Are They Serious About Syria?
when it appeared that Syria was complying in earnest with U.S. demands
to secure its border with Iraq and even making unprecedented peace
overtures to Israel, key neoconservative opinion-shapers are calling
on President George W. Bush to take stronger measures against Damascus,
possibly including military action.
media campaign was launched last week, when three analysts associated
with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD), a neoconservative
group that generally backs positions of Israel's right-wing Likud
Party, published an article in the Washington Times titled
"Syria's Murderous Role."
William Kristol, the influential chairman of the Project for the
New American Century (PNAC) and editor of the Rupert Murdoch-owned
Weekly Standard, devoted his lead editorial, "Getting
Serious About Syria," to the same subject, concluding that,
despite the stresses on the U.S. military in Iraq, "real options
exist [for dealing with Damascus]."
could bomb Syrian military facilities; we could go across the border
in force to stop infiltration; we could occupy the town of Abu Kamal
in eastern Syria, a few miles from the border, which seems to be
the planning and organizing center for Syrian activities in Iraq;
we could covertly help or overtly support the Syrian opposition...."
Wednesday, the Wall Street Journal followed up in its lead
editorial always a reliable indicator of neocon opinion on
the Middle East charging, "Syria is providing material
support to terrorist groups killing American soldiers in Iraq while
openly calling on Iraqis to join the 'resistance.'"
editorial, "Serious About Syria," accused the Bush administration
of responding to these provocations with "mixed political signals
and weak gestures," and urged it to at least threaten military
action, much as Turkey "mobilized for war against Syria"
in 1998 over Damascus' support for Kurdish rebels.
hours, Bush himself was talking tough on Damascus. Asked during
a White House photo-op with visiting Italian Prime Minister Silvio
Berlusconi about accusations by Iraq's defense minister of alleged
Syrian and Iranian support for the Sunni insurgency, the president
warned the two countries that "meddling in the internal affairs
of Iraq is not in their interest."
some ways, the new campaign against Syria recalls a similar effort
that began building in the immediate aftermath of the U.S. invasion
of Iraq in March 2003. Then, Washington was seen as an irresistible
force in the region, and neoconservatives and Pentagon chief Donald
Rumsfeld appeared to be spoiling for a fight with Syria, which,
they charged, was harboring senior members of the ruling Ba'ath
Party and Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction (WMD).
as the insurgency grew more potent in the fall of 2003, Bush's chief
political aide, Karl Rove, ordered the hawks to stand down, lest
a new military adventure cost the president his reelection. Now
that Bush has won a second term, they need not worry about the possible
that fails to explain precisely why the hawks are making such a
fuss over Syria at this moment, particularly given the prevailing
Washington consensus including among the hawks themselves
that Iran's nuclear program represents a much more important
strategic challenge to the administration.
contrast to the charges that were made against Damascus 16 months
ago, the new campaign appears to be based primarily on alleged statements
by unidentified U.S. military and intelligence officials cited in
the Washington Times op-ed and a subsequent Washington
Post news article to the effect that the Sunni insurgency in
Iraq is being organized, funded, and even managed by, as the Post
put it, "a handful of senior Iraqi Ba'athists operating in
supposedly critical piece of evidence much cited by the hawks was
the reported discovery of a global positioning signal receiver in
a bomb factory in the Iraqi insurgents' stronghold of Fallujah,
which "contained waypoints originating in western Syria."
mostly anonymous accounts were recently echoed by visiting King
Abdullah of Jordan and Iraqi President Ghazi Yawar, who also charged,
as has Washington, that Syria has trained and helped infiltrate
its own and other "foreign fighters" into Iraq.
Post quoted one former Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA)
analyst who said, "there is an increasing view [in the intelligence
community] that Syria is at the center of the problem."
Kristol and others have seized on these reports as proof of Syria's
sinister role in Iraq, they have ignored other evidence of increased
cooperation by Damascus, particularly in sealing its border.
on the same day that Kristol issued his call to arms against Damascus,
the Journal's news reporters published an article that began:
"Senior military officers and other U.S. officials say Syria
has made a serious effort in recent weeks to stanch the flow of
fighters moving across its border into and out of Iraq, and has
arrested at least one former Iraqi Ba'athist accused by the U.S.
of helping to finance and coordinate the insurgency."
the same time, a number of published accounts about the aftermath
of the capture of Fallujah established that the number of Syrian
and other "foreign fighters" involved in the insurgency
there was far less than had been expected, putting paid to the theory
that foreigners from Syria or elsewhere were a major factor in the
uprising, as had long been claimed by the Pentagon and its neocon
Josh Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma, suggested
in his Web log, or "blog," the hawks want a foreign scapegoat
for an insurgency about which they still know remarkably little.
according to Landis, "the analysts decided that if the resistance
was not powered by Syrians, then it was led by Iraqis living in
Syria; hence the spate of articles suggesting the defense department
had adopted this view. It will be interesting to see if it has more
staying power than the last theory."
added Landis, the U.S. administration has little to lose. "Washington
isn't having much luck with other strategies for defeating the resistance
and Syria has been quite cooperative in the past and will probably
be so in the future. So why not mount yet another Syria-bashing
Haddad, who teaches Arab politics at St. Joseph's University in
Philadelphia, told IPS he sees the current campaign as an effort
to intimidate Damascus, with two aims in sight.
the hawks want to gain more cooperation from Damascus on tightening
its borders with Iraq and arresting or expelling Ba'athist exiles
in Syria who may indeed according to both Landis and Haddad
be supporting the insurgency in various ways. Second, pressing
Syria could further tilt the regional balance of power in Israel's
favor at a moment when prospects for renewed peace negotiations
are brighter than in a very long time.
very little happening in Iraq today that Syria is responsible for
... so, if there is some kind of strategy behind all of this, it
is probably to apply pressure for concessions leading to eventual
negotiations with the Israelis," particularly with respect
to Syrian support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and Palestinian groups
operating in Damascus, said Haddad.
current campaign may also reflect a growing sense of urgency among
the neocons, in particular, that "a window of opportunity"
for pressuring Syria is closing as the situation in Iraq deteriorates.
"I think these factions would like to see something done about
Syria before it becomes hugely unpopular to take military action,"
both experts suggest a risk in applying too much pressure on the
regime of President Bashar al-Assad, which, according to Landis,
will be extremely reluctant to enter into a major fight on Bush's
behalf with many of the 500,000 Iraqis who have come to Syria in
the past year, "not to mention with local Islamists and mosque
fear, as do many in the State Department who know Syria," said
Haddad, "that the current Syrian regime is far more preferable
to both Syrians and Americans than possible alternatives ... the
best organized of which are fundamentalist Sunni Muslims."
Lobe is Inter Press Service's correspondent in Washington, DC.
© 2004 Inter Press Service