A quick glance at the map of the Middle East and the changes in the geopolitical landscape since the events of September 11, 2001, shows that Iran and Syria have been almost surrounded by states now friendly to the United States and the West. However, Iraq sits in between these two pariah – like state allies. Both are involved in the support, either tacit or outright, of groups killing American troops.
Last week, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki visited the Islamic Republic of Iran, where he met with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. While this meeting was taking place, American forces were chasing members of Iranian elite special operations units in Iraq. They are suspected of funding, training and equipping Shia militias who have American blood on their hands. Not a week later, al-Maliki shows up in Damascus to meet with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. For al-Maliki, it may have been a somewhat of a reunion, after he was sentenced to death by Saddam Hussein in 1980, al-Maliki sought refuge in Iran and later Syria, so he has history with both regimes.
Just as Ahmadinejad denied any involvement with militias in Iraq, al-Assad claimed that he was doing all he could to stop the flow of men and weapons across the Syrian border into Iraq. He claimed that the border was porous and impossible to completely control.
I will take exception to the Syrian president’s claims. I served in Syria as a military attaché and it was my job to be aware of the security situation in the country. I made numerous trips to the Iraq border area although it was difficult to get anywhere near it without the consent of the Syrian government. Regardless of al-Assad’s claims, Syria is a police state in which virtually everything that happens there is done with regime knowledge and acquiescence. The very thought that al-Qaida recruits or arms are entering Syria and crossing into Iraq without the knowledge and approval of the Syrian government -- and that means al-Assad himself -- is ludicrous.
Al-Assad’s other remarks are equally ludicrous. His prime minister, who is only a mouthpiece since no one serves or speaks without the consent of al-Assad, uttered the same refrain we have heard before claiming that the withdrawal of American forces is the solution to the problem. He demanded a timetable for that withdrawal. In reality, the withdrawal of American forces would give Syria and its primary ally, Iran, the roles of primary power brokers in Iraq. The timetable would tell the al-Qaida fighters in the west and the Shia militias in Baghdad and the south just how long they have to wait for victory.
Which country is calling the shots?
Does anyone think that al-Assad has come up with this on his own? The strategy for Syria’s position and demands was not formulated in Damascus; it was dictated in Tehran. Iran is calling the shots here. Without Iranian support, the al-Assad regime would die on the vine. Of course, Syria has its value to Iran. Without access to Syria, Iran would be hard-pressed to support its clients -– Hezbollah in Lebanon, and Hamas and Islamic Jihad in Gaza.
Al-Maliki’s visit to Damascus only bolsters Syria’s position. Al-Maliki coming as an apparent supplicant to al-Assad gives Syria, and by extension Iran, legitimacy as a power broker in the region. Al-Maliki also made the point that he was not visiting to deliver a message from the United States. He was only visiting to speak to a fellow Arab leader. Granted, al-Maliki has to live in the neighborhood, but this gesture only convinces al-Assad he has the upper hand.
Al-Assad believes Syrian influence in the region is on the rise. It has been instrumental in resupplying Hezbollah; has regained much of its lost influence in Lebanon after being forced to pull out its troops after almost three decades; and now is being granted the status of a key player in what happens in Iraq.
Syria is part of the problem, not the solution. Maybe it’s about time we spoke to Syria directly and frankly, it is one of the recommendations of the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group. We have an embassy in Damascus, although the ambassador has been recalled since early 2005 in the aftermath of Syrian complicity in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minster Rafiiq al-Hariri.
I suggest we tell Syria the same thing we should be telling the Iranians: your actions are responsible for the deaths of American troops. If it continues, you will pay a price. Of course, if we say it, we have to mean it.
Does that sound like a threat? Well, in all my dealings with the Syrians, I have found that they understand threats – they’re not real responsive to diplomacy.