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Many in the Middle East are confused about whether to believe the Syrians or the Americans and Iraqis.
The Arabs have generally believed over the past two years that Syria was supporting the insurgency in Iraq out of conviction that so long as Iraq remains ablaze, the Americans will not be able to interfere with the behavior of the Syrians. The thinking goes they will have too much on their plate to criticize Syria for meddling in Palestinian and Lebanese affairs or interfere in Syrian domestics. The Syrians will play this game, everybody believes, until President George W Bush leaves the White House in another three-and-a-half years.
The counter-argument, however, suggests that if the Islamic insurgency continues in Iraq, it might spill over into Syria and create problems and chaos for the Syrians. This is the Syrian argument: if chaos prevails in Iraq, then it will also prevail in Syria. The Syrians were unable to bear a civil war in Lebanon in the 1970s and 1980s, fearing for their own stability and safety. Likewise, they will be unable to bear civil war in Iraq.
The Syrians believe they have done their share in combating Islamic terrorism. On July 12, Syria's ambassador to Great Britain, Sami al-Khiyyami, pledged that his country would help the United Kingdom track down those involved in the terrorist attacks in London on July 7. He said: 'Anything that the UK asks for, we will respond to positively. Syria is fully ready to cooperate against terrorism.'
Assad even contacted British Prime Minister Tony Blair, offering his condolences and pledging his support to punish the London terrorists. Other indicators showing that Syria is cooperating with the US in the 'war on terrorism' is that Damascus arrested, in the past few months alone, more than 1,300 Arabs trying to cross the border into Iraq. In his recent newspaper interview, Assad said that the number was 1,500.
Syria on a recent day arrested 11 suspects trying to cross the border into Iraq. Syria is saying aloud that its cooperation is not only out of a desire to cooperate with the Americans but because it also feels threatened by Islamic fundamentalism. True, it did turn a blind eye to the fighters who crossed the border to fight in Iraq in 2003, but Syria soon realized the folly of such an action. When the fighters were defeated or deported back to Syria, a combination of frustration, anger and despair took over. Unable to strike at the Americans or the next-door Israelis, they unleashed their anger on their fellow Syrians.
Syria has repeatedly said since 2003 that chaos in Iraq does not serve its interests, since disenchanted warriors can leave Iraq where weapons are in abundance, return to Syria and create a nightmare for Syria's secular regime.
Part of Syria's ploy to contain fundamentalism is to control the thought of potential terrorists through mosques and religious networks that are closely monitored by the state. This is being done by promoting reform-minded and moderate clerics within the Muslim establishments, such as the regime-friendly Islamic deputy Mohammad Habash, and more recently through the appointment of Sheikh Ahmad Hassoun, a moderate cleric, as Grand Mufti of the republic.
His predecessor, Ahmad Kaftaro, had been at the post for four decades and encouraged Muslims to go to Iraq in 2003 and wage a holy war against the Americans, whereas Hassoun has voiced his rejection of all forms of violence. Yet Syria has specifically said that it will not allow Islamic political parties to operate once a multi-party law is issued, as decided by the Ba'ath Party Conference of June 2005. By turning a blind eye to the Islamists and banning them from political activity, the regime would actually be forcing them to become more aggressive, and go underground as they had done in the 1980s. Denying them political existence will not make them go away. Syria should, in order to contain them, permit the creation of moderate Islamic parties and keep tabs on all of their members. Having them operate under the watchful eye of the state is better than having them work in secret.
Syria does have a lot to fear from fundamentalism. Hundreds of fundamentalists roam the Middle East, and once disguised, it would be difficult to distinguish them from any other Arab. Syrian authorities have always welcomed all Arabs into Syria with no visas, to promote Arab brotherhood and unity. This has backfired since, with no visa record and no proper database of Arabs entering Syria, practically any person can enter. Using bribes, anyone can pay his way through the Iraqi border, through tribes and smuggling, and end up as a suicide bomber in Baghdad. Even worse, he might stay behind and become a suicide bomber in Syria.
And with time, it is becoming clear that many members of al-Qaeda, especially those stationed in Europe, are Syrians.
Meanwhile, religious involvement is increasing in Syria. Mosque attendance, head scarves and blind adherence to Islam is spreading throughout Syrian society. The reasons are many, but chief among them is that Arab nationalism has failed and the disgruntled masses have searched for an outlet to explain their suffering and find salvation. This has been topped by the continued atrocities in Palestine as well as the US invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan.
And Muslim activists are seeing that political Islam works. In Palestine, Islamic parties like Hamas and Islamic Jihad have succeeded in inflicting heavy damage on Israel. In Lebanon, Hezbollah has done the same and was the only party in modern Arab history to force the Israelis to withdraw from occupied Arab land (the Israeli withdrawal from South Lebanon in 2000).
In Iran, the theocracy created in 1979 is strong, confident, and has managed to impose itself on the regional and international community. In Iraq, the Muslim fighters have also caused havoc for the Americans. They appear to be scoring more victories in post-Saddam Iraq than Bush. This is a threat the Syrians must combat immediately. To do that, they require US cooperation in as much as the Syrians need the US because the Americans and Syrians, along with the entire civilized world, have a common enemy in radical and political Islam.
Sami Moubayed is a Syrian political analyst. "