10 Questions: What About Syria?

Nancy Ramsey is a contributor to CBSNews.com.
While Katie was in Damascus, interviewing Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, we hit the phones again.
(Council of Foreign Relations)
Yesterday we posted our 10 Questions on Iraq with Reza Aslan, and we decided to pose another 10 Questions (well, OK, 11), on Syria, to Steven Cook.

He's a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, with expertise on Arab politics and U.S.-Middle East policy.

1. In a recent Wall Street Journal editorial, Senator Joseph Lieberman
wrote that Syria has "an open door policy to terrorists" and that the regime is "playing travel agent for Al Qaeda in Iraq." Is this fair?

He's probably overstating the case when it comes to Al Qaeda. When he says Al Qaeda, it conjures up an image of Osama Bin Laden, of Ayman Zawahiri, of 9/11. After 9/11, based on everything I know, there was fairly good cooperation between the Bush administration and the administration of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. There is certainly reason for Syria to be concerned about Al Qaeda.

It is, however, well known that Syria hosts a variety of terrorist organizations. In the past Syria hosted the leadership of the PKK, or the Kurdistan Workers¹ Party, which targets Turkey. A variety of Palestinian terror organization, most notably Hamas, maintain a presence in Damascus.
It¹s also a transit point in the region and elsewhere for people who want to engage in jihad in Iraq.

Al Qaeda of Iraq, also known as Al Qaeda of Mesopotamia, has links to, but they are not controlled by, the Al Qaeda whose leadership is suspected to be hiding out along the Afghan-Pakistan border. It remains unclear whether terrorists with direct links to bin Laden are transiting through Syria. The country has not been hospitable to them, so it seems less likely than Senator Lieberman suggests.

Nevertheless, he is correct in saying that Syria is a bad actor when it comes to terrorism.

2. Who is passing through Syria?

People from all over the Muslim have answered the call for jihad against the United States in Iraq. They see the U.S. as the aggressor and occupier.
There is evidence of Saudi, Palestinians, Syrians, Egyptians, Jordanians, North Africans, Turks and others, and some of them are going through Damascus.

And we haven't gotten a lot of cooperation on border security from Syria.

3. Fill us in on Syria's president, Bashar Al-Assad.

Bashar is an ophthalmologist who was training in London, when his older bother Basil was killed in a car crash in early 1994. Basil was being groomed to be Hafez al-Assad¹s successor. With his brother's death, Bashar became the heir to the regime. People did have high hopes for him, believing that his time in the West and his reported fondness for surfing the internet would make him a reformer.

This was kind of silly. There are many retrograde ideologies that have roots in the West, and the internet can be used for bad purposes as well as good purposes. Just check out jihadi websites.

Bashar is basically an extension of his father's rule, though he is somewhat less secure given his lack of experience. He has come to rely on a small group, including his brother and brother-in-law to maintain a grip on power.
Some people believe that he is dumb, but he has proved to be rather shrewd since becoming president in 2000.

4. There are estimates that some 60 to 70 terrorists are passing through Syria on their way to Iraq every month. Do you think this is an accurate assessment? Are they coming through the Damascus International Airport, or across the border?

It is hard to say with any precision how many people are transiting through Syria on the way to Iraq. Some have used the airport and then traveled by bus to the border area and crossed into Iraq. Others have used overland border crossings. It is striking that the movement of aspiring jihadis to the Syria-Iraq border has been fairly well organized. It is important to remember that many of Saddam's associates took refuge in Syria and have played a part organizing the insurgency from there.

5. How has U.S. policy in Iraq affected Syria?

Had the U.S. been more successful in Iraq, there would have been significant concerns for the durability of the Assad regime. There were influential opinion leaders and officials in Washington who saw that after Iraq, the next stop was either Syria or Iran. Syria¹s still in a precarious position, but that¹s strengthened by the U.S.'s being bogged down in Iraq.

That's why the Syrians turn a blind eye to people transiting their territory to fight in the Iraqi insurgency. Better to keep the U.S. busy in Iraq than thinking about regime change in Syria. Realistically, at this point, I don't believe the American public has an appetite for that.

