Washington Takes Aim at Syria

While Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice’s willingness to meet with Syrian foreign minister Walid al-Muallim during last week’s conference on Iraq is a welcome sign, most signals coming out of Washington in recent months are far more ominous. Indeed, the strident opposition by the Bush administration of the visit by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other Democratic members of Congress to Syria last month is not just another indication of the administration’s pathological opposition to engaging in dialogue with governments it doesn’t like. It may be a sign that the Bush administration is considering military action against Syria, either directly or through its proxy Israel.

Acting White House spokesperson Dana Perino, speaking of the Pelosi visit, emphasized that the Bush administration policy was to “ask that people not go on these trips… We discourage it.” She added that it “sends the wrong message to have high-level U.S. officials going there to have photo opportunities that Assad then exploits.”

Pelosi is no appeaser when it comes to Syria. Just three years ago, she allied with former House Republican leader Tom DeLay and other GOP hardliners to cosponsor legislation imposing stringent sanctions against the Damascus regime. She has even demanded that Syria unilaterally disarm its missiles while allowing its pro-American neighbors Turkey and Israel to expand their larger missile programs. Similarly, she has demanded that Syria eliminate its limited chemical weapons programs while allowing U.S. allies Israel and Egypt to maintain their far larger chemical weapons stockpiles. She has gone on record endorsing alarmist reports by former Secretary of State Donald Rumsfeld and former Under-Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton regard Syria’s alleged threats to region security that were widely ridiculed by the mainstream arms control community as hyperbolic. For years, Pelosi insisted that Syria withdraw its forces from Lebanon while at the same time refusing to call on Israel to withdraw its occupation forces from southern Lebanon or from southwestern Syria. She has actually taken a harder line toward Syria than did the Reagan administration during the 1980s, when Syria’s support for terrorism, military build-up, and internal repression was worse than it is today.

In fact, Pelosi went to great lengths to emphasize that she did not disagree with the Bush administration’s hard-line policy toward Syrian president Bashar al-Assad and that “there is no division between the president and the Congress and the Democrats on the message we wanted him to receive.” This was not enough for right-wing critics, who went so far as attacking Pelosi for wearing a headscarf when she visited the Omayyad Mosque, though there have been no such complaints when visiting female American political figures have visited Christian and Jewish holy places where such head coverings by women are similarly viewed a requisite sign of respect.

A the end of last year, the commission headed by former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, perhaps the most respected figure in the Republican Party foreign policy establishment, specifically recommended opening up talks with the government of Syria to improve the stability of the region. Like the Baker-Hamilton Commission, Pelosi recognized that talking with the Syrians – however distasteful their regime may be – is vital to the security of the region.

Valid Charges Against Syria?

The dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad, who succeeded his father as Syrian president in 2000, is an oppressive militaristic regime that has supported extremist movements, interfered in the internal politics of its neighbors and oppressed its own citizens. However, it is no worse in this regard than some of America’s leading allies in the region who have received billions of dollars in U.S. assistance for their militaries and internal security apparatuses. Furthermore, many of the specific charges of the administration, most of which have been echoed by Pelosi and other Democratic leaders, have been grossly exaggerated.

For example, President Bush insists that Syria is a “state sponsor of terror.” However, according the latest annual State Department’s Country Reports on Terrorism, the Syrian government has not been implicated directly in an act of terrorism since 1986. The report continues, “During the past seven years there have been no acts of terrorism against American citizens in Syria. Damascus has repeatedly assured the United States that it will take every possible measure to protect U.S. citizens and facilities in Syria.” In 2002, Syria became a party to the 1988 Protocol for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts of Violence at Airports Serving International Civil Aviation, making it party to five of the twelve international conventions and protocols relating to terrorism.

Syria also cooperated with the United States against al-Qaida, the Taliban, and other terrorist organizations and individuals. It has passed on hundreds of files of crucial data regarding al-Qaida and other radical Islamic groups in the Middle East and Europe to U.S. officials, including information on the activities of radical cells and intelligence about possible future terrorist operations. CIA sources have acknowledged that “the quality and quantity of information for Syria exceeded the agency’s expectations” but that Syria “got little in return for it.”

