Approximately one month into the outbreak of the al-Aqsa intifada, Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa was asked whether the Syrian government was acting in coordination with the Palestinian leadership. In response, Sharaa stressed that Syria stands fully behind “the Palestinian people and their cause,” but not necessarily with the Palestinian leadership. Coordination with that leadership would be useful, Sharaa maintained, only if Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority followed Syria’s direction. If not, then coordination “would be like helping Israel rather than the Palestinian people.”1 This, in a nutshell, has been Syria’s response, not only to the al-Aqsa intifada, but also to the Palestinian question more generally. As Patrick Seale concisely put it, for Syria, the Palestinian question is “too important to be left to the Palestinians.”2 Syria objected to the Oslo peace process from the start, has welcomed its collapse, and now argues that its failure vindicates Damascus’ claim for leadership of the Arab cause against Israel. Syria’s relationship with the Palestinians and their leadership is best understood as a product of three forces: the ideological ties that exist between Palestinians and Syrians, the domestic political needs of the Asad regime in Syria, and Syria’s desire to assume a position of regional leadership.
Although analysts differ over the precise weight that should be attributed to each of these factors,3 all three are needed to understand Syria’s reaction to the collapse of Oslo, the al-Aqsa intifada and to current peace efforts like those embodied in the recently issued Roadmap. First, whether the ideological tie between Syrians and Palestinians is seen as stemming from a common Arab identity or a more specific pan-Syrian identity that includes Palestine as part of greater Syria, there is a belief on both sides of this equation that to some extent Palestinians and Syrians share a common identity. This in part explains the domestic political importance in Syria of being seen as supportive of Palestinian rights. Rather than improve relationships between the Syrian and Palestinian leaderships, however, this sense of common identity has served to increase competition. If the Palestinians and the Syrians are in some important sense one, who is the rightful leader of this larger grouping?4 Finally, in attempting to exert regional influence, Syria has an interest in leading a united front against Israel and preventing Lebanon and the Palestinians from implementing a separate peace with Israel, as Egypt and Jordan have done. In short, Syria has an interest in influencing, if not controlling, the direction of Palestinian politics for regional, domestic and ideological reasons.
The historical ups and downs of Syria’s relationship with the Palestinian leadership stems from the desire of Damascus to exert regional leadership. In the mid1960s, after the breakup of the Syrian union with Egypt, relations between the Baath leadership in Syria and the Palestinian resistance under Yasser Arafat were quite positive as both shared an interest in balancing against Egypt and the Egyptian dominated Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). The relationship turned sour, however, before and after the 1967 war; Damascus viewed Palestinian attacks on Israel from Syria as contrary to Syrian national interests because they gave Israel an excuse to attack an outgunned Syria. In 1966, Hafiz al-Asad ordered the arrest of a number of the Palestinian guerrilla leaders, including Arafat, who was held for 55 days before being released. Relations became further strained in 1970, when Asad, fearing the possibility of Israeli or American intervention, failed to support the Palestinians during the Jordanian civil war. Direct fighting between Syria and the Arafat-led PLO broke out in Lebanon in 1976, when Syria intervened in the Lebanese civil war, initially supporting the Christian-led government against the Muslim opposition forces with whom the PLO had aligned itself since being evicted from Jordan. The Camp David accords between the Egyptians and the Israelis brought a brief improvement in Syrian PLO relations, as both feared Israeli regional dominance once Cairo had accepted a separate peace. This period of improved relations was short lived. The Syrians and the PLO were soon at war again, as Syria encouraged splits in the PLO by supporting Palestinian groups opposed to Arafat.5
While Syria and the Palestinians may share a common enemy, the more independent the Palestinian leadership is from Damascus, the less influence Syria has in regional events. The result is that Damascus will work with Arafat as the preeminent leader of the Palestinian people when it must, but prefers to work against him when it can. If Arafat, or any Palestinian leader (including the recently installed prime minister Abu Mazen), were strong enough to pursue a bilateral deal with the Israelis, the regional isolation of Syria would greatly increase, and Syria’s leverage in its ongoing dispute with Israel over the Golan would markedly diminish. To the consternation of Damascus, this danger became a reality in 1993, when secret talks in Oslo produced just such a bilateral deal.
SYRIA AND THE OSLO ACCORDS
The Syrians, like almost everyone else, were surprised when, on September 13, 1993, Israel and the PLO signed the Declaration of Principles on the White House lawn. While Syria and the rest of the world had been concentrating on the largely deadlocked Madrid talks that had emerged from the end of the Gulf War, this agreement, which provided for the creation of an interim Palestinian Authority in parts of Gaza and the West Bank and set an ambitious timeline for the negotiation of a final peace treaty between Israel and the Palestinians, had been worked out in secret negotiations held in Oslo, Norway.
Angry at not being consulted and perturbed that the Palestinians, like the Egyptians before them, had decided to pursue a separate peace with Israel, Syria refused to endorse the Oslo accords. At first, the Syrian reaction was surprisingly moderate, especially considering the amount of invective Syria had unleashed following Egypt’s signing of a separate peace with Israel.6 When Arafat visited Damascus to seek support for the Oslo accords, Asad simply told him that he was on his own and proceeding “at his own risk.”7 Syria’s simultaneous pursuit of an agreement with Israel that would return the Golan Heights to Syria is probably the best explanation for this initial reticence.
