How Can Syria Get Away With Murder?

Wednesday, March 3rd, 2010

Lee Harris reviews Barry Rubin’s The Truth About Syria, which explains how Syria gets away with murder:

Rubin’s fascinating and often mordant book aims to overcome the cognitive asymmetry between West and anti-West by presenting an objective analysis of the very different rules by which our geopolitical opponents are operating, and to make it clear to the Western reader why they have different rules from us. It is not because they are ignorant of our rules, and need only to be enlightened about them. They are perfectly aware how our rules work, as Rubin insists. Indeed, it is through their intimate familiarity with our rules that they have been able repeatedly to predict how we will react to their moves — an ability that has allowed them to outwit and outfox us over and over again.

Such a situation might be dubbed cognitively asymmetrical, on the analogy of asymmetrical warfare. [...] This advantage will be especially great if the master player has the virtue that the Arabs call sumud — steadfastness: the patience to wait as long as it takes to wear down his opponent until he is ready to abandon the game. Sumud yields policymaking in terms of generations and even centuries, whereas Western foreign policy, like Western culture in general, is always looking for a quick fix. We want to make a deal now, and we will settle for less; they want exactly what they want, and they are willing to wait the time it takes to get it, which turns out to be exactly the amount of time it takes for their opponents to throw up their hands in despair.

Taken together, sumud and the cognitive asymmetry between Syria and the West explain one of the central paradoxes of Rubin’s book: How can an economically stagnant and militarily weak nation like Syria get away with murder, both figuratively and literally?

In February 2005, Syria masterminded the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, former Prime Minister of neighboring Lebanon — not just the murder of a single individual, but, in effect, an attack on a sovereign nation. In 2006, Syria provided rockets and other arms to Hezbollah to aid it in its war with Israel. After the American and allied invasion of Iraq in 2003, Rubin writes that “from the U.S. standpoint, Syria took the enemy side by smuggling military equipment into Iraq (including night-vision goggles) and letting wanted Iraqi officials, millions of dollars of Saddam’s money, and possibly some equipment for the production of weapons of mass destruction cross the border into safe haven in Syria. In addition, after the defeat of the Saddam regime, an insurgency began that depended largely on Syria as a rear area. Pro-Saddam officials there used smuggled money to finance and direct a war against coalition forces as well as the Shia-Kurdish majority. Terrorists from abroad or Syrians themselves were trained, armed, and dispatched into Iraq.”

How did America respond to Syria’s sponsorship of terrorists who killed hundreds of American soldiers and thousand of Iraqis? In 2003, then-Secretary of State Colin Powell was sent to confront Syrian President Bashar Assad. Assad had already lied to Powell once, in 2001, telling him that Syria had cut off the Iraqi oil pipeline. Powell later saw that he had been hoodwinked. On the airplane taking him to his 2003 visit, the secretary of state “insisted… that he… would not be fooled again. Shortly after he landed, however, Bashar again sold him the same old swampland by falsely telling Powell that the terrorist offices in Damascus had already been closed down, good news that the secretary of state announced to the American reporters accompanying him. Unfortunately, it quickly became apparent, in the most humiliating way for Powell, that he had been taken in once more. Reporters simply telephoned the offices of Hamas and Islamic Jihad and found that they were still open for business as usual.” In short, as Rubin trenchantly puts it, “Syria was making a fool out of the U.S. government and the Bush administration was helping it to do so.”

Rubin offers another striking example of this cognitive asymmetry. In September 1990, U.S. Secretary of State James Baker made a trip to Syria to visit its president (and Bashar’s father), Hafiz al-Assad. Baker had prepared his case well. He presented detailed evidence that Syria had been sponsoring quite an impressive list of terrorist activities by means of surrogate agencies. Syria had denied all involvement with terrorism, and Baker was, in effect, calling Hafiz’ bluff. By Baker’s own standards it was a tough act, like that of a criminal investigator who spreads out on a table the hard and irrefutable evidence he has gathered against a suspect, and says: Deny that! Yet his confrontation with Assad had no effect. Or, rather, it had an effect, but one that Baker did not see coming. After the meeting, Rubin writes, “Hafiz did take action: He had the three Jordanian agents who supplied the information tracked down and killed.” The upshot was that “Syria kept on fomenting terrorism; and the United States did very little in retaliation.” Baker had thought he and Hafiz Assad were playing by the same rule book. They weren’t. But Hafiz had the immense advantage of knowing this, which Baker did not.

“But it gets even better,” Rubin says. “Precisely sixteen years later, after his betrayal by Hafiz, the White House asked Baker to recommend what policy the United States should take on Iraq and the Middle East in general. In explaining why he favored dialogue with Syria, Baker recalled the ‘success’ of his 1990 talks with Hafiz in supposedly getting Syria to stop sponsoring terrorism, ignoring the fact that it had continued to do so during that entire period.” In short, the recommendations to engage Syria offered by the Iraq Study Group were not made by men who lacked experience with Syria; they were made by men who simply had not learned from the experience they had. Their inability to acknowledge the rules by which Syria plays has led them repeatedly to believe that Syria is playing by their rules. Unable to put themselves into the position of the Syrian regime, they fail to see the logic and cogency of its behavior — behavior that in Western eyes so often seems infantile, counterproductive, or just plain irrational.

Leave a Reply