During the Syrian-Israeli peace talks in the 1990s, the Clinton administration offered to remove Syria from its list of states sponsoring terrorism if it agreed to terms offered by Israel. During that period, State Department officials admitted that keeping Syria on this list was not a result of direct Syrian support for international terrorism but as a means of exerting political leverage against the regime.

President Bush recently claimed that Syria has “done little to nothing to rein in militant Hamas.” Yet Hamas is not based in Syria, but in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in areas controlled by either Israeli occupation forces or the Palestine Authority (PA), in which the political arm of the movement holds the majority of parliamentary seats. It appears that all the terrorist attacks committed by Hamas’s armed wing – the Izzadin al-Qassam Brigades –have originated within the areas under PA or Israeli control and none from areas of Syrian control. Hamas has political offices in Damascus, as they have in the capitals of a number of Arab countries, but no operational bases. Recent reports indicate that the Syrians cut off electricity and water to their offices to pressure them to leave but have not yet physically expelled them as demanded by the United States. Most of Hamas’ outside support has come from individuals and organizations based in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Gulf. The Damascus regime has brutally suppressed Syrian Islamists that espouse similar ideological views as Hamas.

President Bush similarly criticized Syrian support for Hezbollah, the Lebanese political party which the Bush administration, along with Pelosi and other Democratic leaders, label as a terrorist organization. However, the terrorist designation remains highly questionable: a 2002 Congressional Research Service report noted, in its analysis of Hezbollah, that “no major terrorist attacks have been attributed to it since 1994.” Hezbollah’s rocket attacks last summer on civilian areas in Israel – the first in nearly a decade – took place only after Israel began attacking civilian areas in Lebanon and the attacks ended once Israel agreed to a United Nations imposed a cease fire. In any case, most of Hezbollah’s foreign support – including its rockets and heavy artillery – has come from Iran, not Syria.

A related charge of the Bush administration is that Syria is supporting the Iraqi insurgency responsible for killing American forces. In his April 3 press conference criticizing the Pelosi visit, President Bush claimed that the Syrian government was “helping expedite – or at least not stopping the movement of foreign fighters from Syria into Iraq.” As with previous charges that Syria bears responsibility for attacks against U.S. soldiers in Iraq, however, the Bush administration has shown little evidence to support their claims. Indeed, Senator Robert Byrd, reviewing evidence presented to him and his Senate colleagues, noted that “I have not seen any evidence that would lead me to believe that it is the government of Syria that is responsible for the attacks against our troops in Iraq.”

Some foreign fighters certainly do enter Iraq from Syria via the long poorly marked desert border, but fewer – according to most accounts – than from U.S. ally Saudi Arabia. Syria could conceivably further increase its patrolling of its side of the border. But it is apparently not a high priority for the regime, given its limited resources and the refusal of the Bush administration to reduce its pressure on the government even if it did so.

Commanders of U.S. forces on the ground responsible for monitoring the Syrian-Iraqi border have said that there is no evidence that significant numbers of foreign fighters are crossing into Iraq. Using both human intelligence sources and radar surveillance, commanders from the 101st Airborne responsible for monitoring the northern borders reported that concerns about illegal infiltration appear to be unfounded.

The Syrian government has little reason to support the Iraqi insurgency anyway, which is led primarily by supporters of the former regime of Saddam Hussein and Sunni Islamist extremists. Despite being ruled by its own Baath Party, Syria was a longtime rival of Iraq’s Baath regime. Syria broke diplomatic relations with Baghdad in the 1970s and never renewed them. Damascus was the base of a number of exiled anti-Saddam Iraqi leaders and organizations. Syria was the only Arab country to back Iran during the Iran-Iraq War. It was one of the only non-monarchical Arab states to have backed the United States against Iraq during the first Gulf War, dispatching troops to support Operation Desert Shield. Iraq and Syria backed rival factions in Lebanon’s civil war. As a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council, Syria voted in November 2002 in favor of the U.S.-backed resolution 1441 that demanded full cooperation by the Baghdad government with UN inspectors, with the threat of severe consequences if it failed to do so. Subsequently, Syria voted in favor of the U.S.-backed resolution 1511 on post-war Iraq legitimizing the U.S. military presence.

