- The Washington Times - Monday, August 9, 2004

On Aug. 2, the Pentagon moved considerabletroopsand equipment to the Syrian border to intercept what is believed to be an ongoing threat to the stability of Iraq from insurgents funded by loyalists to Saddam Hussein in Syria. According to U.S. officials, the United States has become tired of pressing Syria for action to supervise their border and is taking the initiative to do the work herself.

And to add insult to injury, Undersecretary of State Dick Armitage issued a warning on Aug. 6 through an appearance on Lebanese television that more sanctions could be on their way against Syria if the government does not rein in the insurgency infiltrating Iraq.

This is not the first time that Syria’s actions, or lack of, have frustrated the United States in the region. Earlier this year, Syria refused to make good on its promise to refund what may be up to $2 billion in Iraqi money taken at the behest of Saddam’s loyalists to fund a war of attrition against the coalition-led forces in Iraq. Further, Syria has refused to contain Hezbollah in Lebanon, even though the whole notion of Lebanese struggle has become a moot issue ever since Israel vacated south Lebanon in 2002.

Syria boasts an army of 400,000 soldiers. Yet, it has skirted the issue of patrolling its own borders, citing distance and logistical complications. What very few people know is that most of the Syrian soldiers are deployed around the country protecting sensitive infrastructures that are essential to sustaining the rule of the Assad clan. Any re-deployment plan would amount to breaking down a system of defense that the Ba’athists in Damascus are not willing to take. They fear that another uprising like the one that happened on March 12 of this year in the Kurdish region of Syria could spell the end of their rule.

But now that the United States has taken the initiative to protect Iraq from Syria’s incoherent strategy, the risks Damascus has taken, in not patrolling their own borders, have multiplied several folds.

For sure, the Ba’athists have miscalculated the U.S. resolve. Thousands of U.S. troops on the border can spell more danger for Damascus than the choice of controlling the insurgents seriously. With so much equipment and manpower, skirmishes across the border will increase, and the Pentagon will not sit idle against any threat emanating from Syria. In fact, we will see, as it has happened in the past, secret missions inside Syria to stifle the potency of ongoing guerrilla warfare.

Then there is always the possibilitythatSyria’s Ba’athists may act irrationally and craft an environment that will force U.S. troops to operate in a more open fashion. Of the 400,000 military conscripts, about 70,000 are well-trained. They are positioned on the inside perimeter of Damascus while the rest, spread in various locations including Lebanon, are too poorly equipped, and their low moral will prevent them from fighting a serious war. Any direct confrontation with the United States will translate into a further erosion of the Ba’athist grip unto power because the majority of the people of Syria, tired of oppression,willviewthis confrontation as altering the equation to their advantage.

Furthermore, the latest risks taken by the Syrian government can be the beginning of a major shift in how the U.S. government views Syria, not simply in terms of applying punishing economic sanctions, but also in terms of moving toward a regime change. There is a possibility that this shift in policy happens as a result of Syrian interference into Iraqi affairs. In this case, the U.S. armed forces stationed less than a two-hour drive from Damascus will create the impetus to help the moderate majority Sunni in the country to take control. Some in the U.S. administration still fear an Islamist awakening, but there exists in Syria a stable Syrian majority that is secular in its belief that will not allow extremists to take control of the country.

What matters then is who and how to assume responsibility of Syria’s government through people and organizations that will be able to maintain stability but yet move away from the violence that we have been mired in for more than 40 years. The answer lies within Syria, with the help of the Syrian communities in the Diaspora.

Farid N. Ghadry is president of the Reform Party of Syria.

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