6. A November 2006 Iraq Displacement Report by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees reported that there are at least 600,000 refugees in Syria...

The number is actually closer to 1 million. In the early stages the Syrians were only too happy to welcome wealthy Iraqis and "former regime elements."
In general, the Syrians have been more generous and welcoming to Iraqi refugees, but as the number of people seeking safety in Syria has grown, it has started to strain the Syrians. The government is now placing restrictions on refugees in terms of working, education, and health care.

7. Bring us up to date, briefly, on the U.S.'s historical relationship with Syria.

During the Cold War, Syria was a Soviet client state.

Syria supports terrorism. They are in a state of war with Israel, though there have been no major hostilities between the countries since 1982. They take the Arab view of the Arab-Israeli conflict, which is that Israel is a colonial creation established in the heart of the Arab and Muslim world.

And they have consistently sought to undermine the sovereignty of Lebanon, which they see as a natural part of Syria. There¹s an Arabic phrase that some Syrians use, "sha'ab wahid baladayn," which means "one people, two countries." That's how Syria sees it; the Lebanese, of course, don¹t really dig on that.

After the 2005 assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri, which Syrian agents are widely believed to have perpetrated, there was talk of regime change in Syria. But there remains no credible alternative to the Assad regime. To topple it would invite further instability in the region.

That doesn¹t mean Washington approves of Syria¹s government. It is under sanction. But unlike Iran, Syria does have an ambassador in Washington. We recalled our ambassador from Damascus after the assassination of Hariri.
Secretary of State Rice did meet Syria¹s foreign minister earlier this year, but the dialogue hasn¹t gone very far.

8. What does the alliance between Syria and Iran mean for the U.S. presence in Iraq?

Both the Iranians and the Syrians share an interest in keeping the United States bogged down in Iraq. From the perspective of Damascus and Tehran, this protects them from being the next U.S. targets for regime change.

9. President Bush was in Anbar province earlier this week, where American military forces are working ­ successfully, it appears -- with local tribal leaders to fight Al Qaeda of Iraq forces. Anbar borders Syria, and terrorist were transitting through Syria to Iraq...

We have to see what happens. Anbar was a major destination where insurgents were coming in, and this may slow down the jihadi traffic. Anbar and Nineva provinces both border Syria. If you remember, there was a bombing in Nineva just recently. If Anbar is no longer receptive, this insurgency may spread to other areas.

10. Yesterday Syria accused Israeli planes of violating its airspace...

There has been much talk over the last year about possible hostilities between Israel and Syria.

After last summer's war in Lebanon, Syrian President Bashar al-Asad warned the Israelis that they could not hold on to the Golan Heights forever. There is evidence that the Syrians have undertaken, with Russian help, a program of military modernization, which would -- for the first time in years -- give the Syrians a military option against the Israelis.

The Israelis are clearly concerned about these developments and undertook a reconnaisance mission over Syria. Syrian air defense forces detected the Israeli planes, whose pilots decided to jettison their external fuel tanks and bombs to make the planes lighter so they could evade the Syrians more effectively and leave Syrian airspace more quickly. This is not an unprecedented event, but this time the Israelis got caught with their hands in the cookie jar...

11. Where does Syria's support of Hamas, of Hezbollah come from?

Historically Hezbollah was a way in which the Syrians could essentially stick a finger in the eye of the Israelis without necessarily bringing the wrath of the Israeli defense forces down on Syria. And Hezbollah, by the way, is not a creation of Syria and Iran, even though it¹s often seen this way. It is true that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards were involved in training Hezballah when the organization was founded in the early 1980s, but Hezbollah is rooted in Lebanese society, it¹s a reflection of the grievances and frustrations of Lebanon¹s Shia population. It should be noted that Hezballah representatives have sat in the Lebanese parliament since the early 1990s and until last fall had three cabinet ministers in the Lebanese government.

And Syria allows for Hamas to have an office in Damascus. Hamas's activities, of course, include attacking Israel, weakening Israel. And a weaker Israel is not as much of a threat to Syria.