As hopes for a deal on the Golan declined and the Oslo peace process itself stumbled, Syria’s criticism became more vocal. Decrying Jordan’s 1994 peace treaty with Israel as well as the Oslo accords, Asad lamented the “enormity of the damage that unilateralism has inflicted in the core of the causes for which we have long fought and struggled.” “What can we do since the others have left us?” Asad plaintively asked, as Syria had been pushed to the side while the Egyptians, the Palestinians and the Jordanians had all signed peace agreements with Israel.8
The major consolation the Syrians clung to was their hope that they knew what was best for the Palestinians and the Arabs, even if the PLO and the rest of the Arab world disagreed. The Oslo accords were only a temporary setback, the Syrian leadership reasoned, because it was only a matter of time before the entire peace process it set in motion would collapse. When that happened, Syria would be there to resume its rightful position as leader of a common Arab front. As Syrian Vice-president Abdul Halim Khaddam put it:
When Arafat came to us in Damascus after the signing of the Oslo Accords, we told him that we could not agree with him but we would not fight him. We said to him that he had taken a decision independently, Allah be with him, and that he had to resolve the problem himself. However, we warned him that the path he had chosen was a dead-end that would bring no good to him or to the Palestinian people . . . . If there is no peace between Syria and Israel, there is no peace in the region at all.9
As the Syrians saw it, there was no conflict between their support for the Palestinian cause and their rejection of the PLO-negotiated Oslo accords. As Khaddam put it, “Everyone in the Arab world says, ‘That is what the Palestinians want, and we support what the PLO wants.’ But if the PLO goes to hell, are we to let the Palestinian people go to hell with it?”10
In order to give destiny a push in the right direction, Syria continued to support Palestinian groups, such as Hamas and Palestine Islamic Jihad, that rejected Arafat’s peace with Israel, and Damascus continued its rhetorical offensive against the Oslo peace process. Perhaps the lowest, and certainly the most bizarre, point in this rhetorical offensive came in August 1999, when Syrian Defense Minister Mustafa Tlass, in a speech in Lebanon, called Arafat the “son of 60,000 whores.” Tlass then likened Arafat’s concessions to Israel to that of a stripper, with Arafat shedding Palestinian rights in place of clothing. The major difference, Tlass argued, was that, unlike a stripper, Arafat became uglier with each concession. Although these vulgar statements had already set the bar fairly low, the supporters of Arafat responded in kind, at times even outdoing Tlass in crudeness.11
With the death of Hafiz al-Asad in June 2000, the Palestinian issue took a back seat to the more pressing needs of assuring the political succession of power to Hafiz’s son Bashar and the need for significant economic reforms within Syria. In Bashar’s inauguration speech, the Palestinians are mentioned only once.12 As many American presidents have found, however, ignoring the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is easier said than done. At the very moment that Bashar al-Asad was being sworn in as the new president of Syria, the Israelis and the Palestinians were meeting at Camp David, trying to work out a final-status agreement under American auspices.
Just as Syria had opposed Oslo, it continued to oppose any negotiations under the Oslo framework. Nothing positive could be expected to emerge from these talks at Camp David, Defense Minister Tlass argued, because the lack of Arab unity will allow the United States to “appease Israel.” Harkening back to the Madrid peace conference, Tlass argued that “peace was certainly in reach. But the Jews deceived Yasser Arafat and pushed him to the dark alleyways of Oslo.” Confident that Syria spoke for the true interests of many Palestinians, Tlass argued that while Hafiz al-Asad opposed Oslo, he decided to let the Palestinians themselves “discover the extent of their mistake.” Camp David II would offer the Palestinians nothing; “after six years of concessions and retreats, they are now stumbling in Camp David . . . because the Jews cannot give them anything. The enemy would not give anything to one who has abandoned all his weapons.”13
Whether it sprang more from hope or insightful analysis, the Syrian leadership’s pessimistic predictions about the fate of Oslo were eventually proven correct. The Camp David meetings broke up without agreement, as did later attempts to bring the Israelis and the Palestinians back to the bargaining table to resolve Oslo’s final status issues. Soon the peace process would be swallowed up by a new intifada and a renewed occupation, which offered Syria an opportunity to reassert its leadership of a renewed anti-Israeli bloc in the region.
SYRIA AND THE AL-AQSA INTIFADA
Syria’s immediate reaction to Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif on September 28, 2000, was to use it as a stick to attack the Oslo peace process and Arafat’s leadership of the Palestinians. In hindsight, it is easy to mark this visit as the date upon which the Oslo peace process died. Although talks between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Arafat hobbled on for a few months more, from late September on, violence replaced negotiations. In September 2000, however, Syria could not know that Sharon’s sojourn would help spark a new intifada that is now entering its third year. As a result, Syria did not initially see Sharon’s visit as signaling an end to Oslo, but they did see it as reaffirming their long held belief that the Oslo process should be halted.
The day after Sharon’s visit to the al-Aqsa complex, the official paper of the Syrian Baath party condemned his action, citing it as additional evidence that “the incomplete agreements that Israel seeks to conclude can never lead to the peace that can provide security and stability to all.”14 When protests in Jerusalem turned violent, the Syria Times, a government mouthpiece, asked, “If this is the harvest of peace, what was the point?” These events, the editorial continued, “prove once again the rightness of Syria’s attitude that separate accords with Israel will not bring real peace.”15
Coming in for just as much criticism as Sharon was Yasser Arafat, whom the Syrians blamed for leading the Palestinians into this sorry state of affairs. The biggest worry expressed in the Syrian press in late September was not the danger of expanded violence, but the “apprehension that some kind of settlement is being worked out in Washington,” in which Arafat and the Palestinian Authority would be forced to accept a disadvantageous peace agreement.16 While the Palestinian street had long been questioning the benefits of the Oslo peace process, the Syria Times argued, “the Arafat leadership appears unrepentant, insisting on continuing the road of destruction it had chosen nine years ago.” Arafat was in danger of leading the Palestinians to “national suicide,” because “the success of the peace process, whatever costs it may need, is a matter of survival” for Arafat and his associates.17
The Syrian critique was not solely negative; it also offered an opinion on what would be a more promising model for the Palestinians. Instead of Arafat’s path of negotiation, a better strategy for the Palestinians would be to return to “armed struggle . . . . because there can be no agreement between the wound and the knife.” The place to look for guidance was southern Lebanon, where the Lebanese resistance had achieved its goals by forcing an Israeli withdrawal, rather than signing “humiliating accords.” The Palestinians, it was argued, could have achieved similar results had they stayed on the path of the intifada and not pursued bilateral talks with Israel.18
In these initial responses to Sharon’s visit and to the first signs of renewed violence can be seen each of the four major facets of Syria’s overall response to the al-Aqsa intifada: 1) Syria views this latest round of violence as vindication of its hostility to the Oslo process from the start. 2) Syria argues that following the model of the Lebanese resistance is the best path forward for the Palestinians. 3) While expressing vocal support for the goals of the Palestinian people, Syria remains hostile to Arafat’s leadership of the Palestinians. 4) Overall, Syria sees the al-Aqsa intifada as an opportunity to reassert its claim to leadership of the Arab opponents to Israel and to emphasize that the road to peace in the region should go through Damascus, and not Gaza and Jericho first.
