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Syria: the First Domino to Fall? By: Fraser Nelson
Scotsman.com | Thursday, April 17, 2003

SYRIA is beginning to wobble; its old regime could soon fall. Behind its resolute rejection of Washington’s accusations, its Baathist regime is weakening. It may be the first Middle East domino to topple after the end of war in Iraq.

The man whose finger is on the Damascus domino is not Donald Rumsfeld, the U.S. Defense Secretary. The victor will be Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, who is now standing his strongest chance of toppling the old guard who have blocked his reforms.

This is the domino theory, an integral part of the multi-layered logic for war with Iraq. No matter how many emollient words come out from London, the all-important question is: who’s next?

The list is long - Iran’s theocracy, Saudi Arabia’s religious police - but the idea is not to wage war on such countries. Those who believe there is a secret military agenda have failed to understand the lessons of the Cold War.

The Soviet Union was toppled not by blood and iron, but by the contagion of democracy - set loose in Eastern Europe and then felling the entire communist system. What worked then may work for the Arab dictatorships now.

The "fall" of Syria will not be announced by the crashing of statues or the rumbling of American tanks in Damascus. It will happen when its very own president manages to harness current events to empower his own modernizing agenda.

Mr Assad is no Nelson Mandela. But since succeeding his father three years ago, he has been struggling against the Baathist old guard who hoard power, run local fiefdoms and feather their nests in the same way as their political cousins in Iraq.

Educated in London and with an English-born wife, Mr Assad is no enemy of the West. At 37, he is one of the youngest world leaders - and his diagnosis of Syria’s problem chimes with that of Washington.

His country is an economic museum, where 1960s cars fill the streets after Syria shut itself off from the world under the introspective dictatorship of his father. His prescription: modernization, market reforms and weakening of the old guard.

His problem is lack of control. There are, for example, 13 separate police units power bases in Syria - each standing ready to resist change.

Their old world is rapidly aging. The fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime is a disaster for Syria’s Baathist elite - and suggests the modernising agenda of Mr Assad is now backed by the tide of world events.

The message coming out of Damascus in English is one of staunch defiance of the U.S. - and the war with Iraq. But the whispers in Arab show more nuances to the picture.

A Qatar-based newspaper said last weekend that Mr Assad is preparing a night of the long knives for his Baathist rivals, whose power has been immeasurably weakened by the Iraq war.

When Mr. Rumsfeld threatens terrible things to Syria, his words may provide covering fire for Mr. Assad - with the hope that he may be easing himself into a Gorbachev role.

In London, officials are hopeful that Mr. Assad is coming their way. The first suspicious move, it is argued, is his blanket promise that no members of Saddam’s regime have entered Syria.

This is a county with a 370-mile border with Iraq. It is quite impossible to give such blanket assurance - and so, when members of Saddam’s Gestapo are found, someone will have defied his orders. Most likely a secret police branch. And they will be punished.

How serious is Mr. Assad? He has sent out mixed messages, and Washington is concerned that London is being a little too optimistic in its interpretation.

Two years ago, he allowed publication of the first non-state newspaper since the Baathist seized power in 1963. A central bank was opened; 700 political prisoners were released.

It was Mr. Assad who visited the Queen last year, backed Washington in voting for United Nations Resolution 1441 over Iraq and handed over an al-Qaeda operative wanted for organising the 11 September hijackers.

But his reforms, the so-called "Damascus spring," ended in 2001 when Baathist officials - wary of losing their power bases - arrested a dozen opposition leaders and blocked further reform.

This sent a coded threat to Mr. Assad. But it also drew a dividing line between the young president and the Baathist goons who have become the White House’s enemy.

The negative signs are that this is, after all, the same Mr. Assad who has hailed Hezbollah as a "legitimate movement of liberation."

When the West gives Mr. Assad modernising rope, he seems to take it. This is exactly the plan devised by the U.S. hawks when the Afghanistan campaign was finished. The weapon to deploy in the Middle East was the taste of democracy - a political contagion with a habit of spreading to its neighbours.

Autocratic governments in Egypt, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Tunisia will now be clearly concerned that a precedent-setting democratic regime is on its way in Baghdad.

They may soon find that the anti-war protests which swept most Arab countries - leading to clashes between the masses and authorities - were not pro-Saddam so much as against their own governments.

The stage is fast being set for a reversal of the hatred of the United States in Arab streets. If the peace is fought with as much success as the war, the Stars and Stripes may soon become associated with political liberalism in Arab world.

Syria is a tough test case for the domino theory. But the battle is far more nuanced than the shouting from both sides makes out.

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