[Allan Topol / AllanTopol.Com]
Lightning paced thriller writer
of International Intrigue
National Bestselling Author

Two Down And Two To Go
by Allan Topol, [IMAGE]2004


Photo Courtesy: Julie Zitin
[Allan Topol / AllanTopol.Com] Prior to the recent Iraqi war, there were four regimes in the Middle East actively supporting terrorism: Iraq, Libya, Syria and Iran. Well, now Saddam has been toppled and Qadaffi has held up a white flag. That leaves Iran and Syria.

The Administration is focusing a great deal of its current attention on Damascus. The noose is tightening, but so far Bashar al-Assad continues to play chicken with the United States The Syrian ruler has a short memory. He obviously doesn’t recall what happened to his good friend, Saddam, when the Iraqi tried to play that game.

At the age of thirty-five, in June of 2000, Bashar succeeded his father, Hafez al-Assad, who had ruled Syria with a strong hand for 30 years after taking power in a coup. There is almost nothing positive one can say about Hafez. He ordered the murder or imprisonment of tens of thousands of his countrymen who dared to speak out against him. He organized state sponsored terrorism aimed not only at Israel but the United States. He brutally exerted his domain over Lebanon. He willingly served as the Soviet Union’s Middle East puppet until the Communist empire crashed.

Bashar’s ascension on his father’s death had all the trappings of a Shakesperean drama. Hafez killed off or ostracized all of his other logical successors including his own brother, Rifat, who was Hafez’s right hand man for decades.

As a young man, Bashar had nothing to do with politics. He studied medicine at the Damascus University and graduated as a physician specializing in ophthalmology in 1988. He went to Britain in 1992 to continue his medical studies and returned to Syria two years later.

No one considered Bashar as a possible successor until the death of his older brother, Basil, their father’s hand picked heir apparent, in a car crash. How convenient for the opponents of Hafez.

Daddy directed Bashar to join the Syrian military in 1994. Apparently training as an eye doctor makes a good soldier. In 1999, Bashar was promoted to Colonel. In 2000 he was named Commander in Chief of the Syrian Armed Forces.

At the State Department, key decision makers were hopeful when Bashar took over. After all, here was a young man of considerable intelligence who had been educated in Britain. He hadn’t been part of his father’s reign of terror. Surely he would appreciate that the best way to pump life into the moribund Syrian economy was by working with the United States in the war on terror and making peace with Israel, as Egypt had done. With the Russians out of the picture, the U.S. was the only source of funds to revitalize the Syrian civilian economy as well as the army.

That early optimism was dashed quickly when Bashar maintained in key positions the same thugs, who were in control under his father’s rule. Perhaps he didn’t think he was strong enough to get rid of them. Or perhaps our mid east experts in the State Department had misread Bashar. Not the first time that’s happened in the case of a new foreign leader.

Bashar has made no secret of his support of Hezbollah and other terrorist organizations for which Damascus is a safe haven. He is frequently seen in the company of Sheik Hasan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah. He has continued to develop a strategic alliance with Iran.

He stuck with Saddam until the bitter end as the U.S. planned for war in Iraq. Most outrageously, illegal oil exports were slipped out of Iraq by pipeline via Syria, in defiance of U.N. directives.

After the war began, Bashar offered sanctuary to some fleeing Iraqis until the U.S. military sealed the border. Unresolved is the issue of whether some Iraqi weapons were smuggled into Syria.

On other issues, Bashar has done nothing to loosen Syria’s grip on Lebanon. Free speech and democracy in Syria, which began to blossom when Bashar took power, have been nipped in the bud. Bashar, himself, led the counter attack against the supporters of reform.

Immediately after the fall of Saddam, Bashar was petrified that the U.S. would attack Syria, which seemed plausible at the time. However, Colin Powell visited Damascus in an effort to obtain Bashar’s support. What he did on that visit was let the Syrian know an attack wasn’t imminent. So Bashar had no incentive to come around.

Once the Bush Administration realized what happened, they decided to ratchet up the pressure on Bashar with action. The Syrian ruler is smart enough to recognize threats and bluster with nothing behind them to punish noncompliance. The Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act was enacted on December 13, 2003 with full Administration support. It promises harsh commercial sanctions unless Syria halts its support for terrorism and withdraws from Lebanon.

This law is only the first step. Between Syria and Iran, it is obvious that the Bush Administration will zero in on the weaker nation and easier target. Unquestionably that’s Syria. Economically, politically and militarily. The country’s per capita annual income is less than $1,000.

Bashar al-Assad is now at a crossroads. He can help his country, save his regime and his life by shifting his policies to support Washington. All he has to do is preclude terrorists from using Syria as their base. Or he can go down in flames as his pal Saddam did. Some in Foggy Bottom are again hopeful that the eye doctor won’t be short sighted. That he’ll have vision. Personally, I doubt it.