Don’t Say We Didn’t Warn You
Perhaps the dominant rhetorical thread in the Syrian leadership’s response to the al-Aqsa intifada is the smug assertion that the escalation of violence demonstrates how Syria was right all along in rejecting the Oslo peace process. Instead of being surprised by the breakdown of that process, Syria maintains that this is exactly what it expected to happen. As Bashar al-Asad put it in an interview, Syria “saw right from the beginning that the peace process was heading to a landslide.” Rather than falling victim to what he calls the “delusions” of the current peace efforts, Bashar continues, “We say that the situation that exists now was obvious to us a long time ago and that nothing changed. Some friendly states are discovering this truth only now.”19
In case anyone was in danger of missing the point, Bashar stresses it again and again. A good example comes in an interview in February 2002, where Bashar reiterated that:
What I see today is what we saw in 1993. In 1993, when the Oslo agreement was signed, President Hafiz al-Asad said that each paragraph of the agreement needs another agreement. And this is actually what has proven to be true. Nine years since then and we did not see the peace the agreement wanted to achieve. Syria said at the time that these agreements are not going to bring peace to the region, and today we all see that there is no peace in the region. Syria said then, that these agreements are going to lead to more turbulence and this is what we witness today. So, what we see today is based on what we saw then, and things are still as we saw them then.20
The Lebanese Model
Syria pairs its condemnation of Arafat’s path with praise for the path taken by the resistance in Lebanon to Israeli occupation. Hezbollah’s attacks, which the Syrians stress are done in coordination with Syria, have succeeded, they argue, where the Palestinians, the Jordanians and the Egyptians have failed. The May 2000 Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon is put forward as the best example of a clear-cut Arab victory over Israel. Israel was forced to end its occupation of certain Arab lands, but, unlike similar withdrawals, such as the return of the Sinai to Egypt, Lebanon did not have to recognize Israel, offer concessions or sign a humiliating treaty to regain its land. Instead, the Lebanese resistance fought until the Israelis decided to leave.
What worked for the Lebanese under Syrian guidance, Damascus stresses, should now be made to work for the Palestinians. From this viewpoint, a renewed intifada is exactly what Palestinians should be focusing on. The al-Aqsa intifada can therefore be seen, as Bashar put it, as “a message by the Palestinian brothers” in the occupied territories that “they have understood the lessons” of Lebanon. 21 The contrast between Hezbollah’s success in southern Lebanon and a decade-long peace process that “excelled in failure,” demonstrates, Bashar argues, Syria’s wisdom in rejecting Oslo and working with the Lebanese resistance.22 As Bashar succinctly put it, “Did diplomacy restore south Lebanon?”23
Consistent with the limited support the Syrians offered to the Lebanese resistance against Israel, Syria is now willing to provide partial support for the al-Aqsa intifada. The principal limitations on that support are twofold: Damascus is unwilling to take any actions in support of the Palestinians that could give Israel an excuse to attack Syria, and support for Arafat and the existing leadership of the Palestinian Authority is quite thin. Barry Rubin argues that in their relationships with the PLO and Israel, Arab states have learned to be “militant in word and timorous in deed.”24 This, in some ways, is an apt characterization of Syria’s reaction to the al-Aqsa intifada. The rhetoric coming out of Damascus has been aggressive in its support of the Palestinian resistance. At the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) meeting in Qatar held right at the outset of the al-Aqsa intifada, Bashar accused the Israelis of seeking to destroy al-Aqsa and to “falsify history” by linking the Haram al-Sharif to the Temple Mount. Calling on all Muslim states to sever relations with Israel, Bashar accused the Israelis of practicing a “new Nazism.”25 A few months later, Bashar described Israel as “a state based on loathsome racist values and hatred toward Arabs and Islam.”26 Regularly referring to the violence as “the blessed intifada,”27 Bashar later implicitly condoned attacks on Israeli civilians when, during the 2001 Arab summit in Amman, he argued that the problem with Israel did not lie in any particular leader, the armed forces or the government, but was inherently a product of Israel’s racist society.28
Beyond supportive rhetoric, however, concrete Syrian support has been limited. Politically, Damascus has pushed for the Arab states that maintain relations with Israel to sever them, but it has not taken this call beyond vocal exhortation. Economically, Syria is in no position to offer much to the Palestinians, and Syrian efforts so far have been limited to calling for an intifada stamp to be created, with proceeds going to support the Palestinians, and for all state employees in Syria to contribute one day’s wages to a fund to support the intifada.29 Militarily, Syria’s position on the intifada has been similar to its position with regard to Hezbollah attacks: Damascus will not let these attacks drag Syria into an unwanted war with Israel.30
Support for the Palestinians and the intifada, the Syrians are quick to stress, does not mean support for Arafat. For example, the statement of support for the al-Aqsa intifada that was issued by the OIC in November 2000 was changed, at Syria’s insistence, to eliminate any mention of Arafat.31 Viewing the intifada as directed not just against Israel, but also against Arafat’s leadership and the Palestinian Authority as a whole,32 Damascus has no desire to support Arafat as leader and spokesman for the Palestinian people. “Arafat has never been responsible for the intifada,” Bashar al-Asad has argued. “Why are young people going into the streets fearless of death? Why are Palestinians taking part in suicide attacks? The intifada is not the work of one man, . . . it is the revolt of the Palestinian people.”33 As for the Palestinian Authority, there is no such thing, Bashar argues. What is called the Palestinian Authority is only a front, because “the real authority” remains “in the hands of Israel.”34
Assertion of Syrian Leadership
