Washington Report, January/February 2006, pages 7-9
Will Syria Be Next?
By Rachelle Marshall
SYRIA IS clearly the next phase of the American-Israeli battle for the Middle East...—Charles Glass, “From Beirut to Damascus,” The Nation, Nov. 28, 2005.
It was almost possible to feel sorry for George W. Bush this fall, as embarrassment followed embarrassment and his only worry-free hours were spent visiting a Mongolian ger, far from the problems at home. The administration’s mishandling of Hurricane Katrina, the indictment of the vice president’s chief aide for perjury, bribery and corruption scandals involving top administration allies in Congress, and a hopeless war in Iraq have left Bush floundering to regain public support.
The rational way out of his plight would be for Bush to re-evaluate his failed policies, appoint new advisers, and attempt to correct course. But Karl Rove, who is under investigation for leaking classified secrets, remains his closest adviser; Michael Brown, the FEMA chief who was admiring himself in the mirror while the New Orleans levees broke, is still working at FEMA; and instead of recognizing the chaos in Iraq caused by his policies, Bush announces a “National Strategy for Victory” and insists, “We will never back down.”
The short-term solution to a difficult problem is to divert attention by embarking on a new venture, and signals from the the administration suggest that ousting Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad is its next goal. Charles Glass, formerly chief Middle East correspondent for ABC News, points out in his Nov. 28 Nation article that three of the chief architects of the current Iraq war, David Wurmser, Richard Perle and Douglas Feith, recommended to former Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in 1996 that Israel undermine the Syrian government by making alliances with Arab tribes hostile to Syria’s ruling elite.
Glass believes the neocons in the Bush administration are bent on weakening Syria because they see it as a possible threat to Israel—a view shared by Flynt Leverett, a former member of Condoleezza Rice’s National Security Council staff who is now at the Brookings Institution. “The Bush administration had a long list of complaints about Syria that got longer after Iraq, “ Leverett told reporters on Oct. 30. “I think they’ve been moving toward an undeclared policy of regime change, regime change on the cheap.”
The assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri last February—by Syrian security officials, according to a U.N. investigating team—enabled the United States, backed by Britain and France, to secure passage of a U.N. Security Council resolution in early November demanding that Syria arrest and make available for questioning all those suspected of the killing, or face stiff sanctions. Since the suspects include Bashar’s brother Maher, and Syria’s powerful security chief, Asef Shawkat, Assad was faced with a difficult choice, but he agreed to allow five Syrian officials to be questioned by investigators in Vienna.
Suspicions of Syria's involvement were reinforced when a car-bombing in Beirut on December 12 killed Gibran Tueni, a prominent journalist and member of the Lebanese parliament. Tueni was a vehement critic of Syria, who had earlier expressed fears of assassination. Only hours after the attack, U.N. investigators released a report accusing the Syrians of forcing witnesses to recant previous testimony implicating Syrian officials in the killing of Hariri.
At Washington’s urging, the preamble to the resolution demanded that Syria “cease all assistance to terrorist groups.” Administration officials have long insisted that Syria stop aiding Hezbollah and Palestinian resistance forces opposed to Israel’s occupation. Syria’s substantial help to the CIA in tracking down al-Qaeda suspects, and its effort to prevent foreign fighters from crossing into Iraq, have not stopped the U.S. from accusing the Assad government of harboring terrorists. In a reminder of charges once made against Saddam Hussain, Stuart A. Levey, undersecretary of the treasury for terrorism, even declared last July that Syria “poses an intolerable risk of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.”
The Bush administration has ignored Syria’s repeated requests to discuss these grievances, according to Syrian Ambassador Imad Moustapha. President Assad planned to attend a U.N. summit meeting in New York last September with hopes of holding talks with the administration, but instead of welcoming the opportunity, Washington effectively barred the Syrian president from coming. Joshua Landis, professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Oklahoma, wrote in a Sept. 17 article for The New York Times that “Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice delayed his visa, excluded him from a meeting of foreign ministers to discuss Lebanon and Syria, and had a United Nations investigator arrive in Damascus at the time of his departure. Boxed in, Mr. Assad canceled his visit.”
