The U.S. Attack on Syria: Implications for the Next Administration

The raid by U.S. forces into Syria in late October was not only a major breach of international law, but has resulted in serious diplomatic repercussions which will likely harm U.S. strategic interests in the region. On October 25, four U.S. Army helicopters entered Syrian airspace from Iraq, firing upon laborers at the Sukkariyeh Farm near the town of Abu Kamal; two of the helicopters landed and eight commandoes reportedly stormed a building. By the time it was over, eight people had been killed, at least seven of whom were civilians, including three children.

It is believed to be the first time the United States has ever engaged in ground combat operations in Syria. And, though Congress did not authorize any operations against that country, there appears to be virtually no opposition in the Democrat-controlled Congress to President George W. Bush unilaterally deciding to attack Syria, even when the casualties appear to have been almost exclusively innocent civilians.

Claim of Counter-Terrorism

The apparent target of the raid, who was the sole non-civilian casualty (though no evidence of finding his body has been publicly reported), was Abu Ghadiya, whom the United States has accused of helping to smuggle foreign fighters into Iraq for the extremist Salafi Sunni group known as Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). There appears to have been no effort by the Bush administration, however, to ask the Syrian government to either arrest Abu Ghadiya or extradite him.

An administration official told the Washington Post, “You have to clean up the global threat that is in your backyard, and if you won’t do that, we are left with no choice but to take these matters into our hands.” In reality, there was no indication that Abu Ghadiya had any relationship with the branch of Al-Qaeda headed by Osama bin Laden which does have a global reach. (Many analysts see AQI as simply an Iraqi-led group that simply appropriated the name.) Furthermore, the Syrians have been quite aggressive in tracking down suspected al-Qaeda cells that did.

For example, former CIA director George Tenet had praised Syria for providing the United States with intelligence dossiers on al-Qaeda in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and had called for increased intelligence cooperation with the Syrian regime. In one example, intelligence provided by Syria helped thwart a potentially devastaing attack on the headquarters of the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet, based in Bahrain.

Syria’s secular government, which has itself been the target of the very kind of hard-line Salafi Sunni terrorists the U.S. claims they were targeting, would have little motivation to knowingly allow someone like that to operate within their territory. Nor would they want to facilitate the growth of such dangerous groups destabilizing their neighbor Iraq. Indeed, a recent National Intelligence Estimate noted how Syria had “cracked down on some Sunni extremist groups attempting to infiltrate fighters into Iraq through Syria because of threats they pose to Syrian stability.”

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem just completed a visit to Great Britain, where he and British foreign minister David Miliband issued a joint statement declaring that “tackling al-Qaeda and groups inspired by it was a high priority” and that the two governments had “agreed to work more closely together to tackle this threat.”

Syria is among a small minority of Arab countries which have formally recognized the Iraqi government, which also raises questions as to why they would seek to destabilize it. Furthermore, Syria’s closest regional ally is the Shia government of Iran, which served as the exiled base for the major Shia parties which currently control the Iraqi government and which have been a target of hard-line Sunni groups like AQI, which are fanatically anti-Iranian and see Shiism as apostasy.

Iraqi President Jalal Talbani noted that Syria does not currently pose a threat to Iraq’s stability. Indeed, the Iraqi government specifically condemned the attack, which originated in its territory, declaring that “The Iraqi government rejects U.S. aircraft bombarding posts inside Syria. The Constitution does not allow Iraq to be used as a staging ground to attack neighboring countries.”

Guerrilla Infiltration

There is no question that there are places along Syria’s 300-mile border of Iraq, much of which is sparsely-populated desert and mountains, where foreign fighters have illegally crossed the border, including some who have allied with groups like AQI which have engaged in acts of terrorism. Neither the Bush administration nor its Congressional supporters, however, have been able to make a convincing case that Syria has been encouraging such infiltration or why they would choose to do so.