Each of the three facets of Syria’s reaction discussed above contributes to bolstering the fourth and most important aspect of that reaction, which is to use the al-Aqsa intifada to buttress Syria’s claim for a leadership position in the struggle against Israeli regional hegemony. In arguing that the al-Aqsa intifada demonstrates how Syria was right all along in rejecting the Oslo process, the not-so-subtle implication is that the Arabs in the region would benefit from following Syria’s guidance today. That is the same underlying theme in the stress Damascus puts on Hezbollah’s success in southern Lebanon. Syria’s dominance in Lebanon and coordination with the Lebanese resistance worked out well, it is argued, so why not allow Syria to play that leadership position in Palestine as well? The fact that the Palestinians already have a leader in Yasser Arafat and a leadership in the Palestinian Authority should be no obstacle to this claim, because to listen to the story from Damascus, the regime in Syria is more closely aligned with the goals of the Palestinian people than the failed and desperate Arafat. As argued above, for ideological, domestic and regional reasons, Syria has an interest in controlling the direction of Palestinian politics and the relationship between Palestine and Israel. The al-Aqsa intifada opens a door for Syrian influence that has been largely closed since Oslo, if not longer.
Syria’s method in attempting to exert this leadership is to call for a pan-Arab front against Israel, with Syria offering the definitive interpretation of what Arab interests are. The path of negotiations and normalization with Israel must be abandoned, Farouk al-Sharaa argued soon after the al-Aqsa intifada had begun, because “every scene of handshake or salute or regional or bilateral cooperation [with Israel] is used by Israel against the peace process and against the supreme Arab interests.”35 President Bashar al-Asad, elaborating on this theme a few days later, stressed that the goal of the Arabs should not be to end the violence, but to make Israel “pay the price.” The way to ensure this, Bashar continued, was to form a united pan-Arab front to pursue “the peace of the strong” rather than the peace of the brave. The agenda put forward for this pan-Arab front, not surprisingly, is the agenda Syria had been advocating since well before Oslo. No separate peaces, no relations and no normalization with Israel until Israel agreed to “the return of all the territories occupied in June 1967 in the Golan and Palestine.”36
Regretting the lack of cooperation between the Syrians and the Palestinians over the last decade, Bashar has expressed a willingness to “let bygones be bygones” and mend those relations. The price of entry for improved relations is not to forget the past, but to “learn its lessons.” Those lessons, as spelled out by Bashar, are that the best way to pursue “the Palestinian cause” is with the “Syrian method and logic.”37 In short, in order to receive Syria’s help, Palestine must accept Syria’s lead. This applies not only to the Palestinians, but to the other Arab states as well, which Syria encourages to see the errors of their ways and break off relations with Israel. “If the start of the intifada and the killing of scores of martyrs everyday . . . is not a justification” for severing relations with Israel, Bashar asks, “When is it ever going to be justified?”38
Syria’s quest for a leadership role with regard to Arab relations with Israel can also be seen in the hostility of Damascus toward the Saudi peace plan put forward prior to the March 2002 Arab summit in Beirut. Roughly speaking, the Saudi plan offered Israel normalization of relations with all the Arab states in return for Israeli withdrawal from all occupied territories. Angry at not being consulted in advance, irked that the Saudi plan seemed to place the grievances of the Palestinians above that of the Syrians (the Golan Heights were not specifically mentioned, but Jerusalem was), and unwilling to risk the domestic and regional complications that could flow from a region-wide normalization with Israel, Syria lobbied fiercely against Crown Prince Abdullah’s plan. Indeed, the Asad regime even encouraged a rare mass demonstration in Damascus against the plan. Syrian efforts in this direction were successful in altering the plan, slowing its momentum, and ultimately making it a less attractive offer for the Israelis.39
SEPTEMBER 11 AND OPERATION IRAQI FREEDOM
No distinction is made in the sections above with regard to Syria’s policy toward the al-Aqsa intifada before and after the terrorist attacks on America of September 11, 2001, because those attacks had little, if any, discernable impact on Syrian policy. While Bashar al-Asad was quick to condemn the attacks on New York and Washington and to call for worldwide cooperation against terrorism,40 Syria has rejected any implications that these attacks should have any bearing on Syria’s relations with Israel and the Palestinians. More specifically, Syria has flatly refused to accept President Bush’s Manichaean division of the world, with Bashar simply stating that “we are neither with nor against the United States” in its war on terrorism.41 Having fought a costly campaign against a largely Islamic-based opposition movement in the 1970s and 1980s that employed terrorism, the Asad regime certainly had no sympathy for al-Qaeda or the Taliban. Indeed, as the tenth anniversary of the Syrian regime’s bloody destruction of the city of Hama approached, Bashar even suggested to a visiting delegation of U.S. members of Congress that the United States could learn a thing or two from Syria about how to smash terrorist threats.42 While willing to cooperate in the campaign against al-Qaeda, Syria has shown no indication of a willingness to cut its ties to all the groups the United States designates as terrorists. The State Department’s most recent report on international terrorism notes that Syria “has cooperated significantly with the United States and other foreign governments against al-Qaeda,” but keeps Syria on the list of state-sponsors of terror for its support for various Palestinian and Lebanese terrorist groups.43
To explain the distinction the Syrians make, Bashar maintains that “there is a difference between terrorism and resistance; . . . the difference between one who has the right and the other who usurps the right.”44 The thrust of this statement and many others like it coming from the Syrian regime is that Lebanese and Palestinian attacks on Israel are legitimate acts of resistance against occupation and therefore should not be seen as terrorism. Consistent with this approach, when the Asad regime has offered any comparison between the attacks of September 11 and the situation in the West Bank and Gaza strip, the emphasis has been on the victims of occupation, rather than terrorism. Syria’s representative at the United Nations argued that the destruction of Palestinian homes by the Israeli military is “not much different from the scene of the World Trade Center.” Following criticism from Secretary of State Powell for these remarks, Bashar al-Asad supported his emissary, arguing that the sorrow Syria feels for the victims of September 11 is equal to the sorrow the Syrians feel for the Palestinian victims of Israeli occupation.45
