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Interview With Middle East Expert

Aired April 15, 2003 - 01:40   ET


AARON BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: We've been turning our attention to Syria a lot this evening, because increasingly, that seems also to be what the Bush administration is doing: turning its attention to Syria.
For a little more perspective on this, we are joined now in London by the University of London Mideast analyst, Hagai Segal.

Good to have you with us.

These two countries, Iraq and Syria, are both -- or were in one case -- Baathist countries. In what ways were they the same, and in what ways were they dissimilar?

HAGAI SEGAL, UNIVERISITY OF LONDON: Well, there are significant similarities, but also significant differences. First of all, these are two Baath Parties. There are actually enormous disagreements and indeed rivalry with each other, a bit like two brothers who don't get on. They came from the same origins, but they very much are in conflict with each other.

But there are indeed many comparisons. These are both states which have been run by not just a single-party regime, but for many years by a one-man regime. We have Hafez al-Assad, who was the father of the current leader, Bashar, who was in charge for many decades, as was Saddam. He had a pretty totalitarian regime that relied upon brutality to an extent, and which very strongly established one-party rule. There are many comparisons.

It also was a party that in the initial stages would have been considered highly ideological. Many consider that that isn't the case today.

It also has a very anti-American critique. It very much stresses the idea of Arab unity, and that it should be an Arab leader, very anti-Israel.

So in many ways, there were these kinds of similarities, but as I said, they didn't get on particularly (UNINTELLIGIBLE), and there has been a significant difference in the modern histories of Syria and Iraq as a consequence.

BROWN: To the extent that it's relevant, where do the differences center?

SEGAL: I think we have a situation in which both were trying to establish separate ideas about their own status within the region and their own nationalism.

Syria very much went the way of Egypt. From '58 to '61, they actually joined Egypt together in a state. The two of them were very, very prominent in fighting Israel, both being neighbors of Israel. This is, of course, something that Iraq didn't share. And while they always made noises in terms of being anti-Israel and in support of the Palestinians, it's not a neighbor. It's, therefore, not for it to direct war with Israel.

This, of course, was a major part of the Syrian dynamic. They had fought wars with Israel in '48, in '67, in '73 and to an extent in the Lebanon war in 1982. So their context has very much been one which has been Israel-centric.

They do share one conflict there, which is Turkey. Both Syria and Iraq have had significant differences with Turkey over the years for very different reasons.

But the Israeli-Palestinian dynamic has been a very prominent aspect of the Syrian development, and indeed internally within Syrian politics, because a number of coups d' tat developed specifically after the war in 1948 exactly because military factions were so angry as to what was going on within their own government. This never happened within Iraq.

BROWN: Is the pressure that the Americans are putting on the Syrians right now likely to isolate Syria, or is the reverse true? Is it likely to draw other Arab nations, diplomatically at least, into a circle around and to protect Syria?

SEGAL: It's a very good question, and I think the answer is probably both. While there is a strong likelihood that, as you say, it is going to create a situation in which there will be significant Arab unity around this, I think the United States administration has to tread incredibly carefully after Iraq to ensure that it is not seen within the region as carrying out some form of imperialistic project.

Arab public opinion and Muslim public opinion generally around the world is extremely cynical about the United States intentions. The idea that they want to be liberators and not occupiers is not one that is broadly accepted. There's extreme cynicism about this view.

There is a perception that, as Britain and France did after the First World War, there is now a United States imperialist project that they have decided that things in the region don't suit them, and they're going to just keep invading countries until they get their way.

Now, the United States is going to have to be extremely cautious in how they articulate their views and the way in which they go about it to avoid such views and such mentalities. That said, it will absolutely isolate Syria, and it is already doing so. There is a significant worry in the region, but also in regimes like Syria and Iran who have had significant animosity over the years with the United States of America, that if they don't play ball, then the U.S. will indeed take action against them. And while they know that right now, this action is what the administration likes to call highly-active diplomacy, there is always the spectra of military action. And this is something they're going to take extremely seriously after the Iraq example.

BROWN: Mr. Segal, good to talk to you. Thanks for joining us. Very interesting tonight.

SEGAL: Thank you.

BROWN: Thank you very much.


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