On Strategy Page:
The Syrian Baath party is in a very difficult situation. They became corrupt, as did the Iraqi Baath party, and turned into a police state. While not as brutal as Saddam’s Baath, the Syrians were more effective. The elder Assad was not as eager to invade his neighbors (except for several failed attempts against Israel.) The Syrian Baath Party is thus less hated by Syrians than the Iraqi Baath Party was by Iraqis. But Syria is also full of unhappy citizens who would welcome a more honest and effective government. But like Arabs everywhere, most Syrians are either unwilling or unable to do the deed. And now the Syrian Baath Party sees, as its deadliest enemy, a democratic government in Iraq. Such an development could inspire Syrians to get rid of the Baath Party. Face it, being a dictator is like having a tiger-by-the-tail. It’s tough to hold on, but letting go is fatal. So the Syrian Baath Party supports the remaining Iraqi Baath Party in their struggle to regain power in Iraq. But this is a dangerous game, especially as it becomes more and more difficult to deny Syrian support for Iraqi Baath violence inside Iraq. The Syrians try to have it both ways, by insisting that there is no support for Iraqi Baath, while having Syrian police and border guards look the other way as the Iraqis move money and people through Syrian into Iraq.
The Syrian Baath party also has things like loyalty (to fellow Baath members in Iraq) and greed (all that Iraqi oil money they are now getting) to worry about. They can’t just tell the Iraqi Baath Party members to go away, despite American demands that they do just that. And then there is fear. A democratic Iraq will be an anti-Baath Iraq. Syria’s only friend in the neighborhood is Iran. But even there, it is the minority of Islamic conservatives that dominate Iran, that supports Syria. The majority of Iranians see Syria as another oppressive police state, and an Arab one of that. Most Iranians have an ancient disdain for Arabs in general.
Syria, under the Baath Party, has no friends and few prospects.
To be honest, I’m more than a little surprised we haven’t been more pro-active toward Syria. I expected major military action (or at least credible threats of it, including massed troops on the border) by mid-2004. I don’t think that the energetic insurgency in Iraq has delayed any such plans, as masses of US troops on the Iraq-Syria border would probably hurt the insurgency significantly.