Support for Lebanese and Palestinian resistance groups is part of Syria’s strategy for regional influence. Syria’s strategic dilemma is that its regional ambitions far outstrip its material power base. In terms of raw military and economic power resources, Syria is greatly overmatched by three of its immediate neighbors: Iraq, Israel and Turkey. In the broader Arab world, it cannot match the military power of Egypt or the economic influence of the Saudis. Support for groups like Hezbollah and Hamas offers Syria a relatively cheap and low-risk way to increase its voice in regional affairs. As Fouad Ajami put it, while Syria “does not have the standard ingredients of which countries that matter are made,” it has been able to increase its voice in regional affairs through “its capacity for mischief.”46 With regard to Israel more specifically, Syria wants to regain the Golan but largely lacks the military and economic resources to make Israel’s occupation of that territory particularly costly for the Israelis. Syrian support for and influence over groups like Hezbollah, Hamas and the intifada more generally are the best weapons Damascus possesses in giving Israel an incentive to negotiate.
Given Damascus’ mixed behavior in the war on terrorism, it is not surprising that Washington’s response has been mixed as well. Although rejecting any distinctions between good and bad terrorism, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice left the door open for nuance in Washington’s counterterrorism strategy by arguing that “the means we use with different countries to get them to stop harboring terrorists may be very broad.”47 There were some early indications that the administration would pursue a confrontational approach toward Syria. President Bush, for example, issued a number of tough statements regarding Syria’s continued support for Lebanese and Palestinian resistance groups. In April 2002, Bush stated that “Syria has spoken out against al-Qaeda. We expect it to act against Hezbollah and Hamas as well. It is time . . . for Syria to decide which side of the war against terror it is on.” A couple of months later Bush insisted that “Syria must choose the right side in the war on terror by closing terrorist camps and expelling terrorist organizations.”48
Presidential rhetoric aside, however, the Bush administration adopted a largely non-confrontational approach to Syria in the aftermath of September 11. For example, in 2002, the administration opposed the passage of the Syrian Accountability Act, which would impose additional sanctions against Syria unless it severed its ties with terrorist groups, stopped its subversion of sanctions against Iraq, ceased its weapons of mass destruction program and ended its occupation of Lebanon. Assistant Secretary of State William Burns, arguing against the legislation, explained that the Syrian-U.S. relationship is “a very complicated one” because despite the many disagreements between the two nations, Syrian cooperation in the current campaign against al-Qaeda “has saved American lives.” Dialogue, rather than confrontation, was the administration’s preferred approach. Borrowing terminology from the previous administration, the deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, David Satterfield, argued that the peculiar mixture of shared and opposing interests with Damascus “requires high-level, sustained engagement with the Syrian government.”49
Did the onset of war in Iraq alter this situation? At first it seemed as if the answer might be yes. Syria was perhaps the most vocal opponent of the war and during the war was accused of directly supporting Saddam Hussein’s regime with arms shipments and by allowing irregular forces to cross into Iraq from Syria. Following the war, charges that Damascus was offering sanctuary to high-level members of the deposed Hussein regime exacerbated Washington’s worries that Syria would play a disruptive role in postwar Iraq. Military victory in Iraq also meant that the United States had more economic and military leverage over Damascus than it had prior to the war.
The Bush administration also indicated its willingness to utilize this increased leverage. The actions here ranged from the direct, such as the severing of the oil pipeline between Iraq and Syria, and the indirect, such as Powell’s warnings that if Syria did not mend its ways it could soon face increased economic sanctions stemming from legislative actions, like the renamed and reintroduced “Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act of 2003.”50 As a result, speculation quickly arose that the Bush administration was about to embark on a more confrontational approach toward Syria, with some going so far as to argue that regime change in Damascus was the likely next step in the war on terror.51
Fundamental change in the U.S.-Syrian relationship is, however, unlikely even given the changes wrought by Operation Iraqi Freedom. The postwar confrontation between Washington and Damascus subsided as quickly as it arose with Secretary of State Powell’s announcement that he would be traveling to Damascus to hold discussions with the Syrian leadership. President Bush, after initially demanding that Syria “just needs to cooperate with us,” later eased his rhetoric by concluding that, he had seen “some positive signs” from Syria and that “[i]t seems like they are beginning to get the message.”52 Following his meetings in Damascus, Powell cautiously concluded that while Syrian policy is still far from ideal and bears continued scrutiny, as far as the United States was concerned, Syria was slowly moving in the right direction.53
While Syrian state television could opt to broadcast a documentary on Islamic architecture while statues of Saddam Hussein were torn down in Baghdad, the Asad regime could not fully ignore the consequences of Hussein’s toppling. Indeed, right after the war, Syria did begin the process of recalibrating its behavior in light of what Powell euphemistically termed the “new strategic situation.” In response to direct U.S. complaints, Damascus quickly evicted a small number of Iraqi leaders from the country and increased efforts toward sealing Syria’s border with Iraq.54 These actions, however, should be seen as part of a process of tactical readjustments and not as part of a process of strategic reorientation. Syrian-U.S. relations remain an arena of limited conflict mixed with limited cooperation. U.S. leverage may be enhanced by military victory in Iraq, but it is still limited. For example, no sooner had Powell left Damascus than a dispute arose over whether Syria had promised to close the terrorist offices operating in Syria or simply restrict their activities.
