council Resolution 1441 and, more important, Syria has maintained behind-the-scenes dialogue with the United States despite rhetoric condemning U.S. war plans.

Now Damascus seems to be changing that position. Rather than showing quiet acceptance and passivity, it is actively encouraging anti-war activity and sentiment. The question is why. The government's motivations remain unclear: They could be tied to internal unrest, which Assad is trying to direct it outward. However, if so, Damascus is taking a very real risk not just of alienating Washington but of being labeled an Iraqi ally and therefore a legitimate war target. The Bush administration so far has kept silent on Syria's hostile rhetoric, but it will not be able to remain so if Damascus takes more serious steps toward supporting Iraq.

The last thing Washington needs right now is a belligerent Syria moving toward an alliance with Iraq. Syria, wedged between Turkey and Iraq, is rightly fearful of a war outcome that leaves Washington in control in Baghdad and Ankara in charge in the north.

Arab regimes around the region have permitted large-scale protests as a way of giving people an outlet to vent their anger. But employing this safety valve -- which is partly what Damascus is doing -- doesn't explain all of the government's recent actions. For instance, allowing the "Arab street" to let off steam doesn't explain why Syria specificially encouraged condemnations of the Egyptian government, nor why Assad is making bald statements that Syria will take steps to resist U.S. hegemony in the region.

Since the end of the Cold War, Syria's military capability has deteriorated: Weapons systems have become dated, equipment has fallen into disrepair, spare parts are hard to come by. Moscow once provided billions in military assistance to Damascus, but much of this aid began drying up in the late 1980s. The net result is a Syrian military with severe limitations, facing at least two and now possibly three hostile armies on three of its borders.

This could be one of the reasons why Syria quietly opposes the U.S. decision to support a "road map for peace" to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Syria does not want to see a resolution to that conflict while it is still technically at war with Israel. Egypt also is working closely with Palestinians and Israelis, as well as with the United States, to advance peace talks -- and the recent state-sanctioned protests in Damascus against the Mubarak government suggest that Syria is unhappy with how those talks are going. Still, peace between Israelis and Palestinians is not on the horizon, and it seems unlikely that Syria would risk war with the United States for such a distant possibility.

Another motivation for the recent behavior might be that Damascus fears U.S. attacks against suspected Syrian weapons of mass destruction (WMD) assets. "Stray" missiles have been hitting southwestern Iran, and Syria might fear that it too could be a target of "stray" coalition bombs. But suspected chemical weapons plants are near Aleppo, Damascus and Homs, nowhere near the Syria-Iraq border. Moreover, Iran and Saudi Arabia likely rank higher than Syria on the U.S. hit list, given that both are tied much more closely to al Qaeda and Tehran's nuclear program is thought to be more advanced even than Iraq's.

It also is possible that Syrian leaders might believe that if they are going to negotiate a strategy for regime preservation, now is the time to do it. The behavior could be timed to catch Washington at what Syria perceives to be a moment of weakness, creating the strongest position possible for Damascus in talks down the road -- particularly if officials think they will be negotiating with a United States that has defeated Iraq.

Finally, Damascus realizes that if it enters the U.S.-Iraq war on the side of Baghdad, Israel is likely to want to step in. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon could not tolerate any chance of an Iraqi-Syrian victory, however slim, and would be unwilling to sit on the sidelines at that point.

There is no evidence to suggest that the Syrian military is about to get involved in the fight in Iraq -- but the government in Damascus is acting bizarrely, and that is bound to impact Syrian military actions.