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Beware of the Dog?
by Steven D. Laib, J.D., M.S.
20 September 2003Syrian Flag

Iraq may have sent its weapons of mass destruction to Syria before the war.  If so, that country may be the next target.

“You can put up a sign on your door, 'Beware of the Dog,' without having a dog," says Hans Blix, former UN chief weapons inspector who spent approximately three years searching for nuclear, biological and chemical weapons in Iraq.  Apparently he believes that all significant weapons were destroyed in 1991 or later, but Saddam Hussein didn’t tell anyone. 

It should be obvious that peace between Arab nations is shaky at best.  When Iraq invaded Kuwait thirteen years ago, no one in their right mind would have placed the rest of the Arabian Peninsula off the agenda.  What stopped Saddam Hussein was outside intervention.  Otherwise, at one swoop he could have captured the oil fields and the religious sites of the peninsula, and his power would have been multiplied many times over.  That Saddam had biological and/or chemical weapons is known from their use on Kurdish and other rebellious portions of the Iraqi population, but if he had destroyed them he could not let anyone know it. 

There are two excellent reasons for keeping the destruction a secret.  First, the weapons were his defense against potential aggression; Arab or otherwise.  Don’t think for a minute that Hussein considered himself immune from attack by his neighbors.  He needed the belief that an attack on his regime by anyone would bring them terrible results.  Second, we have to understand that machismo is just as important in Arab culture, as it is in some other regions.  By bowing to UN or Anglo-American pressure and showing proof that the weapons were destroyed, he would have lost face on the “Arab street,” as well as losing respect for his military strength.  No one would ever take him very seriously again without significant bloodletting.  He had no choice if he wanted maintain his image. 

Blix may be right, but there is also the possibility that he is mistaken.  John Bolton, US Undersecretary of State for Arms Control apparently believes it likely that Iraq sent the weapons to neighboring Syria.  Bolton also believes that Syria is working on medium range ballistic missiles with help from North Korea.  These missiles could be used in nerve gas attacks, and Syria is believed to have an advanced chemical weapons program with access to both sarin and VX nerve agents.  This technology in the hands of the unstable Syrian government could be a dangerous combination. 

One should note that the governments of Syria and Iraq have had close ties for decades.  These ties were forged through the influence of the Ba’ath party, which was for all practical purposes founded in Syria in April 1947. It assumed political control of Syria in February 1963 and in Iraq one month later. At the time it could only control Iraq for about 9 months, but later it gained strength and in 1968 the Ba’ath Party returned to power.  Saddam's cousin General Ahmed Hassan al-Bakr became president and head of the Revolutionary Command Council.  Saddam was named deputy chairman of the council.  By 1973, he was officially vice-president of Iraq and was believed by many to be the real ruler of the country.  On July 16th 1979, al-Bakr retired and Saddam was confirmed as president. Six days later, he consolidated his power by killing off many leading party members and army officers for conspiring against him. 

Meanwhile, Ba’ath strongman Hafez al-Assad ruled Syria for many years.  On his death in June 2000 control of the government passed to his son Bashar Al-Assad.  Bashar was trained as an M.D in Ophthalmology, not as a politician, and was expected to be a moderate.  He only stepped into government because of the accidental death of his older brother.  Unfortunately, while Bashar may have once been otherwise inclined, changed circumstances may have changed his mindset.  His well-publicized drive against corruption has allowed him to consolidate power in himself, and has led to the same sort of executions used by Saddam in Iraq.  He has released many political prisoners and allowed some publication of independent newspapers, but these reforms have not lasted.  Independent political meetings are still banned, and the actual independence of the press is limited.  Dissidents continue to face arrest and harassment.  Human rights organizations believe that some 800 political prisoners are still in Syrian jails.  Even the two new Internet cafés opened in Damascus are government controlled. 

The question, then, is whether or not Syria will try to become the next Iraq.  With the demise of Iraqi military and political influence in the wake of the recent liberation, Syrian leadership is probably quite aware that it has a window of opportunity to assert itself as the military power in the area.  At the same time Syria must be aware of the danger of American attention being turned in its direction.  The result may be an attempt at walking a tightrope; assuming a position of power without attracting excessive attention, something that will be difficult to accomplish.

When President Bush committed American troops to the invasion of Iraq he may have bitten off more than he knew.  By deposing Saddam he placed America, an outsider, as the major military force in the region.  Outsiders have never been well tolerated by the Arab people.  Thus, it may well be that America will have to decide to either have a permanent presence in the region, and control the region's destiny, or get out and look like it is running away.  In the event of the latter, expect the Arab press to portray America as a dog with its tail between its legs.  On the world scene we probably cannot afford this eventuality; therefore, expect Syria to become an eventual next target, for reasons of “regional security,” sooner or later.  America must, in the end, show the entire region that is doing more than just posting a sign on the door.

Steven Laib is a practicing attorney

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