Syria’s policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian relationship, in particular, offers strong evidence for continuity in Syrian policy, even in the face of the “new strategic situation” following the war in Iraq. This can perhaps best be seen in Syria’s reaction toward the recently released Roadmap,55 which is virtually identical to Syria’s earlier position towards the Oslo peace process. Even before the so-called Quartet (the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia) formally released the Roadmap, Damascus was criticizing it. “Although the United States is against cloning,” Syrian Vice-president Khaddam taunted, “the roadmap is a clone of earlier agreements, and this clone will be weaker.”56 Bashar al-Asad similarly judged the Roadmap as “doomed to failure” because it does “not fulfill the aspirations of the Palestinian people.” Rather than seeking an end to the intifada, Asad worries instead that some “conspiracies” threaten its continuation.57 Emphasizing the intifada over the Roadmap, Syria’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman deftly encapsulated Syria’s position toward Oslo, the intifada and now the Roadmap:
Since the signing of the Oslo accords and other [peace] accords, Syria has always said that these accords are not viable and will not last. . . . Developments have vindicated Syria’s viewpoint. We would like to say that it is high time the parties heeded the attitude of Syria. . . . As for the Tenet Plan, the Mitchell Plan, the Oslo Accords, and the road-map plan, they are all useless. They wager on the concessions that individuals may make. By contrast, we are wagering on the peoples’ will.58
When Ariel Sharon decided to visit the al-Aqsa complex atop the Temple Mount, he was walking in the footsteps of some of his predecessors, as are his opponents. On August 16, 1929, over 70 years prior to Sharon’s sojourn, an earlier group of Zionists had staged a march to the Western Wall to demand Jewish ownership for the site. That visit, combined with a number of other underlying grievances and frustrations between the Palestinians and the growing Jewish population in the area then under the British Mandate, helped to spark a wave of violence that left hundreds of Jews and Arabs killed and wounded.59 One of the leading figures on the Arab side during this period of violence was Sheikh Izz al-Din Qassam. Leading small groups of fighters against the Jewish settlers, Qassam was eventually killed by British forces in 1935. Qassam’s name was invoked in the very early stages of the first intifada and is now used by Hamas, whose Qassam Brigades comprise their militant arm. Qassam, interestingly, was not a Palestinian, but a Syrian, born in Jablah on the Mediterranean coast near Latakia.60
Thus the current al-Aqsa intifada, and Syria’s involvement in it, is far from unprecedented. The fate of the Temple Mount and the Haram al-Sharif and the broader fate of the Israelis, Palestinians and Syrians have long been entwined. The latest chapter of this distressingly bloody saga reaffirms the importance, along with the difficulty, even after the victory of American arms in Iraq, of approaching this problem comprehensively, rather than partially.
1 “Al-Sharaa on Intifadah, Lebanon, Says ‘Syria Cannot Return to Negotiation Table Now,’” Foreign Broadcast Information Service (hereafter FBIS), Source-Date: November 26, 2000.
2 Patrick Seale, Asad of Syria: The Struggle For The Middle East (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1988), p. 348.
3 For studies that highlight the importance of ideology, see Ghada Hashem Talhami, Syria and the Palestinians: The Clash of Nationalisms (Gainesville, FL: University of Florida Press, 2001); Daniel Pipes, Greater Syria: The History of An Ambition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1990); and “Palestine For The Syrians,” Commentary, Vol. 82, No. 6, December 1986, pp. 30-36. For studies that stress Syria’s regional interests, see Barry Rubin, “Israel, the Peace Process and the Arab States,” Middle East Review of International Affairs, Vol. 1, No. 4, December 1997, pp. 1-18; Revolution Until Victory? The Politics and History of the PLO (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994), pp. 123-145; Rashid Khalidi, “The Asad Regime and the Palestinian Resistance” Arab Studies Quarterly, Vol. 6, No. 4, Fall 1984, pp. 259-266; Itamar Rabinovich, Waging Peace: Israel and The Arabs at the End of the Century (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1999), pp. 73 and 197; and Yaha Sadowski, “The Evolution of Political Identity in Syria,” Identity and Foreign Policy in the Middle East, eds. Shibley Telhami and Michael Barnett (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2002). Moshe Maoz also stresses the importance of Asad’s domestic calculations along with his regional ambitions, see Asad: The Sphinx of Damascus: A Political Biography (New York: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1988), pp. 119-120. All these studies, while stressing one variable over others, ultimately come to accept the need to focus on the interaction of each of these three factors. For an excellent recent discussion that explores the interaction of these factors, see Raymond Hinnebusch, “The Foreign Policy of Syria,” The Foreign Policies of Middle East States, eds. Raymond Hinnebusch and Anoushiravan Ehteshami (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2002), see especially pp. 141-143, 149, and 156.
4 On the common ideology of pan-Arabism or pan-Syrianism spurring competition over leadership, see Malcolm Kerr, The Arab Cold War: Gamal Abd Al-Nasser and His Rivals (London: Oxford University Press, 1970); Stephen M. Walt, The Origins of Alliances (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1987), pp. 206-212; Daniel Pipes, Greater Syria, pp. 87-88; and Efraim Karsh, “Why The Middle East is So Volatile,” Middle East Quarterly, Vol. 7, No. 4, December 2000, pp. 13-22.
