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19 April 2004

As the death toll rises, a region holds its breath

Iraq - Jordan fears a backlash against its support of America; Syria worries about economic sanction

By Barbara Smith

The viciousness of the fighting in Iraq is making its neighbours deeply nervous, whether they are America’s allies or its presumed enemies. Take Jordan and Syria, two countries at the opposite ends of that pole. President Bashar al-Assad of Syria this month paid a state visit – his first, as it happens – to King Abdullah of Jordan. Jordan’s regime, which has given full-blooded co-operation to the Americans in Iraq, is horribly embarrassed by the clumsiness of US policy. It has to control a people increasingly angered by the killing they see each day vividly depicted on Arab television channels. Meanwhile Syria’s regime, wriggling desperately, but not successfully, to get out of the line of American fire, may be looking to Jordan as a possible mediator between itself and the United States.

King Abdullah, discarding all vestiges of the ambivalence that his father, King Hussein, had disastrously shown during the 1991 Gulf war, has helped the Americans generously, welcoming in the CIA. But he is frustrated by the innumerable mistakes the western allies have made in Iraq, by the administration’s deafness to his pleas to tackle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and by America’s closeness to Ariel Sharon’s Israel. To the king’s intense embarrassment, he himself was talking to Sharon only a week before Israel assassinated the Hamas leader Sheikh Ahmed Yassin.

The fallout from that assassination has been as poisonous in Jordan as it has been elsewhere. Jordanians are being exposed day and night to al-Jazeera’s depiction of Iraqis being slaughtered by US missiles and guns, augmenting their fury with Israel and, by extension, the US. To make matters even worse, many of the Iraqis living in the Sunni triangle, which includes Fallujah, have old tribal links with the east Jordanians (the minority of Jordanians who are not of Palestinian origin).

Syria, for its part, is in a terrible way, and Bashar al-Assad may have hoped that King Abdullah would be willing to argue his case with Washington, DC. The Americans, al-Assad is finding, are not prepared to negotiate with him directly: he is told to stop doing whatever he is doing, threatened with this and that, but then left dangling without any promise of what, if anything, he might get in return. The US had set a date for imposing economic sanctions on Syria, but postponed it in the uproar after Sheikh Yassin’s killing. An Arabic-language station called Radio Free Syria started operating from Cyprus very recently. Financed from Washington, it features Syrian dissidents calling for the fall of the House of Assad.

What do the Americans want from Syria? For a start, to come clean about any weapons of mass destruction that it might possess. But al-Assad is extremely unlikely to follow Muammar Gaddafi’s extravagant example in giving up, and giving away, all such weapons or parts of them. Syria is anyhow not thought to have much that is particularly dangerous. It owns some ancient Soviet-supplied Scud missiles to which it could attach nasty chemical bombs, but experts are sceptical about Syria’s ability to deliver these bombs where it might like to.

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Some Israeli and US sources maintain that Syria is the guardian of Iraq’s missing WMDs. But the only evidence for this is the convoys of lorries and tankers that passed between Iraq and Syria in the three months before the US and UK invaded. Some ended up in Lebanon’s Beka’a Valley, but most went to northern Syria, where the borders of Syria, Iraq and Turkey converge.

Syria is also under pressure from the US to stop the help it is giving to Hamas, the militant Islamist movement in the occupied Palestinian territories. It does not give Hamas much, but it took in exiled leaders when they were expelled from Jordan a few years ago. Exiled groups, operating under the formidable eye of Syria’s security services, recently had the telephone lines to their offices cut and were forbidden access to the media. But if they were kicked out of the country altogether, where would they go? Al-Assad may, perhaps, have been negotiating with King Abdullah about their possible return to Jordan.

Above all, the US wants Syria to stop helping the Iraqi resistance or, rather, to stop the Lebanese Shia militia Hezbollah from doing so. Though there is suspicious crossing and recrossing of the Iraqi-Syrian frontier by ex-Ba’athist officials and others – perhaps to bring in weapons and money, perhaps to recruit – it is Hezbollah that is the villain of the day. Hezbollah’s charismatic secretary-general, Hassan Nasrallah, is believed to be close to Bashar al-Assad, and Syria, as Lebanon’s overlord, is held responsible by the Americans for the militant group’s activities.

Hezbollah is almost certainly up to no good. It was cock-a-hoop at its victory in “throwing” the Israelis out of southern Lebanon, which convinced it that it could punch well above its weight. Its ambitions for spreading Shia influence range wide. Together, probably, with its hardline patrons in Iran (not the government but the powers behind the government) it seems to have been stirring things up in Iraq, and is thought to be playing a significant role in Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi army. It suits Israel to paint Hezbollah as a danger, but these accusations, though self-serving, are not necessarily wrong. Hezbollah is an organisation of many elements, and one of those elements is fanatical, ideological and well versed in the foul arts of suicide bombing and hostage-taking.

When Condoleezza Rice, President Bush’s national security adviser, was asked on 8 April by the congressional commission investigating the events prior to 11 September 2001 if she saw fresh dangers of terrorist acts on US soil, and where they would come from, she pointed the finger at Hezbollah.

The Arabs, for their part, detect a new and alarming parallel between the occupation of Iraq and the occupation of Palestine. These are by no means the same: the Americans, unlike the Israelis, do not want to stay in the land they are occupying. But the Americans encourage the analogy by using military methods that ape the methods, though in more lethal form (the Israelis, at their most brutal, have never killed 700 people, many of them innocent civilians, in the space of a few days), which Israel uses to crush those who resist the occupation. And it is this confusion between Israel and America that is damning the United States in the eyes of Iraq’s troubled neighbours.

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