In part, as a result of U.S. pressure, the Syrian government has moved as many as 10,000 troops to the Iraqi border to guard against such infiltration. The State Department has acknowledged that Damascus “upgraded physical security conditions on the border and began to give closer scrutiny to military-age Arab males entering Syria.” In a report published late last year, the State Department also noted how the Syrian government had “worked to increase security cooperation with Iraq,” including hosting “a meeting of technical border security experts representing Iraq’s neighbors, the United States, and other countries” as well as participating “in two ministerial-level Iraq Neighbors’ Conferences.” In addition, high-level Syrian officials had been scheduled to meet with their Iraqi counterparts, as well as U.S. officials, later this month.

The report also noted that “According to U.S. and Iraqi officials, 2007 witnessed a marked reduction in the flow of foreign terrorists transiting through Syria into Iraq.” This year, the number of foreign fighters reportedly entering Iraq from Syria, once estimated as high as 100 a month, had been reduced by more than 80 percent. General David Petraeus, commander of Central Command, which oversees U.S. security concerns in the Middle East, acknowledged that “Syria has taken steps to reduce the flow of foreign fighters through its borders with Iraq.”

As a result, it makes little sense as to why the United States would choose to attack Syria now.

Diplomatic Fallout

The diplomatic fallout for the U.S. attack, a clear violation of Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter, was widespread. French president Nicolas Sarkozy, expressing his “serious concern” over the U.S. attack, called for “the strict respect of the territorial integrity of states.” European Union foreign affairs spokesman Javiar Solana also expressed his concern, as did the governments of Russia, China and a number of NATO allies, including Germany and Great Britain.

The attack may have put the Status of Forces Agreement into further jeopardy. In response to the attack, the Iraqi government is now demanding that the agreement include a specific ban on American forces using Iraqi territory to attack neighboring countries.

Meanwhile, the Syrian government ordered the Damascus Community School — the highly acclaimed American institution — be closed along with the U.S. Cultural Center. The U.S. Embassy has cut back its hours. The Syrians have also threatened to cut off cooperation with the United States regarding Iraqi border security.

The Silence of the Dems

Given that the October 26 raid was an unauthorized and illegal attack, killed innocent civilians, resulted in negative diplomatic fallout, and likely increased rather than decreased the threat of terrorism in Iraq, it would appear to be a great opportunity for the Democrats to attack the Bush administration for its dangerous and reckless action.

Yet, even in the course of the final dramatic week of the presidential campaign, neither Barack Obama nor Joe Biden uttered a word of criticism. And, despite contacting the offices of every single Democratic member on both the House and Senate Foreign Relations Committees, I was unable to find any criticism from any of these leading Congressional Democrats either.

This raises the serious possibility that, even under an Obama administration and an expanded Democratic Congressional majority, such militaristic policies may continue. This is particularly disappointing given that many observers had hoped that Syria would be the focus of a likely early diplomatic victory of an Obama administration.

Sabotaging the Next Administration

Indeed, this may have been what motivated the Bush administration’s otherwise questionable timing for the attacks.

Obama has been critical of the Bush administration’s efforts to sabotage peace negotiations between Israel and Syria, which would likely result in the return of Syria’s Golan province, currently under Israeli military occupation, in return for full diplomatic relations, security guarantees, and an end of Syrian support for anti-Israeli extremists. Indeed, Obama would likely have the United States become actively involved in the peace process, currently under the auspices of Turkey.

In addition, the alliance by the secular Baathist regime in Syria with the mullahs of Iran has always been more of an alliance of convenience than one rooted in any common ideology, so there were those in Obama’s foreign policy team that were hoping that they could wean Syria away from the Iranians and provide enough incentives for that country to become a more responsible member of the international community. Syria recently formally recognized Lebanon for the first time, a country which had historically been part of Syria until wrested away, in a classic divide-and-rule act of colonialism, just prior to independence by French occupation forces after World War I. Along with the renewed peace talks with Israel, there appeared to be signs that the Syrians would be willing to strike some kind of grand bargain with the West under a more enlightened U.S. administration.

Last month’s attack may have been designed to make this more difficult. Not only has it set back moderate elements in Syria, it has emboldened those in Washington and the mainstream press to start egging on Obama to continue Bush’s policy. For example, the Wall Street Journal editorialized, “Mr. Obama has promised he’ll engage Syria diplomatically as part of an overall effort to end the conflict in Iraq. If he really wants to end the war faster, he’ll pick up on Syria where the Bush Administration has now ended.”