5 For overviews of Syrian-Palestinian relations, see Gary Gambill, “Syria’s Foreign Relations: The Palestinian Authority,” Middle East Intelligence Bulletin, Vol. 3, No.4, April 2001, pp. 1-4; Moshe Maoz and Avner Yaniv, “On A Short Leash: Syria and the PLO,” Syria Under Asad: Domestic Constraints and Regional Risks, eds. Moshe Maoz and Avner Yaniv (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1986), pp. 191-205; Talhami, Syria and the Palestinians; and Khalidi, “The Asad Regime and the Palestinian Resistance.” For a focus on SyrianPalestinian Relations in the midst of the Lebanon civil war, see Rex Brynen, Sanctuary and Survival: The PLO in Lebanon (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1990); and Emile F. Sahliyeh, The PLO After the Lebanon War (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1986).
6 Eyal Zisser, Asad’s Legacy: Syria in Transition (London: Hurst and Company, 2001), pp. 88-89.
7 Talhami, Syria and the Palestinians, pp. 207-208.
8 Raymond A. Hinnebusch, “Syria and the Transition to Peace,” The Middle East and the Peace Process: The Impact of the Oslo Accords, ed. Robert O. Freedman (Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 1998), p. 140.
9 Zisser, Asad’s Legacy, p. 90.
11 For Tlass’s statements, see Gambill, “Syria’s Foreign Relations: The Palestinian Authority,” p. 2. For the Palestinian response, see “Arafat’s Striptease and the Syrian Defense Minister’s Pecadillos,” The Middle East Media Research Institute, Special Dispatch Series, No. 43, August 6, 1999. See http://www.memri.org.
12 Bashar al-Asad Inauguration Speech, July 17, 2000, Syrian Arab News Agency, acquired from http:// www.sana.org.
13 “Syria: Tlass Discusses Al-Asad, Peace, Bashar, Arab Ties,” FBIS, Source-Date: July 15, 2000.
14 “Syria Al-Baath: Sharon Visit to al-Aqsa Mosque Provocation,” FBIS, Source-Date: September 29, 2000.
15 “Syrian Editorial: Sharon’s Visit Produced ‘Intended Impasse,’ ‘Despair,’” FBIS, Source-Date, September 30, 2000.
16 “Syria Al-Baath: Sharon Visit to al-Aqsa Mosque Provocation,” FBIS, Source-Date: September 29, 2000. 17 Ahmad Halaweh, “Article Criticizes Continued Palestinian Participation in ‘Futile Talks,’” Syria Times, FBIS, Source-Date: September 30, 2000.
19 “Syrian President Bashar Al-Asad’s Interview With Le Figaro,” from Damascus Tishrin, FBIS, SourceDate: June 23, 2001.
20 “President Asad Reiterates Commitment To Just Peace,” Interview with Corriere Della Sera, February 14, 2002, Syrian Arab News Agency. Acquired from http://www.sana.org.
21 Bashar al-Asad, “Syrian President Speech at the Cairo Arab Summit,” FBIS, Source-Date: October 21, 2000. For a discussion of the application of the Lebanese model to the situation in the Palestinian occupied territories, see Augustus Richard Norton, “Hezbollah and the Israeli Withdrawal from Southern Lebanon,” Journal of Palestine Studies, Vol. 30, No. 1, Autumn 2000, pp. 22-35; Eyal Zisser, “The Lebanon-Syria-Israel Triangle: One Year After Israeli Withdrawal,” PeaceWatch, No. 326, May 22, 2001, The Washington Institute For Near East Policy; and Chris Hedges, “The New Palestinian Revolt,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 80, No. 1, January/February 2001, pp. 136-137. For a discussion of the limits of that model, see Fawaz A. Gerges, “Israel’s Retreat From Southern Lebanon: Internal and External Implications,” Middle East Policy, Vol. 8, No. 1, March 2001, pp. 106-116.
22 Bashar al-Asad, “Syria’s Bashar Assad’s Speech at the Arab Summit (March 2001),” April 4, 2001. Middle East Media Research Institute, Special Dispatch Series, No. 202, acquired from http://www.memri.org.
23 “Bashar al-Asad on Peace Process, Arab Ties, Syrian Presence in Lebanon,” Interview with London AlSharq al-Awsat, FBIS, Source-Date: February 8, 2001. For similar advocacy of the Lebanese model from Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa and Vice President Zuhayr Mashariqa, see “Al-Sharaa on Intifada, Lebanon, Says ‘Syria Cannot Return to Negotiation Table Now’”; and “Iran: Syrian Vice President says Muslim nations should defend Holy Qods,” FBIS, Source-Date, April 24, 2001.
24 Revolution Until Victory, p. 126.
25 Bashar al-Asad, “Speech to the 9th Summit of the Organization of the Islamic Conference,” October 12, 2000, Syrian Arab News Agency, acquired at http://www.sana.org.
26 See “Anti-Israeli Statements by the President of Syria,” Middle East Media Research Institute, Special Dispatch Series, No. 177, January 12, 2001. Acquired at http://www.memri.org.
27 For an example, see “An Interview with Bashar Al-Assad,” Middle East Media Research Institute, Special Dispatch Series, No. 244, July 20, 2001. Acquired at http://www.memri.org.
28 Al-Asad, “Syria’s Bashar Assad’s Speech at the Arab Summit (March 2001).”
29 See “Syrian Premier Deducts 1-Day’s Wages From Public Sector Staff to Support Intifadah,” FBIS, SourceDate: December 6, 2000; Bashar al-Asad, “Speech to the Arab Summit Conference in Beirut,” Syria Times, April 28, 2002; and “Syria, Oman, Yemen Deposit Money Into Intifadah Funds in Support of Palestinians,” FBIS, Source Date: March 14, 2003.
