by Jerry Gordon (Aug. 2007)
The Truth about Syria by Barry Rubin of the Global Research for International Affairs (GLORIA) Center of the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel is a reference work that should be on the desk of all Middle East policy wonks, concerned Members of Congress and their key staffs. Consider it as the equivalent of ‘Cliff Notes’ for the uninformed policymaker community here in America and elsewhere in the West.
Rubin in this compact volume has laid bare the rise of a radical Arab Nationalist totalitarian regime in Syria. A regime led by the mafia-like al-Assad family, the late Syrian strongman Hafiz al-Assad and his ‘nerdy’ dictator son, Bashar, members of the heterodox minority Alawite sect. The Alawites rose to prominence in Syria under the French League of Nations mandate following WWI as the local ‘janissaries’ during the Druze rebellion in the 1920’s. After Syria gained independence in 1946, the Alawite professional officer class survived successive sectarian riven governments until the Hafiz Al-Assad led coup in 1970. What followed were three decades of ‘stability’ under minority Alawite, meaning the Assad family, hegemony. This despite military defeats in the 1948, 1967, 1973, 1982 wars with Israel, the unraveling of the United Arab Republic led by Egyptian Gamal Abdel Nasser and the failed PLO putsch in Jordan in 1970 that toppled Hafiz Al-Assad’s immediate predecessor, Salah Jadid.
The Assad family dynastic domination of Syria under the Soviet style Ba’thist party has fashioned a monstrously oppressive regime depriving the citizens of civil rights and future progress through callous disregard of both basic freedoms and ultimate reform of its economy.
In 1982, Hafiz al-Assad ordered the bloody repression of the radical Sunni Muslim Brotherhood by virtually leveling the city of Homs, killing 10,000 and displacing over 100,000 using artillery and tanks. The Muslim Brotherhood had rebelled against the Alawites and the secular al-Assad regime in a religious jihad.
The Assad regime stranglehold over media and communications, while not hermetically sealed-given the rise of 24/7 Satellite Arabic TV services-nonetheless spews forth bellicose, venomous hatred of the West, specifically America and Israel, and promotes anti-Semitism.
This was the Syria that as early Ba’thist party leader Sami al Jundi said: “We were the first to translate Mein Kampf.” This is the Syria that gave sanctuary to the perpetrators of the murders of six million Jews in Nazi occupied Europe, Eichmann’s deputy Alois Brunner and two other accomplices. Brunner opined in 1987 that Jews ‘deserved to die because they were the devil’s agents and human garbage’. Rubin points out that Syria refused requests for his extradition. It is also the Syria that produced a TV Series run throughout the Arab world on the medieval forgery of Jewish blood libel-the sacrificing of Christian children to use their blood in making Passover Matzos. In 2005, American neo-Nazi David Duke was received in Damascus ‘with honors’.
Syria is another creation of the ‘Modern Map of the Middle East’, following its division into French and British spheres of influence in accordance of the secret Sykes Picot agreement of 1916. French troops routed the Hashemites under Prince Faisal from Damascus in 1920 and as consolation prizes they were granted Jordan and the newly created Kingdom of Iraq. As a result Syria had a majority Sunni Arab population and minority Kurdish, Syriac Christian, Druze and Alawite communities.
Today Syria’s society and economy are in shambles. Male illiteracy is 11%, while female is over 41%. Per Capita GDP is $3,400, compared to that of Egypt $3,900 and well below that of its ‘enemy’ next door, Israel, at $24,600. Oil production-a mainstay of the economy is dwindling and estimated reserves will run out in less than two decades.
The Assads in Syria are Ba’thist- secular Arab nationalists - enamored of the former Soviet Communist model given their many years as a client state. The former Soviet Union supplied more than an estimated $25 billion in military hardware to Syria. Now, they are the ‘last Ba’thist gun standing’, as Iraqi dictator, Saddam is gone. And the new client relationship in their quest for a Greater Syria is with the Shia Islamist radicals in Iran, which could be their eventual undoing.