Obama’s refusal to criticize the U.S. attack on Syria raises the troubling prospect that, rather than pursue the diplomatic route as hoped, he will instead take the newspaper’s advice. This may be just what the Bush administration had planned.

The Other Occupation: Western Sahara and the Case of Aminatou Haidar

Aminatou Haidar, a nonviolent activist from Western Sahara and a key leader in her nation’s struggle against the 34-year-old U.S.-backed Moroccan occupation of her country, has been forced into exile by Moroccan authorities. She was returning from the United States, where she had won the Civil Courage Award from the Train Foundation. Forcing residents of territories under belligerent occupation into exile is a direct violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, to which both the United States and Morocco are signatories.

Her arrest and expulsion is part of a broader Moroccan crackdown that appears to have received the endorsement of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Rather than joining Amnesty International and other human rights groups in condemning the increase in the already-severe repression in the occupied territory during her visit to Morocco early this month, she instead praised the government’s human rights record. Just days before her arrival, seven other nonviolent activists from Western Sahara – Ahmed Alansari, Brahim Dahane, Yahdih Ettarouzi, Saleh Labihi, Dakja Lashgar, Rachid Sghir and Ali Salem Tamek – were arrested on trumped-up charges of high treason and are currently awaiting trial. Amnesty international has declared them prisoners of conscience and called for their unconditional release, but Clinton decided to ignore the plight of those and other political prisoners.

Almost exactly one year ago, Haidar was in Washington D.C. receiving the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights award. The late Senator Ted Kennedy, while too ill to take part in the ceremony personally, said of Aminatou Haidar, “All who care about democracy, human rights, and the rule of law for the people of the Western Sahara are inspired by her extraordinary courage, dedication and skilled work on their behalf.”

Patrick Leahy, speaking in place of Kennedy, praised Haidar’s struggle for human rights against Moroccan repression and promised that, with the incoming Obama administration, “Help was on the way.” Unfortunately, Obama ended up appointing Clinton, a longtime supporter of the Moroccan occupation, to oversee his foreign policy.

It is not surprising that Morocco sees Haidar as a threat and that Clinton has not demanded her right to return to her homeland. Not only is her nonviolent campaign an embarrassment to a traditional American ally, but having an Arab Muslim woman leading a mass movement for her people’s freedom through nonviolent action challenges the widely held impression that those resisting U.S.-backed regimes in that part of the world are misogynist, violent extremists. Successive U.S. administrations have used this stereotype to justify military intervention and support for repressive governments and military occupations.

Moroccan Occupation

In 1975, the kingdom of Morocco conquered Western Sahara on the eve of its anticipated independence from Spain in defiance of a series of UN Security Council resolutions and a landmark 1975 decision by the International Court of Justice upholding the right of the country’s inhabitants to self-determination. With threats of a French and American veto at the UN preventing decisive action by the international community to stop the Moroccan invasion, the nationalist Polisario Front launched an armed struggle against the occupiers. The Polisario established the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic in February 1976, which has subsequently been recognized by nearly 80 countries and is a full member state of the African Union. The majority of the indigenous population, known as Sahrawis, went into exile, primarily in Polisario-run refugee camps in Algeria.

By 1982, the Polisario had liberated 85 percent of the territory, but thanks to a dramatic increase in U.S. military aid and an influx of U.S. advisers during the Reagan administration, Morocco eventually was able to take control of most of the territory, including all of its major towns. It also built, thanks to U.S. assistance, a series of fortified sand berms in the desert that effectively prevented penetration by Polisario forces into Moroccan-controlled territory. In addition, in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, Morocco moved tens of thousands of settlers into Western Sahara until they were more than twice the population of the remaining indigenous Sahrawis.

Yet the Polisario achieved a series of diplomatic victories that generated widespread international support for self-determination and a refusal to recognize the Moroccan takeover. In 1991, the Polisario agreed to a ceasefire in return for a Moroccan promise to allow for an internationally supervised referendum on the fate of the territory. Morocco, however, refused to allow the referendum to move forward.

