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Prophets and Losses

Written by Barry Rubin

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August 3, 2008
Barry Rubin
Strike One. September 6, 2007. Israel bombs and destroys Syrian nuclear facility. Syria is powerless to retaliate.
Strike Two: February 12, 2008. Hizballah operations' chief and terrorist mastermind Imad Mugniyah assassinated in a secure area of Syria's capital, Damascus. Syria humiliated. Killing unsolved, a humiliation for the regime.
Strike Three: August 1, 2008: Syrian President Bashar al-Asad's liaison with Hizballah, General Mohammed Suleiman, killed in Tartous, Syria, by a sniper. See above two examples for probable results.

Syria has a failing economy, is backward and repressive, and determined not to--disregard all analysis to the contrary--change its ways. True, the government is strong; oppositions are weak. But its main asset is the willingness of others to believe Syria will moderate.

And so it sounds a little peculiar when Bashar says: "The Zionist regime is not strong and the states can obtain their rights through resistance and determination."

The only thing Syria has obtained through "resistance and determination" is its self-proclaimed "right" to dominate Lebanon. It does well in Iraq, where it sponsors a terrorist campaign to kill American soldiers and Iraqi civilians without political cost. Yet causing trouble is not the same as winning.
It should be impossible to think Syria is going to moderate. Every time he says something in Arabic, Bashar keeps making it clear he is lying about any change of policy. His biggest asset is that he is like a very bad comedian whose stupid audience laughs at jokes it should be heckling.

In fact, though, Bashar has just been visiting Tehran and stressing that the Iran-Syria alliance is very strong. There has been no evidence that Iran is worried about a Syrian defection. Even President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a man not know for his tolerance, seems secure in the belief that Bashar is faithful and the West are suckers. After all, Western credulity is daily confirmed for him by his own experience.

You can't look at a headline about the United States or Europeans "warning" Iran to stop developing nuclear weapons or setting some new deadline without laughing. As deadline after deadline passes without action, why should anyone take Western threats seriously?

Here's what's central: Iran and Syria are weak. Their power largely comes from the rest of the world treating them as strong. It is a combination of their enemies trembling, seeking advantage, and not wanting to hurt their feelings.

Proclaiming that Israel is on the verge of collapse, Ahmadinejad is trying to conceal the fact that it is his regime that is in jeopardy, at least his personal power. Half the country wants the Islamist government gone (though they can't do much about it) and much of the ruling elite itself is opposed to Ahmadinejad.

But let's return to the killing of Suleiman. First, let's rule out all the false rumors about conflicts within the regime. There is no evidence of such a thing existing, though this image is sometimes cultivated by Bashar and his flunkies to give the impression that he is a heroic reformer battling hardliners. If this were true we would be hearing about lots of arrests within the elite--something that couldn't be kept secret--and this has not happened.

Did Israel do it? This is possible, particularly given the fact that the killing was announced on Israel radio. But the timing makes this seem doubtful. Is Prime Minister Ehud Olmert going to authorize such an operation in the midst of negotiations with Syria? That is very unlikely. If Israel did do it, this shows toughness on the government's part, a willingness to use sticks as well as carrots. I'd like to believe that's true but don't.

Most likely this was done by an Arab operation, perhaps Lebanese and possibly Saudi involvement. Of course we don't know.

Up until now, Syria has been doing all of the violent pressure. The more Syria--and Iran--thinks their enemies are willing to fight back, the better.
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Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs Journal. His latest books are The Israel-Arab Reader (seventh edition), with Walter Laqueur (Viking-Penguin); the paperback edition of The Truth About Syria (Palgrave-Macmillan); A Chronological History of Terrorism, with Judy Colp Rubin, (Sharpe); and The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East (Wiley).

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