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Damascus’s Deadly Bargain

The Bush administration has quietly authorized U.S. forces to attack Al-Qaeda bases around the Middle East--an escalation in the war on terror that Eli Lake first revealed two weeks ago in The New Republic and that The New York Times reported on this week. One of the administration’s most recent targets was Syria, where it struck Al-Qaeda leader Badran Turki Hishan al Mazidih last month.

Though Syrian officials feigned ignorance at Al-Qaeda’s encampment within its borders, the reality is that the country not only tolerates the presence of terrorists, but encourages them to use the country as a safe-haven, headquarters, and transit point. Why does Syria continue to harbor terrorists, knowing that it places the country squarely in the crosshairs of the Bush administration? Particularly in light of Syria’s historical problems with its own Islamist groups, why would it welcome radicals from across the region? Finding the answer to these questions is crucial in trying to defeat one of the Middle East’s most prolific boosters of terrorism.

To better understand Syria’s motivations, I visited Abdel Halim Khaddam, Syria’s former vice president, in Brussels, where he was leading a meeting of the National Salvation Front (NSF), a Syrian opposition group. Having served under both Hafez al-Assad and his son Bashar, Khaddam is well-acquainted with the strategic and political exigencies driving the regime’s support for terror. “Fighting the Americans in Iraq is very dangerous,” he tells me. “But it also makes Bashar popular. Under the banner of resistance, anything is popular.”

Thus, it seems the first reason Syria backs these militants is because it wins public acclaim. As is the case in many countries across the Arab world, most Syrians distinguish between terror and resistance. They define the former as violence that hurts Syrians and Syrian interests--such as the Muslim Brotherhood’s war against the Syrian state in the late 1970s and early ’80s, for example. But resistance is the violence that the Syrian regime makes possible at the expense of other states--from Lebanon to Israel to Iraq--strengthening its position as the self-described “capital of Arab resistance.”

For instance, when Hezbollah went to war against Israel in the summer of 2006, it hurt not only Israel but the majority of Lebanese, who were not standing with Hezbollah. But Syria’s logistical, financial, and political support for the Islamic resistance burnished Assad’s credentials at home, while also earning him respect across the region. If other Arab rulers, like Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and Saudi king Abdullah Al-Saud, were, in Assad’s words, “half-men,” the Syrian had shown himself to be a citadel of anti-Zionist, anti-Western resistance, the most popular Arab leader after Hezbollah’s Hassan Nasrallah.

Support for terror is also a significant element in Syria’s attempt to exert power over its neighbors. In addition to hosting groups that target Israel, like Hamas and Hezbollah, Syria has long maintained a broad portfolio of regional terror outfits, from secular organizations like Abdullah Ocalan of the Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK) and Palestinian rivals to Yasser Arafat, to Salafi groups like Shaker al-‘Absi’s Fatah splinter organization, Fatah al-Islam. And as the recent US attack on Bou Kamal illustrated, Damascus hosts significant Iraqi assets, such as Al-Qaeda in Iraq.

Syria also uses these groups as insurance against the subterfuge of fellow Arab regimes. Before 1970, Syria was the place where other people interfered,” Obeida Nahas, a Muslim Brotherhood representative with the NSF, tells me. Ever since Syrian independence in 1946, coup followed coup, all of them backed or instigated by outside actors, including Iraq, Egypt, Jordan, Israel, and even the U.S. “When Hafez al-Assad came to power,” Nahas explains to me, “he made a pre-emptive counter-attack to interfere in other regimes before they could get to Syria.”

Nahas’s father-in-law, Ali Sadr al-Din al-Bayanouni--the leader of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood in exile, who spent two decades living in Jordan--is himself an illustration of this strategy. Amman’s relationship with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood is part of a long-standing rivalry, in which the Jordanians back Syrian Islamists like al-Bayanouni as a threat to the Damascus government, and Syria, in turn, supports elements of Jordan’s Islamist opposition, like the Islamic Action Front. While this game of chicken seems to risk Islamist blowback, it is a key strategy in Arab balance-of-power politics.

