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Syria finds itself wondering aloud

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Is Syria on a collision course with the United States? Several high-level Iraqi officials are believed to have escaped from Baghdad to Syria, which only recently would have been improbable.

In the wake of these reported escapes, American special operations forces in western Iraq are attempting to seal the long, porous Iraqi-Syrian border.

Syria’s initial reaction to the escapes and American demands that they take steps to prevent wanted Iraqis from entering Syria was a noncommittal statement that such measures were an American responsibility, not a Syrian one. Afterward, in the face of American demands, Damascus claims to have closed the border. However, the likelihood that border posts hundreds of miles from the Syrian capital are in fact closed to influential Iraqis with sizeable amounts of cash is not high.

The American administration has increasingly focused on Syria over the past several weeks. Senior officials, including President Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, have accused the Syrians of allowing high-tech military materiel to pass through the country and over the border into Iraq. Specific items mentioned were the laser-guided Kornet anti-tank missile and night vision goggles. The Kornet is a 3-mile range, laser-guided missile with a double warhead to defeat reactive armor such as that on the U.S. M1A1 Abrams tank and may have been responsible for the loss of three American tanks.


Following the fall of Baghdad on April 9, Syria has been accused of providing refuge to senior Iraqi officials fleeing advancing U.S. forces. Kurdish forces seized Watban Ibrahim Al-Hasan Al-Takriti — Saddam’s half-brother and former minister of the interior — as he attempted to reach the Syrian border via northern Iraq.

If in fact Syria is turning a blind eye to Iraqi officials crossing the border, this represents a shift in Syrian-Iraqi relations. The two countries have been at odds for decades, at times almost to the point of military confrontation, usually over Syrian restrictions on the flow of the Euphrates River. The major dispute between Baghdad and Damascus has its roots in the founding of the Baath Party, or the Arab Socialist Renaissance Party. The party was born in Damascus, Syria, in the 1940s, the brainchild of two French-trained Syrian teachers, Michel ‘Aflaq and Salah Al-Din Bitar.

The Syrian and Iraqi Baath parties grew more hostile toward each other in the 1960s as each nation sought to assume the role of leader of the Pan-Arab movement. During the Iran-Iraq War, from 1980 to 1988, Syria supported Iran to the point of allowing Iranian aircraft to use Syrian airbases to conduct strikes against Iraqi targets. After Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990, Syria contributed its 9th Armored Division to the U.S.-led coalition that drove Iraq from Kuwait months later. The Syrian division saw action against Iraqi forces in Kuwait.


Syria’s relationship with Iran was based on economic reasons as much as political differences with the regime in Baghdad. Iran provided Syria oil at deeply discounted prices, allowing Syria to export its own crude oil at higher world market prices. In return, Iran was granted landing rights at Damascus international airport to resupply its Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps officers in Lebanon, as well as Lebanese Hizballah fighters. Without this access to the Damascus airport, continued Iranian influence in Lebanon and Tehran’s ability to control Hizballah would have been in jeopardy.

Since the creation of the United Nations “oil for food” program, under which Iraq was allowed to sell oil and purchase food and medicine, Iraqi oil flowed though the Kirkuk-Baniyas pipeline. For the past few years, Baghdad has been selling discounted oil to Syria, much in the same manner as Iran had in earlier years. Of course, since the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom, that oil has stopped flowing. The loss of this revenue underscores Syria’s dismal economic future. Half the population is under 18 and there is little confidence that Syria’s infrastructure can support the growth required to provide jobs for them in the next decade.


Israelis, whose own substantial nuclear arsenal and other weapons of mass destruction draw huge criticism from the Arab world, believe that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has allowed Iraq to use Syria to move weapons of mass destruction as well as the scientists who designed and built them.

If true, this places the Syrian regime on a direct collision course with the Bush administration. It would be surprising if Assad, or “Dr. Bashar” as he is called, would permit what many consider a casus belli and invite not only American condemnation but possibly even military intervention to destroy those weapons. Access to Iraqi weapons or weapons know-how is unnecessary — Damascus has had chemical weapons and the missiles to deliver them for years.

Given Syria’s possession of weapons of mass destruction, its reluctance to make any concessions to advance the Middle East peace process, its abysmal human rights record and now the accusations of its tacit support in providing a safe haven for wanted Iraqi officials, it is no wonder much of the world is forming the impression that Syria is now in the crosshairs of the Bush administration.

(Rick Francona is a CNBC military analyst and a former U.S. defense attaché at the embassy in Damascus in the 1990s. )