Armed with his latest book, The Truth About Syria (Palgrave MacMillan, 2007), Professor Barry Rubin strode into Philadelphia on Thursday, May 31, 2007, to promote this invaluable source of information at a late morning lecture in the library of the Foreign Policy Research Institute (FPRI). The director of the global Research for International affairs (GLORIA) Center at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel, and a Senior fellow at FPRI, Rubin is also the author of numerous books including, The Long War for Freedom, Yasir Arafat: A Political Biography, The Tragedy of the Middle East and Hating America: A History.
Introducing Barry Rubin, Harvey Sicherman, PhD, President of FPRI, commented on the book saying, “Syria has presented a serious problem for the Middle East region and Western policy. With its mix of competing religious and ethnic groups, radical ideologies and political repression, it is a 72,000 square-mile time bomb waiting to go off. Yet surprisingly, very little is known about this country and the role it has played in shaping the destiny of the Middle East. Barry Rubin looks at the critical issues that have made the country the powderkeg of the Middle East and offers an insightful analysis of the effects of recent developments.”
Rubin asserted that the Syrian regime needs the conflict with Israel and the United States in order to justify its existence.
He ridiculed the naiveté of U.S. policy-makers in believing what they have been “told by Syrian officials.” The idea that the U.S. and Syria have the same interest in maintaining stability in Iraq “is nonsense,” Rubin said. For domestic legitimacy Syria needs to be seen as opposing the “imperialistic Americans” in Iraq. In a similar vein, the Syrians are not interested in the Golan Heights according to Rubin, because if a peace settlement occurred, the Alawite minority regime of Bashar Assad would be robbed of its excuse for maintaining state control, repression, and the avoidance of democratic and economic reforms. “Getting the Golan back” Rubin said, “will be a disaster for the Assad regime.”
Turning back to U.S. policy, Rubin argued that U.S. policy-makers needed to chart a realistic assessment of its interests through analysis and not be guided by speeches or statements Syrian officials make. “The Syrians” Rubin said, “are fulfilling their regime’s interests,” and the U.S. must understand the structure of the Syrian regime, and develop a realistic assessment of its interests.
The Assad regime has clear advantages in the Syrian-Iranian alliance, Rubin observed. In allying itself with Iran the Assad regime received a stamp of approval from Islamists and at the same time it derived economic benefits, especially with oil. And, for the mullahs in Tehran, the alliance with Syria is “low cost protection.”
Rubin suggested moreover, that the Assad regime needed to maintain its control over Lebanon, which is an economic and strategic asset. “Lebanon” Rubin said, “paid the bill for the failed economy of Syria.” There are 1 million Syrians working in Lebanon - a boon for the Syrian economy.
In Rubin’s view, the Assad regime is unlikely to make a deal with Israel on the Golan or with the U.S. on Iraq or the closure of the terrorist organization’s offices in Damascus. Rather, he believes (as this author has asserted in previous articles) that the talks Secretary of State Rice held with the Syrian foreign minister boosted the legitimacy and confidence of the Assad regime. The Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi on her “fact finding” trip to Damascus did a great deal of harm to the cause of human rights and democracy in Syria. It only reinforced Assad’s convictions about the Americans.
Rubin believes that Bashar Assad’s brother and brother-in-law were directly involved in the assassination of Rafik Hariri on February 14, 2005. Since that time 15 major terrorist attacks orchestrated by Syria have occurred in Lebanon. Rubin believes, moreover, that Fatah al-Islam is a Syrian creation. He contends that the leader of Fatah al-Islam who assassinated a U.S. diplomat in Amman, Jordan, a few years ago, and fled to Damascus, became a Syrian tool. The Syrian regime claimed to have imprisoned him, but obviously let him loose, since he is the one responsible for having engineered the latest Syrian assault on the Lebanese government. It is ironic that following U.S. talks with the Assad regime; Lebanon has experienced a rise in the level of Syrian-orchestrated terrorist activities.
Rubin marveled at how well the Assad regime has played the Americans. They are resisting the West and claiming to protect the interest of the Arab and Islamic nations, by portraying their actions as brave and noble in the best Arab tradition. At the same time, the regime is able to bamboozle the Americans with promises of good behavior.
Amazingly, this Alawi regime, which is not even considered Muslim, is ruling over a majority of 60% Sunnis, 20% Kurds, and an assortment of other ethnic and religious groups including Christians, Druze, and Turkmen which together comprise another 10% of the population of Syria. The regime, according to Rubin, represents 10% of the population, and a few select leaders/families or clans from various religious and ethnic communities who have been co-opted by the regime. Rubin compared the Assad regime to the Godfather, a Mafia-like gangster regime.
In his book, The Truth About Syria, Rubin wrote, “While others seek to ‘educate’ the regime as to its ‘real’ needs, the masters of Damascus understand that such changes would in fact be disastrous for its interests. Given peace with Israel, Bashar has no answer as to why he must maintain his dictatorship with tight controls and no reform. Having good relationship with America, how could he explain why elements of a system so successful are so poisonous for Arabs and Muslims? With respect for Lebanon’s sovereignty, he cannot produce the material rewards that Syrian domination brings. With no support for radical Islamists in Iraq, Lebanon, and among the Palestinians, he cannot explain away the fact that he is a non-Muslim ruling Syria and an enemy of the Islamists.
He goes on to say, “The Islamification program at home would backfire and breed a massive opposition to the regime. Without sponsoring terrorism and radicalism, he cannot intimidate the West and demand that it appease him. Even more importantly, he cannot persuade his own people to cheer and obey him.”
Rubin’s advice to U.S. policy makers is to institute a tough policy towards Syria. Rule #1: “No unilateral concessions. “ Rule #2: “Take appropriate actions against Syria if and when necessary,” and Rule #3: “Learn the lessons and do not repeat the same mistakes.”