A toy called Assad 

By Zvi Bar'el 

10/10/05 "Haaretz"
-- -- Like a cat that tortures a lizard it found in the yard, first plucking its tail, then tearing off a leg before finally boring with it, seems to be U.S. President George W. Bush's attitude toward Syrian President Bashar Assad. Since the beginning of the war against Iraq, Assad has become Bush's toy - until he succeeded in building him up to an enemy on the scale of Saddam Hussein, or at least the president of Iran.

This inflation of the Syrian doll has been so successful that today, without a doubt, if there is someone to blame for the failure of the war against terror in Iraq, it is Assad. If there is someone who threatens the peace of the region, it is Assad. And if there is a leader whose deposal would make all of the U.S.'s problems in the region vanish - lo and behold - it is Assad. Thus, a head of state who is considered a weakling in the eyes of several important Arab leaders and whose deposal the administration in Washington allows itself to publicly contemplate has managed to become such a global threat that he is the subject of complete paragraphs in all of Bush's declarations. And not only in these declarations.

For example, when the president of Turkey visited Washington in June, Bush scolded him for his warm relations with Syria. A substantial part of the conversations Bush conducts with Putin revolve around "the problems Assad is causing in Iraq." And Washington has forged close ties with its rival, France, on the Lebanon issue, for one, because France agreed to cold shoulder Assad. American officials have been leaking information for several weeks about "examining the role of President Assad." And now Washington is building high expectations about the international commission of inquiry chaired by German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis on the murder of Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. Assad brought President Hosni Mubarak the transcripts of the investigations conducted by Mehlis in Syria, which according to Assad, clearly indicate his regime was not involved in the murder of Hariri. But even if Assad emerges from this inquiry as pure as snow, he will still be guilty.

The building of the American file against Assad is so blatant that there are already those who are sketching scenarios of peace with Syria in the post- Assad era, or at least looking into who would replace him. But don't hold your breath. Assad is a weak leader and it can't be said he possesses any great political insight, but he is an Arab leader and therefore Mubarak and the Saudi King Abdullah were quick to publicly declare two weeks ago that they would not lend a hand to isolating Syria. Neither would Iran and Russia.

But that is not the important thing. Because Syria is not just Assad. Today there are many who wish to see him fall from power, and not all of them would replace him with a leader "desirable" to the West. For example, the fanatic Muslim Brotherhood maintains extensive activity in Syria and is demanding reforms that would allow it to participate in government. Rifat Assad, Bashar's uncle, has aspirations and devotees of his own, who are liable to constitute a more serious regional danger if they were to attain power. A real danger is anticipated from radical organizations, such as those operating today in Iraq, which seek to participate in internal battles and build themselves another stronghold if and when Assad is deposed.

The bloody settling of accounts that is so familiar from Iraq could also easily develop in Syria between those faithful to the Baath regime and those who wish to take over the reins of power. And the Kurds of Syria, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and the Palestinian organizations would also have something "to contribute" to the turmoil that is liable to develop.

In a situation of internal struggle over a regime in which too many parties are armed, the Iraqization of Syria is not an imaginary scenario. And in such an event, Israel's quietest border is liable to reawaken in a thunder. The Afghani and Iraqi models should already have made it clear what happens when a regime is "revived" from the outside. But how it is possible to give up such an easy plaything?

Copyright 2005 Haaretz. All rights reserved

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