Muslims all over the world are so angry about a series of cartoons poking fun at the Messenger of God that by now pretty much every Danish and Norwegian flag in the Muslim world has met its fiery end. And yet only in Damascus and Beirut have institutions—embassies or consulates—representing Denmark and Norway been attacked. Are Lebanese and Syrian Muslims angrier than other Muslims? Or, what’s going on here?
First of all, it’s important to remember that Syria is an authoritarian state where nothing happens on the street unless the regime permits it to happen. Actually, that’s something of an understatement—the government almost always determines and drives public actions. So, many of the Damascus protestors venting their pious outrage likely either work for Syrian security services or are rent-a-mobs being paid to riot.
In Lebanon, it is only slightly different. It appears that the Internal Security Forces were incapable or unwilling to protect the Danish consulate from protestors, many of whom were apparently shipped in from Syria and Lebanese Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon (where Syrian influence and arms are extensive). Indeed, Damascus’ Lebanese intelligence networks are still active, even after Syrian troops left the country last April in compliance with U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559. And of course Syria has lots of Lebanese allies, including Islamist groups such as the Al-Ahbash and Hezbollah, whose General Secretary Hassan Nasrallah asked—maybe not so rhetorically—if someone blowing themselves up in the middle of Denmark constituted “an expression of freedom.”
It would be interesting to know precisely the level of involvement of the Syrian mukhabarat, but President Bashar al-Asad does not want to be held accountable for what is practically an act of war. For that matter, neither Denmark nor Norway would want to know the answer and then be forced with having to respond as such. Americans might enjoy some schadenfreude in watching flags other than theirs getting torched, but why is Syria so hostile to a Europe that is by comparison much more accommodating? There are at least three possible reasons: (1) To prevent the international community from bringing down Syria’s ruling regime; (2) To raise money for Hamas; (3) To warn against interfering with the Iranian nuclear program.
(1) Syria has been under the international spotlight now for nearly a year, following the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri. In a remarkable show of multilateral concord, the United States and European Union have been working together to put pressure on the regime in Damascus. In fact, it is France that has led the way.
Even before the murder of Hariri, Jacques Chirac suggested to George Bush at the 60th anniversary of the Normandy invasion that this was a project they might work on together. The White House was cross with Syria for supporting the insurgency in Iraq and Chirac was angry because, among many other reasons, Syria had handed out oil contracts to non-French firms and squandered money the French president had raised at the Paris II talks in November 2002 earmarked for political and economic reform in Lebanon.
Bush and Chirac used Lebanon as a platform to fight Syria, and the regime in Damascus has been fighting back in every way possible, including the continued destabilization of Lebanon and attempts to block the U.N. investigation into the Hariri murder. The Muhammad cartoons provided yet another opportunity for Syria to scare away meddlers. After the Danish consulate was burned, protestors started to stone a Maronite church, a gesture that comports nicely with a series of bombings in Christian areas and assassinations of Christian figures designed to incite sectarian violence in Lebanon.
(2) For years, Syria has served as center of operations for a number of Palestinian rejectionist groups, including Hamas. For instance, Hamas political and military chief Khaled Mashaal makes his home just a quick cab ride away from the presidential palace in Damascus. The United States and the European Union have explained that they are not going to give any more money to the Hamas-led Palestinian Authority until it recognizes Israel’s right to exist and disowns violence. However, like many political bodies in the Arab world, Hamas only knows how to express itself through violence. But Hamas has a problem: the battleground that they typically availed themselves of in the past is much less accessible now that Israel has built a fence and has stopped an overwhelming percentage of suicide bombers. So, what are Hamas’ options?
In the ’70s and ’80s Yasser Arafat’s PLO found an especially attractive venue in Europe. The continent was light on security and fat in the wallet. Recall the most spectacular act of Palestinian terrorism, commemorated now in Steven Spielberg’s Munich, when the Black September group kidnapped and killed Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympiad? Arafat said he had nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with radicals such as Black September. But, he said, the only way for him to gain control in the political arena was to build his prestige. The best way to do that, he argued, was by helping him enhance his patronage networks, i.e. by giving him more money so he could put more armed gunmen on salary who would, of course, eventually run operations, like those in Europe, which Arafat disclaimed.
Europeans would be wise to remember what Arafat’s shell game cost them because right now, leaders all over Europe are being reminded of what can happen when you try to de-fund Palestinian terrorists. The argument will look something like this: The “moderate” and responsible wing of Hamas that wants to “fix potholes” needs to be empowered to take on its radical members who only want to kill nice Europeans. It’s a protection racket. Damascus and Beirut are serving as rehearsal spaces for what might happen if the European Union stops signing checks.
(3) Iran is Syria’s only ally in the world, but Tehran has a price for siding with a virtual pariah state. They want a nuclear program and Syria can help. The United States was frustrated when Europe decided it wanted to negotiate with Iran: After all, the good-cop bad-cop routine only goes so far when what’s really called for is joint action. The United States initially believed that even after the Europeans had failed at negotiations their pride would never allow them to admit they were wrong. In fact, the opposite happened. It was only once the Europeans started to deal with the Iranians in depth that they really saw how bad the Iranians were. Now, the Europeans and the United States see eye to eye: It is doubtful that anyone in the international community, except Syria and Hezbollah, is willing to accept an Iranian nuclear bomb. Syria is lobbying for the program and, again, making its case to Europe. Remember that Damascus burned the very same day Iran was reported to the U.N. Security Council.
The Muhammad cartoon conflict, as silly as it sounds, is about our war for freedom and liberty and our way of life. Unlike the peoples who live under authoritarian regimes, the citizens of liberal democracies don’t have to observe redlines, subjects that are too controversial to touch, whether they’re about the state or religion. We can talk about anything, pursue ideas anywhere they take us, even into blasphemy. But the response to the cartoons is also about the real war, the one that involves, among others, Syria, Iran and Palestinian terrorist organizations.