Despite being Alawites, despised by both Sunni and Shia Muslims as being ‘non-Muslims’ under Sharia law and subject to Fatwas, the secular Assads in Syria under Bashar have morphed into defenders of the Shia wing of the Muslim faith, built Mosques and appointed state controlled Imams. This was accomplished while courting radical Islamists regimes like Iran and supporting terrorist networks like Fatah al-Islam, Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, Hamas and al Qaeda. Syria’s covert war against the American presence in Lebanon and Iraq, and against Israel has been run by terrorist proxies with impunity and without losses by Syria itself.
The Assads have fobbed off liberal majority Sunni elites by simply ignoring their complaints concerning the lack of a multi-party parliamentary system and modern capitalist economy. They have either bribed them or clapped critics and outspoken dissidents into their version of the ‘gulag’ to be forgotten. The Assads have made themselves into ‘heroes’ with the rural Sunni by aggressively pushing land reform against the interest of elite Sunni landlords. If the hoi poloi complain about being impoverished by the self aggrandizing actions of the Assad Alawite mafia they blame it on the belligerent Americans and the Israelis.
The Assads have effectively controlled Lebanon after being ‘invited’ in 1976 to quell the 14 year long civil war that claimed an estimated 150,000 lives and resulted in untold billions in destruction. The Taif Accord of 1989, co-sponsored by the benighted U.S. and its Saudi diplomatic partner, basically gave Syria control over the politics and security of the beleaguered Lebanon, while disarming all warring militias save one, Hizbullah, its terrorist proxy. The 30 year occupation of Lebanon by Syria nominally ended in April 2005 when its occupying troops were withdrawn as a result of UN Security Council resolution 1559, massive international condemnation and widespread demonstrations in Beirut.
Rubin cites this as evidence of a “brilliant strategy”; at least up until now.
As documented by Rubin in this book, Syria is an Assad family fiefdom with thugs extracting “billions annually in profits from smuggling, counterfeiting and illegal drug trade” and skimming repatriated earnings of 1 million Syrians working in Lebanon. Bashar is quoted by Rubin saying:” we took nothing from Lebanon, but we gave blood.”
The Assad regime made additional billions illegally by smuggling oil from neighboring Iraq at below world market prices despite UN sanctions against the late Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. All done while selling its own oil at world market prices in the E.U. and lying about it to Western leaders, like former Bush Secretary of State, Colin Powell.
Before I reached the chapter in Rubin’s book about father Hafiz, who died in 2000 succeeded by son Bashar Al-Assad, I mused to myself this is all too familiar. It’s a real, rather than fictionalized, version of “The Godfather” Don Corleone and his son and successor Michael Corleone, and siblings and relatives wiped out for crossing the ‘capo da capo tutti’. Rubin perfects that analogy with revelations about favored elder son Basil’s fateful crash into a concrete abutment near Damascus airport, the cultivation of young Bashar who succeeded Hafiz, the three decade long Ba’thist dictator and air force general, and the forced exile of ‘uncle Rifaat’, Hafiz’s younger brother and thug who tried to seize the reins of power when Hafiz suffered a heart attack in 1983. Twice exiled in 1984 and finally in 1998, his properties were seized in 1999 and warned that he would be tried if he came back to Syria.
As Rubin puts it, “substitute Alawites for Sicilians” and voila!
Another example was the ‘mysterious’ suicide in October 2005 of the Syrian ‘supremo’ in control of Lebanon, the late Syrian Interior Minister and long term intelligence chief, Ghazi Kanaan. He was purportedly too heavily involved with the assassination of late Lebanese PM Rifak Hariri and was interviewed by UN Security Council investigators. Hariri, a billionaire construction mogul, was ironically a beneficiary of the reconstruction of civil war torn Lebanon playing along with the Al-Assad economic stranglehold on his home country. Twice PM, Hariri came to the realization that Syria should be forced out of Lebanon. But he paid the ultimate price for crossing the Al-Assads on a free trade deal.