At a Sept. 13 press conference, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad accused the Syrian government of allowing terrorists to operate training camps inside Syria and warned that “our patience is running out.” Rice, who has claimed Syria “is standing in the way of the Iraqi people’s desire for peace,” appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations committee on Oct. 19 and refused to rule out U.S. military action against Damascus, saying “all options are on the table.” She told committee members that Bush did not need Congress’s permission to take such action. “I think you’ll understand fully,” she said, “that the president retains those powers in the war on terrorism and in the war in Iraq.”
In addition to imposing punitive economic measures against Syria, such as cutting off Iraqi oil exports through Syria’s pipeline, and freezing the U.S. assets of Syrian officials, the United States is ratcheting up the danger of military confrontation. According to some reports, the administration already is conducting covert military operations inside Syria, but even routine operations sometimes spill over the border. Several Syrian soldiers have been killed in cross-border firefights with Americans.
The danger of such engagements increased in early November, when U.S. and Iraqi troops launched “Operation Steel Curtain” in towns close to the Syrian border. Thousands of civilians were forced to flee their homes in the heaviest U.S.-led assault since the destruction of Fallujah last February. Troops released “ferocious torrents of automatic weapons fire, tank rounds and 500-pound aerial bombardments,” according to The New York Times. The attack may also have involved the use of white phosphorous, a banned weapon U.S. forces have used in Fallujah and elsewhere. The device soldiers refer to as “shake and bake” shoots out balls of flaming chemicals that stick to whatever they touch and burn human bodies to the bone.
As usual after such operations, the army gave no estimates of the number of civilian casualties. What was different about “Operation Steel Curtain” is that this time the Americans will maintain their bases on the Syrian border. “We are going to be here permanently,” Col. Stephen W. Davis said of his forces. “You can...look into Syria and you can just watch people coming across at night,” Davis said, although he admitted that only three of the fighters captured or killed by his men were foreigners. An Iraqi captain whose men were fighting alongside the Americans complained to reporters, “It cannot be right to have American soldiers on Muslim soil in this manner. I know they will not leave.”
The Double Standard at Work
If the Bush administration has its way, Syria will become an economically crippled state, with U.S. troops permanently camped on its borders. Meanwhile, Israel is free to ignore international agreements and violate U.N. Security Council resolutions with impunity. The double standard Washington applies in the Middle East was seldom more evident than during Condoleezza Rice’s visit to Israel in mid-November. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has steadfastly refused to implement the peace plan sponsored by the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations. Instead of holding talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas he is fulfilling the prediction made by his spokesman Dov Weissglass a year ago: “The significance of the [Gaza] disengagement plan is the freezing of the peace process.”
Sharon’s refusal to follow the dismantling of the Gaza settlements with the lifting of travel and other restrictions on the Palestinians prompted U.S. special envoy James D. Wolfensohn to accuse Israel of “acting as if there has been no withdrawal.” Conditions in the West Bank became even more oppressive, with the army carrying out repeated raids, assassinating suspected militants, and arresting hundreds of others. Meanwhile work continued on the expansion of settlements and completion of the annexationwall.
Israel’s actions drew a predictable response from Islamic Jihad, which carried out a suicide bombing in October that killed five Israelis. Israel in return intensified its effort to eliminate militants, and in the two weeks between Oct. 25 and mid-November killed 15 Palestinians, at least 6 of whom were bystanders. An Israeli military court meanwhile exonerated an army captain who last summer in Gaza had fired repeatedly at close range into the body of an already wounded 13-year-old girl, Iman al-Hams, as she lay on the ground.
Rice, who has been unsparing in her criticism of Syria, made no comment on Israel’s state-sponsored murders, even though soldiers shot to death two more Palestinians the day she arrived in Jerusalem and two more immediately after she left. During an all-night negotiating session with Israelis, the secretary of state managed to secure from Israel an agreement to reopen the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt and allow Europeans and Palestinians to monitor passage through it. The Israelis will receive videos taken by cameras placed in the terminal and can object to individual entries or exits. Sometime this winter Israel will also allow some Gazans to travel to the West Bank in escorted bus convoys.
Rice hailed this agreement as “a major step forward for the Palestinian people in their own movement toward independence.” In fact, the roadblocks that Palestinians face are as daunting as ever—both literally and figuratively. After the Labor Party voted on Nov. 9 to replace Shimon Peres with the more progressive Amir Peretz as its leader, Peretz promptly withdrew the party from Sharon’s coalition. Sharon, who is being challenged by Binyamin Netanyahu for leadership of Likud, then left Likud and formed a new party, Kadima, which will include several Likud members and such Labor veterans as Peres and Haim Ramon.