French and American support for the Moroccan government blocked the UN Security Council from providing the necessary diplomatic pressure to force Morocco to allow the promised referendum to take place. The Polisario, meanwhile, recognized its inability to defeat the Moroccans by military means. As a result, the struggle for self-determination shifted to within the Moroccan-occupied territory, where the Sahrawi population has launched a nonviolent resistance campaign against the occupation.

Nonviolent Resistance

Western Sahara had seen scattered impromptu acts of open nonviolent resistance ever since the Moroccan conquest. In 1987, for instance, a visit to the occupied territory by a special UN committee to investigate the human right violations sparked protests in the Western Saharan capital of El Aaiún. The success of this major demonstration was all the more remarkable, given that most of the key organizers had been arrested the night before and the city was under a strict curfew. Among the more than 700 people arrested was Aminatou Haidar, then 21 years old.

For four years she was “disappeared,” held without charges or trial, and kept in secret detention centers. In these facilities, she and 17 other Sahrawi women underwent regular torture and abuse.

The current Sahrawi intifada began in May 2005. Thousands of Sahrawi demonstrators, led by women and youths, took to the streets of El Aaiún protesting the ongoing Moroccan occupation and calling for independence. The largely nonviolent protests and sit-ins were met with severe repression by Moroccan troops and Moroccan settlers. Within hours, leading Sahrawi activists were kidnapped, including Haidar, who was brutally beaten by Moroccan occupation forces. Sahrawi students at Moroccan universities then organized solidarity demonstrations, hunger strikes, and other forms of nonviolent protests. Throughout the remainder of 2005, the intifada continued with both spontaneous and planned protests, all of which were met with harsh repression by Moroccan authorities.

Haidar was released within seven months as a result of pressure from Amnesty International and the European parliament. Meanwhile, nonviolent protests have continued, despite ongoing repression by U.S.-supported Moroccan authorities. Despite the continued disappearances, killings, beatings and torture, Haidar has continued to advocate nonviolent action. In addition to organizing efforts at home, she traveled extensively to raise awareness internationally about the ongoing Moroccan occupation and advocate for the Sahrawi people’s right to self-determination. For this reason, she has been forced into exile from her homeland.

U.S. Increases Backing for Morocco

As the repression grew, so did U.S. support for Morocco. The Bush administration increased military and security assistance five-fold and also signed a free-trade agreement, remaining silent over the deteriorating human rights situation in the occupied Western Sahara while heaping praise on King Mohammed VI’s domestic political and economic reforms.

However, the occupation itself continues to prove problematic for Morocco. The nonviolent resistance to the occupation continues. Most of the international community, despite French and American efforts, has refused to recognize Morocco’s illegal annexation of the territory.

As a result, the Moroccan kingdom recently advocated an autonomy plan for the territory. The Sahrawis, with the support of most of the world’s nations, rejected the proposal since it is based on the assumption that Western Sahara is part of Morocco, a contention that the UN, the World Court, the African Union, and a broad consensus of international legal opinion have long rejected. To accept Morocco’s autonomy plan would mean that, for the first time since the founding of the UN and the ratification of the UN Charter more than 60 years ago, the international community would be endorsing the expansion of a country’s territory by military force and without consent of the subjected population, thereby establishing a very dangerous and destabilizing precedent.

In addition, Morocco’s proposal contains no enforcement mechanisms, nor are there indications of any improvement of the current poor human rights situation. It’s also unclear how much autonomy Morocco is offering, since it would retain control of Western Sahara’s natural resources and law enforcement. In addition, the proposal appears to indicate that all powers not specifically vested in the autonomous region would remain with the kingdom.

Despite this, Secretary of State Clinton appeared to endorse Morocco’s plans for annexation under the name of autonomy. In an interview during her recent visit she refused to call for a referendum on the fate of the territory in accordance with a series of UN Security Council resolutions. Instead, she backed Moroccan calls for “mediation,” which would not offer the people of the territory a say in their future, as required by international law and reaffirmed in the case of Western Sahara by a landmark opinion of the International Court of Justice.

