Syria’s Supposed Schizophrenia

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 21

Much has changed since the 1960s and 70s. Back then, there was a whole host of states that could be suspected of funding, equipping or lending more surreptitious assistance to terrorist organizations. In 2004, the list of state sponsors of terrorism has diminished considerably. Born again Gaddafi means that Libya is out of the running, Saddam’s fall from power was accompanied by the effective collapse of the Iraqi state and even Iran’s zeal for exporting its revolution has waned dramatically over the last fifteen years. Fortunately, analysts nostalgic for the good old days when it was easy to blame state sponsors still have one last resort. Since the Iraq war in 2003, official U.S. discourse has honed in on Syria’s alleged support for terrorist activity – despite Syria’s avowed cooperation in the war on al-Qaeda post-9/11. Some policy-makers seem to believe that Syria has suddenly reverted to type and is now spear-heading a 1970s revival of old-fashioned state-sponsored terrorism. The problem is not simply that such an analysis fails to take into account the complicated political context in the Middle East and how the world is seen from the region – familiar complaints regularly touted by those critical of U.S. policy in the Middle East. What is more worrying, is that present U.S. policy seems to have little understanding of recent political developments within the higher echelons of the Syrian polity as well as a complete lack of understanding of the strengths – and weaknesses – of the Syrian state in relation to society.

Syria’s attitude towards terrorism prior to the Iraq war could well be interpreted as schizophrenic from an American perspective. On the one hand, Syria has dramatically expanded the extent of its cooperation with the U.S.-led war on al-Qaeda over recent years. On the other, Syria maintains its long-standing support for Lebanese Shia organization Hizbullah and continues to allow various Palestinian militants wanted by Israel to go about their business on Syrian soil.

Syria’s activities against the al-Qaeda network are surprisingly numerous for a country designated by the U.S. as a state sponsor of terror. State Department officials revealed in mid-2002 that Syrian assistance had actually saved American lives by stopping an al-Qaeda attack which regional sources believed was aimed at U.S. forces stationed in the Persian Gulf. U.S. media also reported in 2002 that Syria had been interrogating a German citizen of Syrian origin, Mohammad Haydar Zammar, who had helped establish the al-Qaeda cell in Hamburg which planned the 9/11 attacks and who recruited Mohammad Atta into the network. One anonymous official source said that the U.S. had actually submitted specific questions for the Syrians to address to the suspect. In 2003 it was reported that al-Qaeda couriers had been arrested in Syria carrying as much as $23.5 million – although unconfirmed, such a sum would represent a major blow to the network’s finances. Syrian co-operation in a Lebanese crack-down on groups sometimes thought to be close to al-Qaeda came to the fore in May 2003, when a plot to target U.S. interests and assassinate the U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon was apparently foiled. [1] Indeed, Syria felt so confident of its anti-al-Qaeda credentials that it emphasized the likely involvement of the network in an April 2004 attack in Damascus before the full details were available. [2] As it turned out, the attack was a product of more local dynamics, but it provided Syria with an opportunity to remind the world of its history of opposing al-Qaeda at a time of unrelenting pressure for its perceived shortcomings. [3]

Syrian support for Hizbullah is perhaps much less of an issue for the U.S. and Israel than it used to be. Since the Israeli withdrawal from the south of Lebanon in 2000, Hizbullah has lost, if not its raison d’etre, then at least its main source of legitimacy as a national political actor, rather than just another sectarian militia. [4] As such, any lingering terrorist aspirations are severely inhibited by political constraints.

More of a problem for Israel and the U.S. is Syria’s tolerance of Palestinian militants within its borders. Although Syria apparently bowed to U.S. demands that it close down the press offices of militants in Damascus in 2003, Israel complained that it was still “business as usual.” Tel Aviv took the unprecedented steps of ordering an air strike on a former PFLP-GC training camp in Syria in October 2003 and then virtually admitted involvement in the Damascus assassination of Hamas “point man” Izz Al-Din Sheikh Khalil in September 2004. Some point out that Israel’s policy of killing Hamas leaders in the West Bank and Gaza has enabled the “external wing” in Damascus to seize a degree of influence they would never otherwise have achieved, but it seems difficult for outsiders to understand how Syria can be so active against al-Qaeda whilst turning a blind eye to other terrorist organizations operating within its borders.

Syrian “inconsistency” appears nothing but irrational when viewed through the lens of black-and-white, “with us or against us,” all-or-nothing rhetoric which dominates much political discourse. From that perspective, it is impossible to understand the Syrian position as a conscious, coherent and deliberate policy. As a result, Syria’s “inconsistency” tends instead to be interpreted as an indication of a systemic problem within the structures of Syrian decision-making. Senator Bob Graham memorably characterized the Syrian position as “a metaphor for the conflicted nature of Syrian society,” where a reformist President Bashar al-Asad was trying to improve relations with the U.S. without losing the support of old guard stalwarts within the regime. [5] Yet Syria has repeatedly explained and justified its position in its official speeches, state-run newspapers and party conferences over the years – what’s more, from an official Syrian perspective, there is a certain kind of logic to it. To dismiss Syrian policy as mere incoherence or as a symptom of a deeper malaise is deeply patronizing, implicitly suggesting either that the Syrians are incapable of developing a policy which contains any degree of sophistication. Perhaps it is simply that some U.S. policy-makers might be incapable of recognizing such a policy when they see one.

