Syria Hears the Sound of Rattling Sabers

Philip H. Gordon
Philip H. Gordon Former Brookings Expert, Mary and David Boies Senior Fellow in U.S. Foreign Policy - Council on Foreign Relations

April 15, 2003


With the combat phase of the Iraq war now just about over, the question on everybody’s lips seems to be: “Who’s next?” The remaining members of the “Axis of Evil,” Iran and North Korea, seem unlikely immediate targets, the former because hopes remain for positive change from within, and the latter because of those unfortunate nuclear weapons and tens of thousands of artillery tubes within range of Seoul. Iraq’s neighbor Syria, however, might be a more plausible candidate. We all saw what happened, after all, the last time a Ba’athist Arab regime was accused of developing weapons of mass destruction, harboring terrorists, and threatening its neighbors.

If the Bush administration was hoping to downplay fears that Iraq was just one battle in a longer war and that Syria was next on the list, it has not been doing a very good job of it. On the contrary, aside from the ritual reminders that every situation requires a different response, what has been most striking about the administration’s comments about Syria has been its willingness to put Damascus on notice that its “bad behavior” will not be tolerated.

In recent days, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has accused Syria of sending “busloads” of mercenaries to fight in Iraq, possessing and having tested chemical weapons, providing refuge or safe passage to Iraqi war criminals, and supporting Hezbollah terrorists. In Senate testimony late last week, Rumsfeld’s Deputy Paul Wolfowitz warned that Washington might “need to think about what our policy is with respect to a country that harbors terrorists or harbors war criminals, or was in recent times shipping things to Iraq.” President Bush himself has repeated the assertion that Syria has chemical weapons and warned that Syria “needs to cooperate” with the coalition.

So is Syria next? It might be, but nervous war opponents and hawks ready for their next target should probably slow down and take a deep breath. The Pentagon’s war plan did not include an order for the Marines to head directly west when they got done with Tikrit, and plenty of factors work against the idea of invading and occupying Syria.

One is that we’ve still got a substantial portion of our overstretched ground forces working on the uncertain project of bringing stability to 24 million Iraqis and we’ve just spent some $70 billion on the invasion and its aftermath. Another is that without the 12 years of ignored UN Security Council resolutions backing the use of force, we’d probably have even fewer coalition partners for Syria than we just had for Iraq. This means even more international opposition, resentment of the United States, and unilateral American assumption of the costs of action. Finally, dismantling the regime in Syria means undermining order in neighboring Lebanon (currently pacified by some 40,000 Syrian troops), and it is not clear that Americans want to repeat the experience of a Lebanese peacekeeping mission. It is not clear that Bush wants to do so either.

Instead, the administration’s accusations and warnings against Syria are meant to reinforce part of an overall message that the invasion of Iraq was designed to demonstrate: that the United States now takes the issues of weapons of mass destruction and terrorism very seriously. If pushed too far, it is willing to pay a very high price to deal with them. In the eyes of most war proponents, invading Iraq was necessary not just to deal with that specific threat but to have a dual “demonstration effect.” On the positive side, the creation of a stable, prosperous democracy where human rights are respected would lead citizens throughout the region—in Syria, for example—to push for similar changes in their own countries. Whether that dynamic really takes place will depend on successful nation-building in Iraq, and will not be known for years.

The effects of the negative demonstration effect, however, were meant to be more immediate: If you pursue weapons of mass destruction and support terrorism like Saddam did, you will ultimately pay a very high price. The elimination of the Iraqi regime was thus meant to send a clear message to other hostile states in the region, and it is not surprising that the Bush team is seeking to capitalize on that message now, rather than backing away from it. The logic is that you might not need to invade a country like Syria in order to persuade it to improve its behavior. In 1999, for example, after having demanded for years that Damascus stop harboring Kurdish terrorist leader Abdullah Ocalan, Turkey massed troops on the Syrian border—and Ocalan quickly found himself with a one-way ticket out of the country. As Pentagon advisor Richard Perle recently asked: “Would you rather talk with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad about terrorism before or after the liberation of Iraq?”

American tanks will probably not be rolling down the streets of Damascus anytime soon. And if the Syrian president takes American warnings to heart and keeps a lid on support for terrorism and his own weapons of mass destruction programs, they probably never will be. But by doing in Iraq what many (including perhaps Saddam Hussein) thought he would never dare do, President Bush has at least sent a message to Syria and other states in the region that the threat of U.S. military power is not merely theoretical. Whether Syria ever does become a target of that military power probably depends as much on the thinking in Damascus as it does on the thinking in Washington.