Don’t Give Syria Life-support in Exchange for a Phony Peace

(Washington, D.C.): In the midst of the hype over the latest “breakthrough” in
the so-called
Middle East “peace process” — hype driven, it appears, by the convergence of Bill Clinton’s
desperate bid for a legacy, Hafez Assad’s alleged near-deathbed conversion to peacemaker and
Ehud Barak’s determination to get agreements with Israel’s Arab foes at any price — precious
little thought seems to be being given to whether this initiative makes strategic sense for either
Israel or the United States.

Fortunately, wise counsel suggesting — correctly — that it does not appeared
today on the
editorial page of the Wall Street Journal. The following op.ed. by Steven Plaut
should be
required reading for everyone interested in achieving a genuine and secure peace for Israel — not
simply another ephemeral, fraudulent piece of paper and its accompanying signing
ceremony.

Don’t Negotiate. Let Syria Collapse.

By Steven Plaut

Wall Street Journal, 10 December 1999

President Clinton hailed as a “breakthrough” Israel and Syria’s plans to reopen talks next
week in
Washington. But Israel shouldn’t rush into an agreement with Syria, which would only prop up a
regime on the verge of collapse.

Hafez Assad’s Syria is a Third World backwater. On the off chance that Syria is serious
about
resolving its conflict with Israel, it is no doubt motivated by the shabby state of its economy.
And if it should turn out yet again that Damascus is interested in little more than scoring a few
public-relations points, the most promising way to turn up the heat on Mr. Assad is by increasing
economic pressures on Syria.

Even if the Syrian economy were in fine shape, the country would still have deep troubles.
Its
dictator is sick and old, and his son and anointed heir, Bashar, may not be up to the job. The
ruling dynasty is fractured. Last week the French newspaper Liberation reported that Gen. Assaf
al-Shawkat, Hafez Assad’s son-in-law, had been admitted to a Paris military hospital with a
gunshot wound to the belly. Liberation reported that he was shot by Mr. Assad’s younger son,
Maher.

The Syrian ruling class consists mainly of a small and despised ethnic minority, the Alawis.
It is
a pariah country due to its involvement in terrorism and drug trading. It is on poor terms with all
its neighbors except Lebanon, which it occupies militarily. Syria has gone to the brink of war
with Turkey over water, and Damascus claims a chunk of territory in southeastern Turkey.
Syria’s Russian-supplied military equipment is obsolete, and the regime has almost no money to
buy Western replacements. Syria is so backward technologically that it has yet to introduce credit
cards, cellular phones or a stock market. It has outlawed access to the Internet for all but the
regime’s closest cronies.

The Syrian economy is imploding, and the reforms needed to revive it would threaten the
power
of Mr. Assad and his cronies. Mr. Assad was reported to have been shocked by the collapse of
Nicolae Ceausescu’s regime in Romania a decade ago and has been fixated on avoiding
Ceausescu’s fate. His model seems now to be North Korea.

Although Syria’s ruling Baath party doesn’t call itself communist, its economic structure
makes
Syria one of the world’s last surviving communist countries. An all-powerful central planning
bureaucracy fixes prices and owns the bulk of industry in the country. Syria operates under
five-year plans that are often formulated in year two or three.

The International Monetary Fund says Syria’s economy is more in need of reform than any
other
in the Mediterranean region. The central government controls resources, prints oodles of money,
employs 40% of the labor force, controls all imports and exports, owns all banks and insurance
companies, regulates every financial transaction and most commercial ones, owns all big
industry and much small industry and controls ordinary wholesale and retail trade and
agricultural markets.

Although the regime claims a gross domestic product per capita of $6,000, the actual figure
is
somewhere between $600 and $1,200. Nearly 70% of Syrian workers earn less than $100 a
month. Syria’s external debts are huge relative to GDP and growing. Since most of these
obligations are in arrears, Syria has been cut out of international financial markets.

Syria is finding it increasingly difficult to feed itself. Its agriculture sector is low-tech and
primitive. The World Health Organization estimates that 28% of Syrian children suffer from
stunted growth, in large part due to malnutrition. The Syrian infrastructure is undeveloped and
primitive, with often-unsafe water, few sewers and an unreliable electricity supply.

The U.S. won the Cold War by letting the Soviet empire collapse under its economic
deadweight, with no military confrontation. Israel should take the same approach with Syria.
Rather than hurry to accommodate Mr. Assad, Prime Minister Ehud Barak should sit back and
wait for Syria to collapse.

With each passing year Syria will be less capable of feeding and arming itself, and more
susceptible to outside economic threats and pressures from the West. Western states can help
things along by imposing economic sanctions. With a bit of determination, this could lead to a
collapse of Mr. Assad’s totalitarian regime in Syria. That would redraw the strategic map of the
Middle East, most likely in a way that would benefit Israel–and the long-suffering Syrian people.

Steven Plaut teaches at the Graduate School of Business, University of Haifa,
Israel.

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