30 See “Syrian President Views Middle East Conflict, Domestic Issues,” FBIS, Source-Date: July 9, 2001.
31 “Report on OIC Summit: Syria Insists on Dropping Arafat’s Name from Communique,” FBIS, SourceDate: November 14, 2000.
32 See Khalil Shikaki, “Palestinians Divided,” Foreign Affairs, Vol. 81, No. 1, January/February 2002, pp. 89-105.
33 “Syrian President Views Middle East Conflict, Domestic Issues.”
34 Al-Asad, “President Assad Reiterates Commitment to Just Peace,” February 14, 2002.
35 “Damascus Radio Carries Al-Sharaa Speech at Arab Foreign Minister’s Conference,” FBIS, Source-Date: October 19, 2000.
36 Al-Asad, “Syrian President Speech at the Cairo Arab Summit,” October 21, 2000. See also, “Bashar alAsad on Peace Process, Arab Ties, Syrian Presence in Lebanon,” February 8, 2001.
37 Al-Asad, “Syria’s Bashar Assad’s Speech at the Arab Summit,” March 2001.
38 Al-Asad, “Speech to the Arab Summit Conference in Beirut,” April 28, 2002.
39 Gary C. Gambill, “Syria and the Saudi Peace Initiative,” Middle East Intelligence Bulletin, Vol. 4, No. 3, March/April 2002.
40 See Bashar al-Asad’s letter to George W. Bush, September 12, 2001.
41 “President Asad/Reuters Delegates Interview,” October 18, 2002, available at Syrian Arab News Agency, acquired from http://www.sana.org.
42 “Bashar Assad Teaches Visiting Members of U.S. Congress How to Fight Terrorism,” Middle East Media Research Institute, Special Dispatch Series, No. 322, January 16, 2002, acquired at http://www.memri.org.
43 United States Department of State, Patterns of Global Terrorism 2002, April 2003, p. 81.
44 Al-Asad, “Speech To the Arab Summit Conference in Beirut,” April 28, 2002.
45 Alfred B. Prados, “Syria: U.S. Relations and Bilateral Issues,” Congressional Research Service, September 13, 2002, p. 4. For Bashar’s response, see “President Assad Reiterates Commitment to Just Peace.”
46 “The Arab Road,” Foreign Policy, No. 47, Summer 1982, p. 16.
47 Rice interview with al-Jazeera, October 16, 2001. Acquired at http://www.whitehouse.gov.
48 George W. Bush, “President Sends Secretary Powell To the Middle East,” remarks of April 2, 2002, and “President Bush Calls for New Palestinian Leadership,” remarks of June 24, 2002. Both acquired at http:// www.whitehouse.gov.
49 The Burns quote comes from Recent Developments in the Middle East: Hearing Before the Subcommittee on The Middle East and South Asia of the Committee On International Relations, House of Representatives, One Hundred Seventh Congress, Second Session, June 18, 2002, Serial No. 107-101, (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2002), p. 19. The Satterfield quote comes from “Statement of Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Satterfield before the House International Relations Committee Subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia, September 18, 2002.” Both were acquired from http://www.house.gov/international_relations.
50 Alfred B. Prados, “Syria: U.S. Relations and Bilateral Issues,” Congressional Research Service, May 13, 2003.
51 For the former, see Gary C. Gambill, “The American-Syrian Crisis and the End of Constructive Engagement,” Middle East Intelligence Bulletin, Vol. 5, No. 4, April 2003. For the latter, see Zev Chafets, “Terror Friendly Syria Needs A Change, Too,” New York Daily News, April 16, 2003.
52 “President Discusses Iraq, Syria,” April 13, 2003, and “President Meets with Ex-POWs,” April 20, 2003. See also “President Visits Soldiers at Army and Navy Medical Centers,” April 11, 2003. Acquired at http:// www.whitehouse.gov.
53 See Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, “Press Briefing With Lebanese Foreign Minister Jean Obeid Following Meeting With Lebanese President Lahoud, Speaker of the Parliament Berri, and Prime Minister Harari at the Presidential Palace,” May 2, 2003, and “Interview on NBC’s Meet The Press With Tim Russert,” May 4, 2003. Both acquired from http://www.state.gov.secretary/rm/2003.
54 Neil MacFarquhar, “Syria Is Forced to Adapt to a New Power Next Door,” The New York Times, April 22, 2003, and Alan Sipress, “Syrian Reforms Gain Momentum In Wake of War: U. S. Pressure Forces Changes in Foreign, Domestic Policy,” The Washington Post, May 12, 2003. For Powell’s comments on the “new strategic situation,” see Powell, “Interview on NBC’s Meet The Press With Tim Russert,” and “Interview on ABC’s This Week With George Stephanopoulus,” May 4, 2003. Both from http://www.state.gov.secretary/ rm/2003.
55 For the Roadmap, see U.S. Department of State, “A Performance-Based Roadmap to a Permanent TwoState Solution to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict,” April 30, 2003.
56 “Syrian VP in Moscow Displeased With Proposed Middle East Peace Settlement,” FBIS, Source-Date: January 16, 2003.
57 “Syria’s Al-Asad on Iraq War, Intifadah, Israeli ‘Threats,’” FBIS, Source-Date: March 27, 2003.
58 “Al-Jazirah Interviews Syrian Spokeswoman on Strained U.S. Ties, Syria’s ‘Cooperation,’” FBIS, Source Date: April 17, 2003.
59 Mark Tessler, A History of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1994), pp. 235-236.
60 Talhami, Syria and the Palestinians, pp. 14-18.