While, Bashar was viewed initially as an internet surfing ‘soul mate’ by neighboring King Abdullah, II of Jordan, that veil was quickly dropped, and Bashar revealed himself as someone who would ruthlessly and recklessly pursue the family and Syria’s objectives of enriching themselves and exporting destabilization through terrorist proxies. Terrorist proxies were harbored in Damascus, neighboring Lebanon and in Gaza. Proxies like Hizbollah under Shia icon Sheik Nasrallah, the personal representative of Ayatollah Khamanei of Iran, who perpetrated last summer’s clash with Israel that cost Lebanon $10 billion in damages and thousands of casualties.
The other overarching observation threading through the Rubin volume is the remarkable blunder by Western political leaders in not recognizing the malevolent intransigence of the Al-Assad ‘mafia’. Witness the Assads destabilizing through terrorism by sending proxies to murder dozens of politicians, diplomats, journalists and PMs in Lebanon and Jordan. Thus, they stifled and frustrated any hopes for a ‘global’ solution in the Middle East. Clearly the Assads want a greater Syria that includes Lebanon, Palestine-meaning Israel, and Jordan as an inheritance from the last Caliphate –the Ottoman Empire. Then there are the Hezbollah terrorist bombings of American Marines, French paras, kidnapping, torture and murders of US CIA and Marine UNIFIL officers, and al Qaeda insurgent attacks across the border against U.S. forces in Iraq resulting in thousands of deaths. I would also put in the same ‘terrorism by proxy’ category the Hezbollah ‘hits’ against Panamanian Jews on a commuter plane, the Israeli Embassy, and the AMIA Jewish communal center in Buenos Aires in 1992 and 1994. These are indicative of the Syrian junior partnership with Iran.
Why the U.K., E.U. and U.S. would seriously consider Syrian intentions as honorable given their sponsorship of terror actions is beyond the ken of Rubin and most observers. Ditto for the late Israel PM Yitzhak Rabin and current Kadima coalition PM Olmert who were both eager to ‘cut a deal’ with the Assads by giving back the Golan that Syria has no interest in except for braggadocio sloganeering. Bashar wants control over the Shabaa Farms approaches to Mount Hermon that the U.N. recently suggested should go to Lebanon and Israeli terrain that controls its national water supply system.
So America, the E.U. and Israel are mired in the fantasy that Assad can be dealt with on a ‘let's make a deal basis’. These eager peace partners are invincibly ignorant. Assad father and son simply said in effect ‘concede everything first, then we might talk.’ In effect “No” to peace. Peace would mean the unraveling of their ‘cosa nostra’ style criminal empire and likely end their hegemony of Syria.
Rubin has some telling examples of this from the Iraq Study Group co-chairmen, former President Bush’s Secretary of State, James Baker, III and the ‘picture’ of the weary former Clinton Secretary of State Warren Christopher who ‘wore out carpeting’ in the mid 1990’s flitting in and out of Damascus talking peace with Hafiz Al-Assad with nothing to show at the end. As Rubin points out, the Assads have repeatedly played the U.S. for the fool, even after ample evidence was in hand to demonstrate that they were and are out to destroy American presence in the region. The latest example of this foolishness under the guise of ‘realism’ that Rubin cites was last December’s trip by six Members of Congress to Damascus to inveigh Bashar’s indulgence in bringing his state sponsored insurgency in Iraq to heel. Bashar simply fobbed them off with more lies and the Congressmen left ‘satisfied’.
The only times that Syria and the Assads have backed down from their passive aggressive belligerency were in 1998 when confronted by the Turks and in 2005, when the U.S. and UN Security Council demanded and got Syrian to temporarily withdraw forces from Lebanon. This was occasioned by ineffective sanctions such as those under the U.S. Syrian Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration ACT (SALSRA) enacted into law in 2004.