Meanwhile, key House Democrats have weighed in support of Morocco’s right of conquest as well, with Rep. Gary Ackerman, D-NY, who chairs the Subcommittee on the Middle East, joining Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-MD signing a letter endorsing Morocco’s autonomy plan. Prominent Republicans signing the letter included Minority Leader John Boehner, R-OH; House Republican Whip Roy Blunt, R-MO; and former House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-IL. Indeed, more than 80 of the signers are either committee chairmen or ranking members of key committees, subcommittees and elected leadership of the U.S. House of Representatives; yet another indication in this post-Cold War era of a growing bipartisan effort to undermine the longstanding principle of the right of self-determination.

It is particularly ironic that Morocco’s autonomy plan has received such strong bipartisan support since the United States rejected a more generous autonomy plan for Kosovo and instead pushed for UN recognition of that nation’s unilateral declaration of independence. This double standard is all the more glaring given that Kosovo is legally part of Serbia and Western Sahara is legally a country under foreign military occupation.

Next Steps

Given the reluctance of the Obama administration to publicly demand that the Moroccans end their forced exile of Aminatou Haidar and release political prisoners, their freedom may depend on the willingness of human rights activists to mobilize on their behalf. Indeed, this may be the only hope for Western Sahara as a whole.

Western Sahara remains an occupied territory only because Morocco has refused to abide by a series of UN Security Council resolutions calling on the kingdom to end its occupation and recognize the right of the people of that territory to self-determination. Morocco has been able to persist in its defiance of its international legal obligations because France and the United States, which wield veto power in the UN Security Council, have blocked the enforcement of these resolutions. In addition, France and the United States served as principal suppliers of the armaments and other security assistance to Moroccan occupation forces. As a result, nonviolent action by the citizens of France, the United States and other countries that enable Morocco to maintain its occupation would be as least as important as the Sahrawis’ nonviolent resistance against Morocco’s occupation policies. Such campaigns played a major role in forcing the United States, Australia and Great Britain to cease their support for Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor. Solidarity networks in support of Western Sahara have emerged in dozens of countries around the world, most notably in Spain and Norway, but not yet in the United States, where it could matter most.

A successful nonviolent independence struggle by an Arab Muslim people under Haidar’s leadership could set an important precedent. It would demonstrate how, against great odds, an outnumbered and outgunned population could win through the power of nonviolence in a part of the world where resistance to autocratic rule and foreign military occupation has often spawned acts of terrorism and other violence. Furthermore, the participatory democratic structure within the Sahrawi resistance movement and the prominence of women in key positions of leadership could serve as an important model in a region where authoritarian and patriarchal forms of governance have traditionally dominated.

The eventual outcome rests not just on the Sahrawis alone, but whether the international community, particularly those of us in the United States, decide whether such a struggle is worthy of our support.

A Tale of Two Human Rights Awardees

The annual Robert F. Kennedy Award ceremony took place at the White House this year for the first time in its 28-year history. Also for the first time, the president of the United States was there to honor the awardees.

This year’s winner was the group Women of Zimbabwe Arise (WOZA), represented by Magodona Mahlangu and Jenni Williams. Since its founding six years ago, WOZA has campaigned against domestic violence and rape, for rebuilding their country’s crumbling health and education systems, and for ending government repression. Despite their commitment to nonviolence, WOZA activists have been routinely threatened, abducted, and beaten, and over 3,000 of its members have been detained or imprisoned. This show of support from President Obama is particularly important in light of the trial of the two WOZA activists, scheduled to begin next week, for “conduct likely to cause a breach of [the] peace,” which could result in a five-year prison sentence if convicted.

Such public support from the White House is in stark contrast with its silence on the fate of last year’s winner, Aminatou Haidar, who is widely known as the Saharan Gandhi. Earlier in November, when she was returning from the United States after receiving the Civil Courage Award from the Train Foundation, Moroccan occupation authorities arrested and expelled Haidar from her homeland of Western Sahara.

Belated Response

Haidar is Western Sahara’s leading human rights campaigner. She has led the nonviolent struggle to free her people from an illegal 34-year Moroccan occupation, and was nominated on several occasions for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Like many Western Saharans who travel abroad, she declared Western Sahara as her country of origin on the immigration entry form when she landed at the airport in El Aioun, in the occupied territory. This time, however, Moroccan authorities confiscated her Moroccan passport, held her overnight for interrogation, and — claiming she had renounced her Moroccan citizenship — expelled her to Spain’s Canary Islands. It is a direct violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention for an occupying power to expel anyone from their country of origin.