From the perspective of Damascus, Palestinian militants and al-Qaeda are completely unrelated. [6] As a secular regime threatened by Islamic radicalism in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the Syrian government has long been opposed to religious movements seeking to overthrow the status quo. [7] In contrast, the entrenched tradition of nationalism born of colonialism and socialist-inspired ideology means that, for Syrians, the goal of Palestinian liberation wins hands down over the means used to achieve that goal. And despite expecting authoritarian regimes to indulge in Orwellian doublespeak or use idealism as a front for shrewdly realist manoeuvres, it really is that simple for the Syrians.

Much analysis revolves around the question of whether Syria actually means what it says and subsequently gets bogged down in a morass of intentionality, political psychology and speculative flights of fancy. It fails to look at how much control elite decision-makers genuinely exercise at the local level or how evolving political tensions within Syria itself are having their own impact on unfolding developments.

The impact of these neglected issues is particularly acute in relation to Syria’s alleged complicity in encouraging terrorism in Iraq, which seems to have been the real trigger for the most recent wave of criticism. The demand that Syria decisively seals its border with Iraq over-estimates the infrastructural capability of the Syrian state: porous borders are a fact of life in that part of the world, not necessarily an indication of malign intent on the part of a government. Bribery and corruption complicate matters even further. The Syrian military, for example, has years of experience dominating the smuggling trade between Lebanon and Syria. Service with the army seems to be more about honing entrepreneurial instincts than combat skills. The problem is not simply insufficient will on the part of the Syrian government: there is a whole developed economy which would need to be reformed in order for the situation to change.

Syria has also been accused of facilitating the transfer of jihadist fighters into Iraq. But it is difficult to believe that an Islamist movement long defined by its opposition to the status quo would risk losing credibility by association with the state. On the eve of the Iraq war, a “jihadist” group planning to hold a rally in Aleppo saw all its efforts wasted when rumors of links with the security services began to emerge. [8] Syria has also been accused of “allowing” jihadists to recruit in Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon, but such activity is more related to the growth of Islamist groups in opposition to the dominance of Arafat’s Fatah movement: Syria has less sway within the camps than some reports suggest.

The basic problem is confusing “things that are happening in Syria” with “decisions made by the Syrian government.” It might well be argued that a government should be held accountable for everything that happens within its borders. But even if that were not an absurd line to take, the imperatives of the war on terrorism have often made such principled positions impossible to cleave to. On several occasions, cooperation against al-Qaeda has been sufficient for the U.S. to develop sudden amnesia over disagreements with certain governments. The examples of Uzbekistan and human rights or Pakistan and the trading of nuclear technology readily spring to mind. Although these countries are often seen to suffer from political pathologies which, if not schizophrenic, might be characterized as slightly unbalanced, it has not meant that the U.S. could not do business with them. Inconsistency, it seems, is not a uniquely Syrian trait. Perhaps policy-makers in Damascus would do well to remember that their recent travails are not so much a reflection on their own shortcomings as a metaphor for the conflicted nature of governments and societies other than their own.


1. Al-Nahar (Beirut), 8 May 2003.

2. Al-Sharq al-Awsat (London), 29 April 2004.

3. Syrian Arab TV (Damascus), 15 May 2004. (Translated by BBC Monitoring).

4. Although Hizbullah maintains the façade of confrontation with Israel over the disputed 10 square kilometers of the Shebaa Farms, it is acutely aware that inviting Israeli retaliation for its attacks will cause it to lose support from the Lebanese public. The Lebanese generally consider the south to be liberated and are reluctant to pay the price for someone else’s war, as has so often happened in the past. Hizbullah tends to follow what have been described as the “rules of the game”; its activities are subject to pre-eminently political constraints – constraints which have been successfully used to encourage it away from violence and into the arena of everyday politics. For an interesting analysis of recent developments, see New Rules of the Game: Israel and Hizbollah after the Withdrawal from Lebanon, Daniel Sobelman (Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, January 2004).

5. “Syria Evolves as Anti-Terror Ally”, The Washington Post, 25 July 2002.

6. At least some U.S. officials are reported to accept this distinction, albeit privately. Al-Anwar (Beirut), 25 October 2001.

7. Al-Safir (Lebanon), September 25, 2001.

8. Syria Under Bashar (II): Domestic Policy Challenges, Middle East Report N°24, International Crisis Group, 11 February 2004.