Although the party is new, it will be headed by the same old Sharon. Sharon again ruled out any unilateral Israeli withdrawals from the West Bank except for a few small unauthorized settlements. He said his chief priority was to achieve “a peace agreement in which we will set the permanent borders of the state.” At the same time Israel will “insist that terrorist organizations be dismantled.” It was a familiar message: Israel alone will determine the boundaries of any future Palestinian “state,” and the responsibility of Palestinian leaders will be to assure Israel’s security.
A renewal of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians is out of the question until at least after the Israeli election on March 28. Meanwhile Israel is making sure that the territory eventually turned over to the Palestinians consists only of separate bits of land surrounded by walls and Israeli-only highways. A report by the European Union leaked to The New York Times in late November accused Israel of “illegal settlement activity” and attempting “to seal off most of East Jerusalem...from the West Bank,” with the purpose of creating a “de facto annexation of Palestinian land.”
Instead of demanding that Israel comply with international law, the European foreign ministers decided not to act on the report for now. Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem in 1967 was immediately declared illegal by the U.N. Security Council that year. The U.N. Security Council also passed Resolution 242 in 1967, calling for Israel’s withdrawal from the occupied territories. Since then Israel has expanded Jerusalem’s borders deep into the West Bank, and Sharon has vowed that the city will remain forever a part of Israel.
The EU’s inaction assures that Israel will pay no price for its defiance of the United Nations. The Syrians enjoy no such luxury, however. Any infraction of the recent resolution on their part is almost certain to result in U.N. sanctions and a more intensive effort by Washington to undermine the Assad government. The danger of this policy is that it is almost certain to produce unwanted results. In post-invasion Iraq, lawlessness and increasing sectarian violence threaten to tear the country apart. Chilling accounts of men who are taken from their homes by uniformed police never to be heard from again, of bodies uncovered showing signs of torture and execution, and of secret prisons maintained by the U.S.-backed government where detainees were starved and tortured, are reminders of the horrors of the Saddam regime. “Authorities are doing the same as in Saddam’s time and worse,” former Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi recently told the London Observer.
The U.S. intervention in Iraq has also proved costly to neighboring Jordan, where a suicide bombing in Amman by Iraqis linked to al-Qaeda killed 60 people on Nov. 9. As a close U.S. ally in the war on terror, Jordan was an obvious target. Jordan’s General Intelligence Directorate receives funding from Washington and works closely with the CIA. The Jordanian government’s response to the bombing was to impose stiff new restrictions designed to enhance security, and draft a law allowing suspects to be held indefinitely.
If pressure on Syria becomes too threatening, the Assad regime is likely to become more restrictive as well. According to Joshua Landis, President Assad has run a more open government than his father, freed most of the political prisoners arrested by his father, and tolerated a greater level of criticism. The government’s enforcement of religious tolerance, Landis wrote in his Times article, “has made Syria one of the safest countries in the region.” But even the limited freedom Syrians enjoy could disappear if the ruling regime falls and Syria’s ethnic and religious factions engage in a violent struggle to take its place.
A three-day assembly of Sunni, Shi’i and Kurdish leaders in late November offered hope that the Iraqis may unite to end the U.S. occupation of their country, and with it the danger it poses to its neighbors. At a meeting sponsored by the Arab League, all three groups agreed on a statement that declared “national resistance is the right of all nations,” and called for a timetable for withdrawal of all foreign troops.
“If this meeting did anything it was to comfort the Iraqi Sunnis about the whole process,” said Sheikh Humam Hamoudi, a Shi’i cleric. Sunni political leader Saad al-Janabi was equally positive, saying: “As soon as the occupation leaves, you will see all this sectarianism and division end.” The two men may have been overly optimistic, but Iraqis are united on at least one issue: they want U.S. troops to leave. The Bush administration’s effort to force its own version of democracy on Iraq has clearly failed. The miseries plaguing that country today are a warning that a similar effort in Syria would be just as disastrous.
Rachelle Marshall is a free-lance editor living in Stanford, CA. A member of the Jewish International Peace Union, she writes frequently on the Middle East.