SYRIA has agreed a cooperation treaty with Iran, one of the three countries, along with North Korea and Iraq, that Bush referred to as “an axis of evil” in his 2002 State of the Union address.
Relations between Washington and Damascus have deteriorated since former Lebanese Prime Minister, Rafik Hariri, was killed in a bomb blast in Beirut recently. Bush has not specifically blamed Syria for the attack, but he has demanded that Damascus withdraw troops from Lebanon and cease giving refuge to supporters of Saddam Hussein. Syria, for its part, has denied any involvement in Hariri’s murder.
The Bush Administration has also condemned Iran’s alleged nuclear ambitions, a programme of particular concern to Israel. Perhaps united by anti-American enmity, Iran and Syria have now agreed to help each other “in all areas to confront external threats”. Syria maintains that its cooperation treaty with Iran is not an alliance against America, a disclaimer that will carry no credibility in Washington.
A long record of
human rights abuses
A haven for Nazi war criminals after the Second World War, Syria is an authoritarian state with a long record of human rights abuses. An ally of the Soviet Union during the Cold War, its foreign policy under President Hafez al-Hassad was fiercely nationalistic and anti-Israeli. In 1967, Syria lost the Golan Heights to Israel after the Six-Day War, a bone of contention between the two countries that has never been resolved. Later, the civil war in neighbouring Lebanon allowed Syria to extend its sphere of influence in the region.
Bashar al-Assad came into power in 2000, following his father’s death, an accession that initially triggered cautious optimism. The new leader released political prisoners, gave some independent newspapers the freedom to publish for the first time in three decades and allowed a small group of pro-democracy intellectuals to hold political meetings in public. Authorities also opened two internet cafés in the capital, albeit with restricted access to websites. But the “Damascus Spring” was short-lived. The government soon closed down meetings and placed the press under renewed censorship. Security services also arrested dissidents and ruthlessly crushed student demonstrations.
Washington’s growing hostility towards Damascus also arises from Assad’s refusal to engage with Israel. Assad described Israel as “a Nazi state” at the Arab League summit in Amman in 2001, and its official media has repeatedly denounced the Holocaust as “a fabrication”. In fact, anti-Semitism is very much an article of faith within Syrian society. But, needless to say, swathes of leftist, ‘anti-Zionist’ human rights campaigners in Europe have never criticised Syria, despite its consistent flouting of human rights and economic policies that have condemned 90 per cent of its population to gruelling poverty.
“Powerful Islamic front”
Iranian President, Mohammad Khatami, said his country’s strategic alliance with Syria would create a powerful Islamic front to confront America and Israel. Iran has also said its ‘nuclear’ programme is exclusively for peaceful, energy-generating purposes, a claim backed by Russian President, Boris Putin, who says he does not believe Iran is building atomic weapons. But, somewhat ominously, Khatami has also warned that anyone striking Iran’s nuclear facilities will be met with a “swift and crushing response”.
Despite the tough rhetoric, this alliance of Middle Eastern despots strikes more of panic than strength. Both are trying to quell rising internal dissent. More than half of the population of Iran and Syria is under the age of 25, perhaps prompting the authorities to fear pro-democracy demonstrations and student unrest.
Above all, Iran and Syria’s rulers fear the spread of information because it would expose their tyranny and corruption. Instead, they seek to divert attention away from their own records by casting the West as the apotheosis of evil at every opportunity. Iran, just like Syria, seems to enjoy immunity from the anti-war lobby over its record of torture and oppression – not that this is a surprise since the same people supported the overthrow of the Shah and the 1979 Islamic Revolution, hailing it as a triumph for “revolutionary Socialism”.
Predicting the future is always dangerous, but it would appear that Assad, Khatami and others like them are running against the tide of history. The 20th century showed us that people strive for freedom, regardless. Iranians and Syrians may dislike the West and be suspicious of Bush, but I suspect they will come to dislike poverty and dictatorship even more. I am reminded of that epic movie Gandhi and the great man’s words: “Whenever I despair, I remember that the way of truth and love has always won. There may be tyrants and murderers and, for a time, they may seem invincible, but in the end, they always fail.” Here’s hoping…