WASHINGTON--Does Syria want to become the Argentina of Iraqi war criminals? The analogy is apt, but it fails in one respect. Argentina took in Nazi fugitives after the Second World War out of sentimentality. It had a soft spot for Nazis. But it was hardly going to become the base for the destabilization of the new Germany.
Syria does not act out of sentimentality. Its harboring of high officials from Saddam's government is not an act of Baath Party brotherhood. It's a form of realpolitik, a postwar continuation of Syria's prewar opposition to America's aim to democratize Iraq.
Prewar, Syria conducted clandestine trade with Iraq and acted as an outlet for illegal Iraqi oil shipments. During the war, it sent weapons and fighters into Iraq with the hope of bloodying, if not stopping, the Americans. Postwar, it has become the refuge for Saddam's henchmen and a potential source of fighters, weapons and logistics for a guerrilla/terrorist campaign to drive America out of Iraq.
Sound far-fetched? Then you have forgotten your history. Syria did precisely that to the United States 20 years ago in Lebanon. It was Syrian-supported Hezbollah terrorists who blew up the Marine barracks, killing 241 and driving America out of Lebanon.
Syria did the same to Israel, which took Lebanon from Syria and the PLO in a war in 1982. Israel, too, was forced by Syrian-supported terror and a guerrilla war of attrition to choose eventual and humiliating withdrawal from Lebanon.
On March 27, Syrian President Bashar Assad deliberately drew the analogy and issued the challenge, hailing Iraq as ``a large Arab country with scientific, material and human resources ... able to accomplish, at the least, what Lebanon accomplished, and more.''
Why is he being so bold? First, because he fears that if the winds of freedom are allowed to blow from Iraq, they will topple him, yet another Baathist dictator who survives on terror and fear. Second, because having American military power next door might give encouragement to democratic opponents at home and constrain his capacity to support terrorism and suppress Lebanon (which Syria still occupies).
Nonetheless, it is still a bit crazy to take on the world superpower the morning after a most astonishing demonstration of arms and will. Which brings us to Reason Three: Assad is not very smart. By training, he is neither a military man nor a politician. Relatively new on the throne and with little legitimacy, he may feel this is his opportunity to acquire Arabist credentials among the cutthroat Baathist elite that disdains him--by making Syria, and thus himself, ``the heart of Arabism.''
Hence the Bush administration's tough reaction to Syria. It is not hubris, but protective self-defense. The postwar shape of the region is still very fluid. We cannot allow it to harden into a situation in which Syria becomes headquarters and sponsor of a guerrilla/terrorist campaign that slowly bleeds us in Iraq, undoes our victory and forces our retreat.
Winning the peace in Iraq will be a large enough task, given the social ruin and culture of intolerance left behind by Saddam. The last thing we need is harassment from the outside.
What to do? No one wants to invade Syria. No one wants to see the United States occupying a second great Arab capital. To be sure, the very knowledge of that reluctance seriously weakens our hand. Nonetheless, we have coercive power short of invasion. We've already employed one, cutting off the pipeline that sends Iraqi oil through Syria. That deprives Assad of about $1 billion out of a government budget of $7.5 billion.
This should be followed by further ratcheting of economic pressure-- up to and including a blockade of Syrian ports, if we determine that Syria is actively supporting anti-coalition fighters in Iraq.
We have other instruments beyond economic. We should quietly let Syria know that if its provocations continue--if, for example, it does not turn over the Iraqi leaders it is harboring--we reserve the right of hot pursuit, striking at the time and in the manner of our choosing. This does not mean a land invasion. It could mean a sudden taking out of Damascus' air defenses or destroying one of Assad's Republican Guard equivalents.
The effect on Assad would be profound: His policy of provocation, designed to show power and command, would instead show weakness and fragility--a potentially fatal demonstration in a regime that, like Saddam's, rests on brute force, a small ethnic/religious minority and a bankrupt Baathist ideology.
In Iraq, America demonstrated the capacity, extraordinary and historically unique, to destroy a regime while leaving the country intact. Assad needs to learn the lesson of Iraq: Change regime behavior--or suffer regime change.