October 25, 2004
By Peter Brookes
One key to stabilizing Iraq isn't even in the country, but next
door in Syria.
It's not just that innumerable Saddam loyalists, al Qaeda
terrorists and foreign fighters have crossed the 370-mile Syrian
border into Iraq over the past year. Syria also has become a safe
haven for the Ba'athist Bigs pulling the strings of the attacks in
These thugs operate with impunity while Damascus turns a blind
eye. The situation has gotten so bad - and so critical to
busting the insurgency - that Washington has sent at least two
senior State and Defense Department delegations (along with Iraqi
officials) to Damascus in the last two months.
Their blunt message to President Bashar al Assad: Address this
festering problem with concrete action - or pay the
After months of tough going, Coalition forces are now making a
dent in the Iraqi insurgency by pressing the offensive in places
like Fallujah. (The weekend arrest of a senior al Qaeda aide
certainly helps.) The death toll among the bad guys is now as high
as 15,000 since the postwar fighting began, says Central Command's
Gen. John Abizaid. (He estimates that 5,000 still remain.)
But ending the flow of reinforcements, cash and weapons to the
insurgents is just as important as wiping out the active fighters.
That's where Syria comes in.
Under the protection of Syrian Ba'athist regime, 20 to 50 former
senior Iraqi Ba'ath security-service goons and Saddam aides and
relatives are supervising the guerilla war back home. Some analysts
say these leadership cells are more dangerous to Iraq's long-term
stability than even al Qaeda's Abu Musab al-Zarqawi.
Assad has promised to cooperate with Coalition and Iraqi
requests, especially on closing the border. But he has yet to
So how do we eliminate the ability of the Syrian cells to plan,
direct, organize and fund (Saddam stashed at least $1 billion in
Syria before the war) the bloody rebellion?
We have much more leverage with Syria than most people think.
Damascus is politically isolated (except for its closest ally,
Iran). And with unemployment hovering at 20 percent, Syria's
economy is faltering.
If Syria fails to cooperate, Washington could ratchet up the
pressure by implementing sanctions beyond those already taken under
the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act
Those laws already ban U.S. exports to Syria (less food and
medicine), but Washington could cut off financial dealings with
Syrian banks. This would scare off much-needed foreign investment,
further crippling the Syrian economy.
America could also lean on the European Union (EU) to rescind
its recently-inked trade and cooperation pact with Syria. To take
effect, the agreement still needs the unanimous approval in the EU
parliament. London and America's "New Europe" allies should be open
And, working with Paris (yes, Paris!), we could further squeeze
Damascus by acting on the regime's intransigence over U.N. Security
Council Resolution 1559. The recently-passed resolution called for
Syria to withdraw all 15,000-20,000 of its troops from Lebanon.
(Syrian troops have been in Lebanon since the 1976 Lebanese civil
war, and the government in Beirut is essentially a Syrian
A second Franco-American resolution on Lebanon is already in the
works. Security Council punitive action, such as multilateral
economic sanctions for non-compliance, is certainly possible.
Damascus also risks:
President Bush has called Syria "an unusual and extraordinary
threat." He's right. Syria's a dictatorship, has weapons of mass
destruction and supports terrorism in Israel through the likes of
Hezbollah and Hamas.
If Syria doesn't couple words with deeds soon, Damascus should
suffer appropriate consequences. We've played nicely long enough.
Assad has a fateful choice to make: Take advantage of a window of
opportunity for better relations with the United States and its
permanent - and increasingly angry - neighbor Iraq. Or
follow the likes of Saddam Hussein and the Taliban directly into
the dustbin of history.
Peter Brookes is a Heritage Foundation senior fellow.
First appeared in the New York Post
If Syria doesn't couple words with deeds soon, Damascus should suffer appropriate consequences.
Senior Fellow, National Security Affairs
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