Furthermore, the Syrian regime – dominated by members of the Alawite sect – has ruthlessly suppressed radical Sunni Muslim insurgents within its own country and would therefore not want to see any similar movement gain ascendancy in neighboring Iraq. Syria did oppose the U.S. invasion of Iraq and has called publicly for the withdrawal of U.S. forces. However, there is evidence to suggest that Syria doesn’t want to help drive U.S. forces out of Iraq. A precipitous U.S. withdrawal could increase regional turmoil and negatively affect Syria. Also, if it is bogged down in Iraq, the United States is less likely to attack on Syria.

Why the Bush Administration Opposes Talks

The government in Syria is preoccupied with its own concerns: instability in neighboring Iraq and Lebanon, the rise of Islamic extremism and Sunni-Shi’ite divisions in the region, Israel’s 40-year occupation of its southwestern Golan region, serious economic problems and increasing internal political opposition. It is eager for foreign investment and greater international legitimacy. With Syria ready to deal, it is prime time for the United States to reach out and start serious negotiations on matters of mutual concern. For example, Syria has indicated its willingness to end its limited ongoing support for Hezbollah, along with strict security guarantees and full diplomatic relations, in return for a peace agreement with Israel.

However, the Bush administration appears to be more interested in forcing the ouster of the Syrian government.

A number of conservative activists who subsequently moved into major policy positions in the Bush Administration signed a 1999 report by the right-wing Middle East Forum calling for U.S. military action against Syria. These signers included Elliott Abrams, President Bush’s chief Middle East deputy on the National Security Council; Douglas Feith, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy; Paula Dobriansky Undersecretary of State for Global Affairs; and, Michael Rubin, a prominent Middle East policy consultant for the Defense Department.

Soon after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, Vice President Dick Cheney appointed David Wurmser, another signer of the paper and a major advocate of a joint American-Israeli effort to undermine the Syrian government, to his national security staff. Wurmser was the chief author of a white paper for then-Israeli prime minister Benyamin Netanyahu entitled “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm,” in which he advocated scuttling the Camp David Accord and toppling the Iraqi, Palestinian, and Syrian governments. Wurmser’s goal is to eliminate nationalist regimes opposed to Israeli and American dominance in the region and replace them by “tribal, familial, and clan unions under limited governments.”

For well over a year, the Bush administration has been pushing Israel to attack Syria on its own and it is widely assumed that any future U.S. attack on Syria would include Israeli forces as well. As a result, the United States has actively discouraged efforts for an Israeli-Syrian rapprochement, even going as far as blocking the resumption of proposed Syrian-Israeli peace talks.

The Syria Accountability Act, passed by an overwhelming bipartisan majority in late 2003, appears to pave the way for possible U.S. military action against Syria. It spells out, in more detail than the administration ever did regarding Iraq, reasons for a U.S. invasion. In declaring that “Syria will be held accountable for any harm to Coalition armed forces or to any United States citizen in Iraq if the government of Syria is found to be responsible due to its facilitation of terrorist activities and its shipments of military supplies to Iraq,” Congress has given the Bush Administration an opportunity – whether based on evidence or otherwise – to blame its military setbacks in Iraq on alleged support from Damascus and thereby launch military action against Syria. Senator Robert Byrd, one of only four senators to vote against the resolution, observed that the “insinuations” of the bill “can only build the case for military action against Syria, which, unfortunately, is a very real possibility because of the dangerous doctrine of pre-emption created by the Bush administration.”

As long as the Syrian government knows that the Bush administration is eager for “regime change” and war, either directly or by proxy, it will be unlikely to cooperate with even legitimate American concerns. However, if it recognizes that dialogue can help end the country’s isolation and better address pressing needs at home, Syria will likely make substantial compromises.

Unfortunately, President Bush appears quite willing not only to criticize congressional leaders like Nancy Pelosi for talking with the Syrians, but to also prevent the resumption of talks that could end hostilities between Israel and its most hostile immediate neighbor. Such obstinacy confirms some of the worst suspicions about the Bush administration: that they are more interested in maintaining a policy based upon confrontation and threats than taking the necessary steps to provide peace and security for ourselves and for our allies.