The military significance of any help Syria and Iran give Iraq will likely be minor, but the political impact could be huge, experts in Middle Eastern politics and warfare said yesterday.
``Whatever they're going to give them is not tremendously significant in terms of improving the fighting capabilities of the Iraqis,'' said Stephen M. Saideman, a professor of political science at McGill University in Montreal.
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld yesterday accused Syria of giving Iraq high-tech military equipment - including night vision goggles - and Iran of dispatching fighters to help battle Americans.
Nevertheless, said Saideman, the assistance might have surprised U.S. officials because Syria and Iran would appear to have little to gain by helping the side that will undoubtedly lose the war.
Why Iran would annoy the United States during a nearby war is hard to determine, he said. ``Syria may be doing this for domestic political purposes.''
Charles Pena of the libertarian CATO institute in Washington said the involvement of Iran and Syria in minor military matters is far less important then the message their involvement sends.
That message, ``There are going to be people and possibly governments who are not going to be happy with the U.S. presence inside that country. They may be perfectly happy to see Saddam go . . . but that should not be equated with welcoming a major U.S. presence in the region.''
Little military strikes against the United States, even on behalf of a losing country, may well unite Arabs in the region, he said.
Pena compared the attacks to similar assaults on the Soviet Union when it invaded Afghanistan.
``They became a rallying cry for every militant Muslim or even just Muslims in general to join the Mujahedeen to expel the Soviets from Afghanistan, even if the people had nothing else in common,'' he said. ``We have to be very careful now to (determine) whether or not we have set off the same chain of events in the region where you have Arabs and Muslims who may not agree on anything else but can come to agreement that expelling the United States . . . is something they're willing to take up arms to do.''
The coalition has about 12 months to finish business in Iraq and install Iraqi leaders, he said. ``It won't be too long before other people who weren't loyal to Saddam just don't want us around and might be willing to engage in guerrilla warfare tactics around the country.''
Marius Deeb, an adjunct professor of Middle Eastern politics and history at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, said removing Saddam Hussein will backfire for the coalition partners if any political void is left in southern Iraq.
``The American government is shortsighted,'' he said. ``They're removing the last barrier of a secular government and after that, Shiite fundamentalism is going to be in full swing.''
Shiites in Syria, to Iraq's west, and Iran on the east will rush to fill a post-Saddam vacuum and create a giant theocracy stretching across the region, he said. ``They'll move into southern Iraq and take over unless we control the region . . . Iran and Syria will link up and control southern Iraq.''
Syria and Iran have cooperated since 1980, he said, and both support terrorists against the United States.
While both countries' leaders have complained about the U.S.-led invasion, it's only been a public-relations exercise aimed at their own populations, he said. ``Deep in their hearts, they are for the war . . . both are interested to exploit the war and take over southern Iraq.''
``You can't say publicly you're for the war; it's very unpopular. But the war is good for them. It strengthens them. I don't know what will happen,'' Deeb said. ``I'm not very optimistic.''