Seven years after 9/11, Washington
policymakers remain fundamentally confused about the nature of Islamist
extremism, the ideas behind it and the states that manipulate it. In few places
is this problem more obvious than in the U.S. relationship with the secular
Assad regime in Syria.
After the most recent iteration of
the on-again off-again Washington-Damascus relationship—a meeting between the
Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice—Muallem
described the meeting as a "positive beginning of a dialogue" while
the state-controlled Syrian press heralded it as the United States coming to
its senses and joining Syria in the fight against the common threat of radical
Islamism. Never mind that some of those radical extremists threatening us are
in the employ of the Assad regime and may well have been behind a recent
bombing in Damascus that killed 17. Never mind, also, that the price that Syria
is actively seeking for its promise of cooperation is the restoration of its
influence on Lebanon—a dominion that it had to abandon in the aftermath of the
Cedar Revolution of 2005.
Damascus has long epitomized a
"nuanced" understanding of Islamist terrorism. Hamas, Islamic Jihad
and Hezbollah have earned Syria's endorsement and significant material backing.
Similarly, authorities in Damascus have fueled the insurgency in Iraq, a
platform championed as praiseworthy "resistance to U.S. occupation."
Under the watch of Syria's intelligence services, the most virulent radical
jihadist networks have relied on Syria as a thoroughfare through which to
channel streams of suicide bombers and other jihadists into Iraq. And while
they have vociferously denied official leverage over such networks, Syrian
authorities, when exposed, have displayed an astonishing ability to redirect
radical jihadists to less conspicuous terrain such as to Northern Lebanon.
Damascus has nurtured jihadism as a
bogeyman at home and abroad, an insurance policy against the specter of regime
change, and a scapegoat for crimes otherwise traceable to its state security
forces. To be sure, a dangerous strain of the Muslim Brotherhood has menaced
the Assads from the shadows for many years. But since a Syrian military
massacre in the Brotherhood enclave of Hama in 1982, their specter has been far
fainter than the government has allowed.
The Syrian regime perfected its
bifurcated approach to Islamist militancy over the course of its decades-long
occupation of Lebanon. Groups such as Hezbollah were managed by the dominant
Syrian security services. Other factions such as Asbat al-Ansar and the 2000
Dinniyeh group were deemed more useful when employed as proxies from controlled
enclaves—Palestinian refugee camps and remote mountain refuges--to be unleashed
at key tactical moments. The February 2005 assassination of Syrian rival and
former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri occurred in an environment
saturated with Syrian services, though in the pro-Syrian narrative it was a
crime attributed to a jihadist cell.
In 2006, shortly after Damascus was
forced to withdraw its forces from Lebanon, in the Palestinian refugee camp of
Nahr el-Bared in northern Lebanon, a pro-Syrian faction delivered a
Syrian-supplied arsenal to the Sunni Jihadist group Fatah al-Islam. The group,
under the command of Jordanian terrorist Shakir al-Absi (who had just completed
an unusually short stint in Syrian jail), launched a costly challenge to the
struggling democratic government of Lebanon. Only American, Arab, and
international support enabled the Lebanese armed forces to prevail.
In the Syrian government's lengthy
record of employing radical jihadism, it has deemed the repercussions of this
approach counterproductive only when its interests have in turn been targeted. And
even then, attacks inside Syria have been intentionally recycled to tighten the
regime's grip on Syrian society and to underline Syria's notional role in
fighting global terrorism. But the most recent terrorist act committed in
Damascus indicates that trafficking with jihadists has indeed become an
increasingly risky mechanism for Syria.
Syria's leadership may have
overestimated its ability to ride the tiger. It is not clear who bears
responsibility for the terrorist attack in Damascus--whether it is Fatah
al-Islam or jihadists destined for Iraq. Contemplating a return to Lebanon,
Damascus lays the blame on Islamists in Northern Lebanon. Either way, it
clearly marks the backfiring of Assad's manipulation of radical Islamists.
And what do all these machinations
matter to Washington? Assad and his circle see a possible rapprochement with
the United States playing into a new role for the regime: partnership in the
war on terror. But Condoleezza Rice, her employees and her successors should
remember that as Syria turns the full force of its tyrannical regime on one
jihadist enemy, reinserting itself into the frail democracy that is Lebanon, it
will continue to nurture Hamas, Hezbollah, and others who are little different.
Syria's choice should be simple: an end to support for all terrorism and
respect for Lebanon's independence, or America will sit on the sidelines and
watch a dictatorship that lived by the sword die by it.