This is not a good time to be a member of the Baath Party. And the Syrians, the last Baathists left in power, know it.
The word "baath" means "reconstruction" in Arabic, but in practice, the Baath ideology was always a kind of socialist-militarist nationalism, albeit for several different nations. The best-known Baathist, of course, is Iraq' s Saddam Hussein, whose political career has come to an inglorious end. That leaves next-door Syria as the only country where the Baath party is still on top. But as I saw during my trip to Damascus last week, the Syrian Baathists might be in charge, but they are not feeling large.
Before I left for Syria, a Turkish diplomat told me, "The Syrians are quaking in their boots. They've got all their neighbors -- us, the Israelis, the Americans in Iraq -- against them." The Turks nearly went to war against Syria in 1998, because Damascus was aiding Kurdish separatists in Turkey. The Syrians backed down on that occasion, but the larger point is that four decades of Baath rule has left Syria with lots of powerful enemies.
No wonder, then, that the Syrians have launched a charm offensive for the benefit of visiting American journalists. One such charmer is Mahdi Dahlala, editor of the government-run newspaper -- called, simply, Baath. He has an argument few Americans have heard: it was actually the Syrians who first fought America's two great enemies, Saddam Hussein and Islamic extremism.
In 1979-80, he declares, Hussein's agents set off a series of bombs in Damascus, leaving some 300 Syrians dead. The U.S. State Department confirms that Iraq sought violently to destabilize Syria. And without a doubt, relations between the two Baath regimes have been hostile since. Why would Baathist attack Baathist? An Arab saying applies here: "They hate each other like brothers."
As for the Syrian struggle against Islamic fundamentalism, it's perhaps not clear who the bad guys are, but this much is known for sure: in 1982, long before most Americans had ever heard of Hezbollah or al-Qaida, Islamist rebels took over the Syrian town of Hama. In response, the country's army lined up artillery outside the town and shelled it to pieces, killing an estimated 20,000 people. That's not the way that the United States deals with problems, but the Syrians have had few problems with Muslim insurgents since.
And, at times during the post-9/11 terror war, Syrians and Americans have found queasy common ground. In 2002, a Syrian-born Canadian citizen, Maher Arar, suspected of being involved in terrorist activities, was arrested in New York City and shipped off to Syria. According to Human Rights Watch, America's understanding in sending Arar to Syria was that he would be "brutally tortured" by the Baathists into telling whatever he knew about terror. Arar, now released and back in Canada, denies any terrorist links; he is now suing both Syria and the U.S. government.
Yet, despite their status as co-defendants in the Arar case, huge differences between Syria and the United States remain. One difference, of course, is Israel. Another difference is Iraq. The Syrians did not like Hussein, but they also don't like the presence of regime-changing Americans on their frontier. Imad Shueibi, a professor of politics at Damascus University, says Washington was "foolish" to go into Iraq. He adds that Americans suffer from "anti-history," including the illusion that they can "create a democracy by force."
Of course, the Syrians are hardly experts on democracy -- although they do know about force. And force might well be the only viable language of politics in the Middle East. In fact, the Americans occupying Iraq seem less and less interested in building true democracy and more and more focused on installing a pro-American regime, using a force of their own -- the U.S. armed forces.
And the Syrians might yet find a way into Iraq. "There needs to be cooperation with the neighbors," Shueibi maintains, expressing hope that some future United Nations resolution would empower his country to play a role in Iraq.
Indeed, if the violence in Iraq continues, a casualty-averse America might seek to expand the "coalition of the willing" to include those who know about stomping down troublemakers. The Syrians would be more than happy to enter oil-rich Iraq, as both brothers -- and haters.