The Syrians have similarly managed their relationship with Saudi Arabia, which has been at an all-time low since the 2005 murder of former Lebanese prime minister and Saudi ally Rafiq al-Hariri, which the Saudis blamed on Damascus. In December 2005, Khaddam made a big splash in the first part of a televised interview on the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya satellite network charging Bashar with the assassination, but then the Saudi royal family pulled the plug on the second part of the interview. The public rationale in Arab circles is that the Saudi kingdom is not in the habit of bringing down fellow Arab regimes. More likely, however, is that Damascus has an important card to play against the Saudis, who fear that Syria is holding several hundred Saudi fighters in prison; Damascus could embarrass the Saudis by publically announcing the existence of these extremists--or even worse, allow those jihadis to return home to fight the House of Saud.

This kind of leverage is not the only reason Syria keeps its jails stocked with foreign terrorists. According to Ghassan al-Mufleh, an NSF member who spent 12 years in Syrian jails for his Communist activities, this is also one of their primary ways of collecting intelligence, as well as tapping foreign agents to do their bidding abroad and subvert Arab rivals. Since Syria does not require visas from Arabs to enter the country, many terrorists use it as a transit point to places like Iraq, “so if they return from jihad alive and want to head home--Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco--they just say that they were working in Syria,” Mufleh tells me. But this free flow also allows the Syrians to detain valuable operatives and “give them a choice--either they can agree to work for the Syrian services or they will be turned into their own home intelligence agency,” he says. “It is an easy choice.”

Shaker al-‘Absi is a case in point. Along with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, ‘Absi was sentenced to death in absentia by the Jordanian authorities for the 2002 murder of U.S. diplomat Laurence Foley in Amman. Syria rejected Jordan’s extradition request for ‘Absi and allegedly detained him in prison for a few years. He resurfaced last spring in a northern Lebanon refugee camp, leading Fatah al-Islam in its month-long battle with the Lebanese Armed Forces--part of Assad’s plan to destabilize the Lebanese government, which the Syrian president describes as hostile to Syrian interests.

Syria’s incessant meddling in Lebanon also illustrates a larger motivation for their support of terrorists. Long before the Americans touched down in Iraq, the Assads (father and son) recognized that supporting terror meant Washington would have to include Damascus in any of its regional dealings. For instance, U.S. policymakers have historically felt compelled to engage with Syria in order to secure peace in Jerusalem, since, as American officials euphemistically explain, Syria has the ability to “spoil” the Arab-Israeli peace process by unleashing their Hamas or Hezbollah clients. Thus, according to Khaddam, Colin Powell’s efforts in May 2003 to convince Damascus to close its Hamas offices were futile. “The Americans should’ve known better,” he says. “How could Bashar separate himself from Hamas? It’s an important card for him, so why would he throw it away?”

But perhaps the most significant driver of Syria’s support for terrorism is that it clinches the relationship with their only strategic partner in the region that is not a terrorist group. “Bashar helped the groups in Iraq because there is an arrangement with Iran to undermine the Americans,” Khaddam says. He claims that Syria’s decision to let Al-Qaeda use their borders to fight the Americans in Iraq is largely at the behest of Tehran: “Iran’s ambitions in the region stretch from Afghanistan to the Mediterranean, which is against the interest of the Arabs and the West. Syria’s alliance leaves it in the middle of the conflict but there is no way out of the relationship.”

Khaddam dismisses the notion prevalent in some U.S. and Israeli circles that it is possible to split Syria from Iran. “Iranian influence is extensive,” he says. If there are factions in the Damascus government, it is not about whether Syria should lean towards Iran or the West. “The disagreements are about personal interests and cuts of money, not Iran. Everyone agrees about Iran.”

But as Mufleh notes wryly, Assad would do well to learn the lessons of Syrian history: It was his own father’s decision to provide jihadis passage through to Afghanistan in the ’80s that inadvertently helped defeat his Soviet patron. For all the good reasons to support “resistance,” Tehran as well as Damascus may one day be on the receiving end of Islamist terror--a price infinitely higher than last month’s U.S. raid on Syrian territory.

Lee Smith is a visiting fellow at The Hudson Institute.

By Lee Smith