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Despite US diplomacy, Syria is still a ruthless player

The Persian Gulf War reminded us to beware of Middle Eastern dictators, especially those with unchallenged authority in their own countries and an expanding military machine. The United States chose to ignore Saddam Hussein's warning signs in the 1980s because we saw Iraq's enemy Iran as the greater villain. Saddam made us regret this oversight by invading Kuwait in 1990.

America's foreign policy makers did not learn their lesson. The United States is currently nurturing a cozy relationship with another barbaric Arab despot, Syria's Hafez al-Assad.

The United States and Syria had a long history of animosity until Syria decided to join the US-led coalition against Iraq. Before and after the war, President George Bush and Secretary of State James A. Baker III praised Assad for Syria's role in the alliance. Assad's subsequent decision to attend an Arab-Israeli peace conference also brought him American goodwill. When Assad volunteered this summer to pressure the groups holding Western hostages, he was rewarded with even more favorable rhetoric from American leaders.

Bush and Baker believe that these few measures of good faith justify rewriting our relationship with Syria. More realistic observers believe otherwise.

Assad's commitment to crushing internal dissent is well-known and documented. Syria practices the same authoritarian style of government as Iraq. Citizens who want to celebrate their next birthday do not publicly criticize the government. Paralleling Saddam's oppression in Iraq, Assad has suppressed uprisings with brutal massacres. Amnesty International has compiled detailed reports of these human rights abuses, including mass killings of Lebanese, Sunni Muslims and Shiites.

Influencing another country's internal affairs is a tricky matter, which partly explains why our government frequently overlooks the domestic crimes of ruthless regimes like Assad's. US interests change, though, when a dictator attacks another country. Ignoring Saddam Hussein's atrocities within Iraq, our leaders maintained their friendly relationship until he invaded Kuwait. Unfortunately, the United States has chosen to only selectively oppose aggression, as anyone who has observed Lebanon for the last 15 years can attest.

Syria now occupies and essentially governs Lebanon. For 15 years, the Syrian military has steadily gained control over the country's fractured ethnic enclaves. In October 1990, as the world's eyes were focused on Kuwait, Syrian forces slaughtered the last Lebanese rebels, summarily executing both soldiers and civilians. Unfortunately, the attacks received scant attention from the American media and government. Many observers believe it was the most underreported news story of last year.

Assad has shrewdly maintained a puppet Lebanese government that in reality merely rubber stamps Syrian demands. Given the American public's ignorance of the true situation, this appearance of autonomy allows our leaders to sidestep the independence issue. In May 1991 Lebanon was forced to sign the Treaty of Brotherhood, Cooperation and Coordination, which includes a provision giving the Syrian military free reign over Lebanon's territory. The US ambassador to Lebanon blessed the agreement, paradoxically remarking that it would guarantee Lebanon's autonomy when it actually cedes Lebanese independence to Syria. Assad has stated that the two countries' peoples are now unified, separated only by political boundaries.

Syria's offenses extend well beyond Lebanon, however. Syria was one of the few countries singled out for systematic sponsorship of international terrorism when the United States first compiled such a record in 1979. It has never been removed from the list. Since the early 1980s, the attacks have become harder to trace, since they are carried out less frequently by Syrian operatives and more often by non-Syrian terrorist groups which Syria provided with support and sanctuary. Nevertheless, Syria continues to be implicated every year in dozens of international terrorist incidents.

Why has the Bush administration chosen to ignore Syria's atrocities and instead extended the diplomatic welcome mat? Certainly much of the reason rests with Syria's role in the coalition against Iraq. Syria lent credibility to our claim that the Arab world joined us in opposition to Saddam. What Bush and Baker do not seem to realize, however, is that Syria joined the alliance purely out of self-interest. Syria and Iraq are bitter enemies, and a powerful Saddam thwarted Assad's own desire to be the neighborhood bully.

Although Syrian forces contributed very little during the actual fighting, Syria's cooperation was a key component of America's international public relations effort. The immediate price of Syria's entry into the coalition, of course, was our turning a blind eye towards the virtual annexation of Lebanon. Taking this into account, along with Syria's human rights abuses and sponsorship of terrorism, our alliance with Assad against Saddam was a scaled-down version of our choice of Stalin over Hitler before World War II.

Since the Gulf War, Bush and Baker have coddled Assad because they believed that he would play a constructive role in their utopian Middle East "peace process." They apparently have not seen the hypocrisy in asking the man who is tightening his control over another country to help bring peace to the region. They also ignored the fact that countries planning for peace normally do not vastly increase their military expenditures, especially when their most powerful opponent has just been vanquished. Syria has spent its proceeds from the war (over two billion dollars in Saudi gifts) on improved aircraft, tanks and Scud missiles, and the country now spends 40 percent of its gross national product on its military.

The Bush administration has made a grave mistake in conferring credibility to Hafez al-Assad's ruthless government. Saddam Hussein showed vividly that aggressive dictators who can suppress internal dissension while expanding offensive military potential can very easily invade a weaker neighbor. The President believes that somehow Assad is different, and thus far the American public has not questioned him on this assumption.

American journalists are perpetually late in criticizing our friendly relationships with brutal regimes. They generally do not question our policies until after a country acts strongly against the United States' strategic interests. We all heard the brilliant expos'es of two administrations' misguided dealings with Manuel Noreiga and Saddam Hussein, but only after the damage was irreversible. It's time for this criticism to be forward-looking rather than retrospective. A few articles on the real Syria would be a good start.

whoMark A. Smith is a senior in the Department of Economics.