Earlier this week, Syrian President Bashar Assad traveled to Tehran to meet with Iran's new president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and "supreme guide" Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The visit was a foul blast from the past—an echo from the 1980s, when then-President Hafiz Assad built up close ties with Ayatollah Khomeini's Iran in order to irritate Iraq and protect Syria from Israel and the United States.
Bashar declared in Tehran that cooperation between Syria, Iran and Iraq would "be a barrier in the way of occupiers in the region." He failed to mention, however, that the Iraqis have no sympathy for his regime, which has persistently looked the other way as foreign suicide bombers transit through Syria to murder, mostly, Iraqi civilians; nor did he say that the Americans and the Iraqi authorities last week held up some 700 Syrian trucks on the Syrian-Iraqi border as retaliation for Syria's behavior.
While Assad's Iranian trip was designed to warn the Bush administration off, it was actually a desperation move. The Syrians offer Iran many headaches, but otherwise little it doesn't already have. While both countries are happy to watch the U.S. stumble in Iraq, the ultimate Iranian goal is to put in place a Shiite-controlled government sympathetic to Iran; Syria is by action or omission collaborating with Sunni jihadists who are seeking to destroy that project. Iran is keen to leverage its nuclear program in part to arrive at favorable economic arrangements with Europe; Syria has steadily alienated the Europeans, particularly France, because of its behavior in Lebanon. Iran is today little interested in a dialogue with Washington; Syria's entire strategy, in Iraq and elsewhere, centers around showing the Americans that it is indispensable to them, so that a dialogue can be resumed.
Assad's maneuvers, however, raise a more fundamental question, one heightened by rising American frustration in Iraq: Is a clash between Syria and the United States becoming increasingly inevitable, so that the Iraqi conflict may spread to Syria—more specifically to the Syrian side of the border area with Iraq?
The conventional wisdom is that the Americans have enough to chew on in Iraq. That makes sense, and according to reports in the Arab world, it is precisely what the Syrian regime is counting on: By allowing jihadists into Iraq, it sporadically tightens the screws to show the U.S. the benefits of collaboration.
American intentions toward Syria are unclear. In meetings with senior U.S. officials last April, I got a distinct sense that there was no precise policy towards the Syrian regime, other than to make life as difficult as possible for Assad in the hope that his leadership would crumble. The perception in Washington at the time was that the president was so weak, particularly after his army's forced withdrawal from Lebanon, that he was not long for this world. Nothing suggests that this minimalist approach has changed.
If so, the administration is too sanguine. The Baathists are undeniably decomposing, but despotic regimes can sink slowly. There are no serious alternatives to Assad's rule from outside the small circle of leadership, with the president and his entourage holding a tight monopoly over the use of violence. While Syrians generally dislike their useless regime, they fear Iraq-like chaos after its demise.
Public statements by American officials have been increasingly pointed. A week ago, during a speech wherein he asserted that Syria was "undoubtedly financing" the Iraqi insurgency, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld warned:
The United States and the world obviously [have] to create a better clarity in the minds of leaders of Syria that what they are doing is harmful ultimately to themselves… Iraq is going to be in that neighborhood for a very long time. It's a bigger country and a richer country and will be a more powerful country… the Syrians are not behaving in a wise manner at the present time."
John Bolton, the new U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, mentioned Syria the same day, urging all nations "to meet their obligations to stop the flow of terrorist financing and weapons, and particularly…Iran and Syria."
The statements were hardly harbingers of impending war, but they were fighting words. And, for once, Assad has no European patience to draw on. For example, in the lead story of Al-Hayat on July 30, an unidentified senior French official warned that continued Syrian misbehavior in Lebanon might lead to international sanctions, and remarked:
In the event Syria doesn't realize that positive behavior is in its interest, that means it doesn't realize the significance of agreement between George Bush and Jacques Chirac on Lebanon, and their determination to be firmer with Syria if it doesn't pay attention.
The real question, however, is whether the situation in which the U.S. finds itself in Iraq will soon leave it with few options. Already, there is great American concern with the Euphrates River corridor, along which foreign fighters enter from Syria. Following the death of 22 Marines last week, U.S. and Iraqi forces carried out a military offensive in the area. The Syrians have also reported that their border guards are frequently fired upon by American and Iraqi troops. This may be bogus, but the Bush administration is happy to keep the heat up on a regime that could do much more to control access to Iraq.
In this context, it may be reasonable to presume that American efforts in the border area will escalate if there is no improvement in interdicting the access of foreign fighters. But on their own, the border infiltrations are probably not a critical trigger. The tipping point may be what the Iranians do.
It is Iran, more than Syria, that poses a long-term threat to American designs in Iraq. It is the Iranians who are patiently setting up a political order that will be an alternative to what the Americans favor—and they're doing so with many of the very people the Bush administration considers its allies. The Syrians are adding to the carnage, but are otherwise incapable of creating a durable Iraqi system that they can manipulate. And because the U.S. hasn't the means, or the wherewithal, to engage Iran today militarily, whether in the border area or elsewhere, it might prefer, paradoxically, to strike against Syria.
Bizarre, you say? Perhaps, but relocating a conflict to a more convenient venue can be tempting when a country is eager for military success; particularly, too, when it is contemplating some sort of drawdown of forces. In order to regain a hold over Iraq, and in the process break the increasingly powerful Iranian hand there, the Bush administration might seek first to settle its accounts with Syria on the Western border. Syria is feeble; Iran is not. Syria has no solid allies; Iran is still regarded as a country with which business can be concluded. And ending suicide attacks is something palpable, while curbing Iranian influence demands subtlety that is far less marketable.
Such logic is not any stranger than, let's say, the Nixon administration's behavior in Cambodia in 1969. The U.S. bombed North Vietnamese sanctuaries there to prevent the entry of troops and weapons into South Vietnam, ultimately visiting disaster on a neutral country. This took place after Richard Nixon had won the 1968 election on a platform of negotiated withdrawal from Vietnam, and was seen as an extension of that effort.
A conflict with Syria is unlikely to be quite as dramatic. However, in the absence of a clear-cut administration policy on Syria; given Syrian recklessness in playing sorcerer's apprentice with the jihadists; given the growing Iranian threat to American plans in Iraq, compounded by the ongoing nuclear dispute; and given growing American annoyance with how Iraq is developing, a spectacular reshuffling of the deck might emerge as a favorite option of the administration. If that happens, Syria is the likeliest target, even if the American fist would mainly be directed towards Iraq's east.