The Turks under then PM Suleiman Demirel in 1998 simply lined up troops on the border of Syria and demanded the delivery of PKK terrorist leader Abdallah Ocalan, whom the Syrians had given sanctuary in Damascus. Hafiz Al-Assad quickly surrendered Abdallah Ocalan and the PKK terrorists moved over to northern Iraq where they have become the problem for the Kurdistan Regional Provisional Authority PM, Nechervan Barzani and by default, the U.S.
So, what does author Rubin suggest might happen in the regime of ‘reckless’ Bashar Al-Assad in Damascus?
He contends that the dalliance with the Islamists might be the undoing of the Assad Alawite hegemony.
You only have to look at Turkey in the wake of the July 22nd election victory by the Islamist Justice and Development Party (AKP) led by PM Erdogan, who will be the first to serve two consecutive five year terms in more than 50 years. GLORIA colleagues of Rubin had these ominous observations:
“A confident, more assertive AKP has serious ramifications for Turkish foreign policy in terms of its positions on U.S. interests, the West in general, radical Islamist forces, and Israel. Examples include the recent natural gas agreement between Turkey and Iran as well as Turkey's differences with the United States over Iraq.
While it is possible to exaggerate marginal phenomena or short-term public opinion trends, anti-American and anti-Jewish feelings have been rising in the country since 2002, the year the AKP came to office. The question is to what extent changes in the society are boosting the AKP and a more Islamic approach to issues or whether it is the AKP government that is altering these attitudes.”
In his book, he offers this prescription for contending with Islamo Mafia Syria:
“The policy needed is neither appeasement nor regime change, which will not work, but rather tough diplomacy backed up by strength and staying power.”
“….contain Syria by aiding those neighbors menaced by it and its allies: the Lebanese majority that opposes Syrian –Hizbollah hegemony, Israel, and the majority if Iraq angered by Syria’s role in murdering them. It also means working with Arab regimes like those in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan that stand against the Iran-Syria-Hizbullah-Hamas alliance….The United States and the West should show more regard for the interests of more moderate Arabs and Muslims rather than siding with the radicals against them. Syrians must be shown their leaders are failures... The regime must be contained until it crumbles or retreats. A long process but ..Ultimately a less costly one than the alternatives.”
Clearly this was written before the Hamas coup of June 15th in Gaza, a victory for the Syrian regime, and before the dissembling by moderate Arab states from a Bush call for a Madrid - style comprehensive peace conference regarding what’s left of Palestine and Israel.
So, I asked Rubin for his response on these developments and he responded, thusly.
When asked whether Bashar Al-Assad secured a ‘victory’ by proxy with the Hamas ‘coup’ of June 15th against Fatah in Gaza, he said; “Yes, absolutely.”
Asked about whether IDF maneuvers this spring concerning a hypothetical attack on Syria were a public means of sending a message to Assad, he commented:
Yes, very much so. The Israeli assessment is that Syria will not attack directly. And why should they when they have Hizbollah and others to do it for them at no risk to themselves, unless Israel retaliates against them of course.
Asked if the Bush call for a comprehensive Middle East Peace conference could be sabotaged by Abbas not unlike the late Hafiz Al-Assad’s efforts at the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991, he opined:
Absolutely correct. An interesting point in the book is how Al-Assad sabotaged the Arab summit attempt to do something—the Saudi resolution—which they watered down to the point of killing it. No matter how cynical we might be over the Saudis, by the time the Syrians finished with them it was far worse.
I am against the US or Israel engaging with Syria but even if they did I predict confidently that it will lead nowhere. Of course the Syrian goal is to ease the pressure regarding the [Hariri assassination] tribunal, to keep them in Lebanon, and buy them time for Iran to get nuclear weapons.
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