By Jacob Laksin
FrontPageMagazine.com | July 24, 2007
From the questionable counsel of the Iraq Study Group, to Nancy Pelosi’s rogue diplomacy, to the agitation of top senators for outreach to Syria, the notion persists that the dictatorship of Bashar Assad has undergone an important ideological shift — its own road-to-Damascus moment — and is now firmly on a course of concord and compromise. Comforting though it may be, it is a notion demands a willful blindness to some troubling facts on the ground.
Start at the Syrian border with Lebanon. Against the popular view that Syria has made peace with its unceremonious expulsion, after a 29-year military presence, from Lebanon, there are multiple reasons to think that the Baathist regime is mounting a new bid to reassert its dominion over its erstwhile subject state. Not the least trivial of them concerns reports last month in the Lebanese press that Syrian troops, in the active company of bulldozers, were digging themselves into position along the Lebanese border. Of all the ways to interpret the scores of newly constructed trenches and bunkers, the least plausible is that Syria has finally forsworn its designs on Lebanon.
Nor can one reasonably conclude that Syria means only to safeguard its frontiers. Indeed, securing its borders is one thing that the Syrian regime has resolutely refused to do, and with good reason: a porous border helps Syria to undermine the sovereignty of its Lebanese neighbor while arming anti-Israel jhadists. So overwhelming is the evidence of Syrian malfeasance on this score that even the United Nations — not distinguished by its skepticism about Syrian motives — recently published a report faulting Syria for failing to assert control over its borders and for shirking its responsibility to curb arms smuggling to its client Hezbollah. For its part, Hezbollah, clearly emboldened by the lack of a strong international outcry, has in recent weeks boasted of its intentions to destabilize Lebanon’s democratically elected government by erecting a "second government" to execute the Islamists’ will. Should Hezbollah make good on the threat, it will have Syria to thank for its success.
Coinciding with the campaign to sabotage Lebanese domestic affairs is a growing Syrian belligerence. Although the Syrian army, with its rusting Soviet-era tanks, has long been regarded as a laughingstock, the image of Syria as militarily feeble may be due for a revision. According to the London-based Arabic newspaper Al-Sharq al-Awsat, Syria has already deployed Iranian-purchased and Chinese-made C-802 cruise missiles. The paper further reports that Syria has approached Russia seeking the Iskander missile, a high-precision missile that would enable Damascus to launch targeted attacks anywhere on Israeli territory. From this perspective, even if there is no truth to the latest reports of a Syrian-Iranian pact, wherein Iran would provide Syria $1 billion for high-tech weaponry and nuclear development in exchange for Syrian refusal to negotiate with Israel, Syria’s military expansion offers ample cause for alarm.
To be sure, one need not think a Syrian military offensive against Israel likely, or even possible, to recognize the regional threat that the country poses. Just look at the destructive role that Syria has played in Iraq, where some 80 fighters are estimated to cross the Syrian border monthly to sow carnage among the Iraqi civilian population and kill American troops. To judge by a report in the New York Sun, Syria has a similar scenario in mind for Israel. The paper quoted Baath Party officials warning that if Israel does not withdraw from all of the Golan Heights — a non-starter for both security and strategic reasons, as Syrian negotiators well know — then Syrian "guerillas" would begin "resistance operations" against resident Jewish communities in the territory come August or September. One of these groups, a Syrian imitator of Hezbollah calling itself the Committees for the Liberation of the Golan Heights, is reported to have undergone military training to attack civilians. Here as elsewhere, all signs point back to Damascus.
In a saner world, such details would inspire doubt about Syria’s supposedly peaceful intentions. Instead, the opposite seems to have happened. On the Democratic side, presidential candidates like Barack Obama — he of the cool indifference to genocide in Iraq — have made negotiations with Syria a main theme of their foreign policy. The Republican side has its own reality-challenged denizens. Indiana’s Richard Lugar, basking in his sudden role as the "most respected Republican voice on foreign affairs in Congress" (as the left-liberal New York Review of Books recently swooned), has repeatedly called for U.S. engagement of Syria and Iran, as though the two leading enemies of American foreign policy in the Middle East were actually critical to its success.
To such enthusiasm Syria has offered a telling response. As the number of Syria’s well-wishers in Washington grows, the Syrian government has urged its citizens to leave Lebanese territory in anticipation of an unspecified "eruption" in the country. Nice to know that Syria, at least, is taking its own threats seriously.