“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.