For nearly two weeks, the State Department was silent on Haidar’s fate. It spoke out only this past Thursday, as Haidar’s physical well-being came into question when she entered the eighth day of a hunger strike. Spokesman Ian Kelly expressed U.S. concerns about her health situation, but simply called for “a speedy determination of her legal status.” Rather than calling on Moroccan authorities to live up to their international legal obligations, Kelly instead appeared to endorse Morocco’s right to “determine” that she is persona non grata and has no right to return.

The RFK Center for Justice and Human Rights, which grants the annual award, has sent its director and senior advocacy director to the Canary Islands to be with Haidar, now entering the third week of her fast in the Lanzarote Airport. They also called upon UN Commissioner for Human Rights Navanethem Pillay to immediately investigate the circumstances of Haidar’s forced exile and to establish a formal mechanism for protecting the human rights of the people of Western Sahara. However, despite the RFK Center’s efforts and those of Kerry Kennedy, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), and others, the Obama administration has refused to demand Haidar’s return.

It was Leahy who, standing in for his ailing colleague Edward Kennedy at last year’s ceremony, praised Haidar’s struggle for human rights against Moroccan repression and promised that, with the incoming Obama administration, “help was on the way.” Unfortunately, Obama ended up appointing Hillary Clinton, a longtime supporter of the Moroccan occupation, to oversee his foreign policy.
Currying Favor with Morocco

Indeed, Secretary of State Clinton may bear partial responsibility for Haidar’s situation. The activist’s arrest and expulsion is part of a broader Moroccan crackdown that appears to have received Clinton’s endorsement during a visit to Morocco early last month. Rather than joining Amnesty International and other human rights groups in condemning the increase in the already-severe repression in the occupied Western Sahara, Clinton instead chose to offer unconditional praise for the Moroccan government’s human rights record. Just days before her arrival, Moroccan authorities arrested seven other nonviolent activists from Western Sahara — Ahmed Alansari, Brahim Dahane, Yahdih Ettarouzi, Saleh Labihi, Dakja Lashgar, Rachid Sghir, and Ali Salem Tamek — on trumped-up charges of high treason. Amnesty International has declared the seven activists (who are currently awaiting trial) prisoners of conscience, and called for their unconditional release. But Clinton decided to ignore the plight of these and other political prisoners held in Moroccan jails.

Under such circumstances, it appears that the Moroccan authorities decided they need not fear a negative reaction from Washington for engaging in further repression, especially since the United States has given the country billions of dollars in military assistance since its conquest of Western Sahara in 1975. International law requires that the people of non-self-governing territories such as Western Sahara deserve the right of self-determination, confirmed in the case of Western Sahara by a landmark opinion of the International Court of Justice. However, Clinton — in an interview during her recent visit — appears to have endorsed Morocco’s plans for annexing the territory under a dubious “autonomy” plan. Though a series of unanimous UN Security Council resolutions supported by previous U.S. administrations have called for a UN-supervised referendum on the fate of the territory, Clinton has simply called for “mediation” between the Moroccan kingdom and the exiled nationalist Polisario Front, a process that would not offer the people of the territory a say in their future.

I have worked with both Jenni Williams and Aminatou Haidar. They are both deserving of the RFK Prize, and they both deserve the support of the U.S. government as well. A test of a government’s sense of justice is whether it sees human rights as a universal principle or simply as a political tool to advance its foreign policy agenda. The Obama administration appears to have opted for the latter. It is easy to support human rights activists like the women of WOZA, since they are battling against a regime opposed by the United States. When it comes to human rights activists who challenge a U.S. ally, however, the Obama administration appears no different than previous administrations in tolerating their oppression.

Stephen Zunes is a Foreign Policy in Focus senior analyst. He is a professor of Politics and chair of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of San Francisco and is the author, along with Jacob Mundy, of the forthcoming Western Sahara: Nationalism, Conflict, and International Accountability (Syracuse University Press).