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Syria: The Next Domino? Will it be stage three?
W hat is now taking place (in Iraq) is part of a plan…to redraw the regional map,” Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad informed the Lebanese newspaper As-Safir on March 27. “We will not wait until they add Syria to that plan.” With U.S. officials ratcheting up the diplomatic pressure on Damascus following the fall of Baghdad, however, it may already be too late. If the statements of U.S. policy- makers are taken at face value, and their past writings are read as prelude, we can safely assume that following Afghanistan and Iraq, Syria is a leading candidate for the inevitable third phase of the “war on terror.”
Syria, Terrorism, and War on Terror
U . S. policy towards Syria has tended to revolve around two concerns, Israel and terrorism. Beyond this, Syria has no official lobbyists registered with the Department of Justice or discernible media presence. As a result, and due to the U.S.-Israel alliance, Congress is almost uniformly hostile to Syria. The Syria Accountability Act, for example, introduced in April 2002, sought to impose comprehensive sanctions on Syria to force it to end support for terrorism, pull out of Lebanon, and punish it for importing Iraqi oil illegally and developing Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD). The act was not voted on in the last Congress, but is now being re-introduced. It has, hitherto, been opposed by the Bush administration.
Syria maintains full diplomatic relations with the U.S., despite being designated as a “state sponsor of terrorism” by the State Department since 1979. This dubious honor is mainly the result of conflicting Syrian and American definitions of terrorism. Syria differentiates between terrorism and the struggle against Israeli occupation. The U.S. does not. Syrian support for Hezbollah in South Lebanon, and the presence in Syria of offices affiliated with Islamic Jihad, Hamas, and other “rejectionist” Palestinian groups, has been an ongoing source of tension. As recently as November 19, 2002, Syria turned down a direct U.S. request to close the Islamic Jihad office in Damascus.
The Arab-Israeli conflict aside, there is a confluence of U.S. and Syrian interests in the campaign against Al-Qaeda. The first Assad regime fought a ruthless but successful war against its own Islamic opposition, some of whom had been supported by Iraq. Syrian cooperation against Al-Qaeda has had concrete results: wrapping up cells in Spain and Germany, preventing an attack on U.S. troops in the Gulf in early 2002, and the detention and “interrogation” of the alleged recruiter of Mohammad Atta, Mohammed Haydar Zammar, a German citizen of Syrian origin. Zammar was deported from Morocco to Syria with U.S. knowledge.
Syria and Iraq
I n their recent histories there has been little love lost between the Syrian and Iraqi Pan-Arab Ba’ath regimes. During the reign of Hafiz Al-Assad, there was a rivalry of an intensity only sustainable between estranged ideological cousins. Syria and Iraq became closer after the elder Assad’s death, both politically and economically. The countries did $1 billion in official trade through the UN oil-for-food program in 2001, not to mention the trade in illicit Iraqi oil that Syria, as well as Jordan and Turkey, allegedly engaged in.
The Syrian regime viewed the current U.S.-Iraqi conflict as undesirable and an entirely different affair than the first Gulf War. Syria feared that were it to ride the American tiger as it did in 1991, they would be left holding it by the tail on their own southern border. Therefore, Syria did its utmost to prevent war from within the Security Council and tried in vain to rally practical support against the war from within the Arab League.
When the war got underway Syria was able to do little besides call for the withdrawal of “coalition” troops. The visit of Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri to Damascus on March 24, Syria’s vocal condemnations of the invasion’s illegality, and the declaration on March 31 by Foreign Minister Farouk al-Shara that Syria “has a national interest in the expulsion of the invaders from Iraq,” may have bolstered Syria’s pan-Arab credentials, but they played badly with a U.S. administration notorious for holding grudges.
The Nascent Confrontation
W ith no significant quantities of oil, Syria’s value to the U.S. lies in its role in the war on terror, significance to the Arab-Israeli conflict, long borders with Turkey and Iraq, and in its ties to the Gulf states.
As Syria is mainly a way station to other U.S. interests, the nascent confrontation may seem an unnecessary undertaking for a U.S. administration engaged in the twin occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq. A timely intersection of a number of factors, however, has led inexorably to this juncture; the moribund nature of the “peace process”; the hostility of current Israel and U.S. policymakers to Syria; the corrosive nature of U.S.-Syrian disagreements over the definition of terrorism and Syrian support for Hezbollah; and the broader lack of depth in the Syrian- American relationship mentioned above.
The historical Syrian strategic goal of retaining an independent foreign policy and avoiding political and geographic isolation is now imperiled by the U.S. presence in Iraq. As the U.S. dispatches the Eastern Ba’ath, it appears tempted to confront their marginalized western cousins—now the last nationalist, rhetorically pan-Arab government of consequence. As early as February 17, U.S. Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton had acknowledged as much, telling Ariel Sharon that after Iraq, the U.S. would deal with “threats” from Syria, Iran, and North Korea.
Even on the rare occasions when the Administration has praised Syria in the context of the war on terror it has done so grudgingly. The president has gone so far as to question whether Syria is truly “for us” as opposed to “against us.” On June 24, 2002, President Bush said, “Syria must choose the right side in the war on terror by closing terrorist camps and expelling terrorist organizations.” For his part Bashar Al-Assad declared, “we are neither for nor against the United States.” Where that leaves Syria in Bush’s dichotomy is unclear. Like Yasser Arafat, Bashar Al-Assad has been shunned by the White House.
Syria, the United States and Israel
P erhaps most corrosive to U.S.-Syrian ties is the disposition of the current Administration towards the Arab-Israeli conflict. As a result of U.S. support for the creation of Israel in 1948, America’s relations with the newly independent Syria began in conflict. The Ba’ath party came to power in Syria in 1963 and of the regimes in the region was perhaps the most unwavering in its opposition to America’s ally. When Syria lost the Golan to Israel in 1967, America’s “strategic alliance” with Israel was fully inaugurated to Syria’s detriment. U.S.-Syrian relations were severed after the war, only resuming seven years later. U.S.-Syrian reengagement was enabled by the pragmatic foreign policy of Hafiz Al-Assad, who came to power in 1970. Assad accepted UN Resolutions 242 and 338 as a basis for settling the Arab-Israeli conflict, but American and Israeli indifference to his and Anwar As-Sadat’s diplomatic initiatives resulted in the 1973 war.
After that war the American-initiated “peace process” began in earnest. Egypt’s peace with Israel left Assad and the Palestinians out in the cold and facilitated Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982, a war in which Syria would eventually outlast both U.S. intervention and the Israeli occupation. When the Soviet Union fell, Assad’s long quest for “strategic parity” with Israel foundered. Its military patron gone, Syria elected to join negotiations at Madrid after the Gulf War to try to reclaim the Golan, annexed by Israel in 1981.
The 1990's “peace process” failed largely due to the fact that Israel, geopolitically stronger than its adversaries, was permitted by the U.S. to dictate questions of timing, substance, and procedure in the negotiations. The bilateral format was chosen again over Assad’s comprehensive approach. While Syria was drawn into the process through the careful diplomacy and assurances of the first Bush administration and its “Arabist” Secretary of State, James Baker III, it quickly lost confidence in the Clinton administration, with its coterie of pro-Israel policymakers. Negotiations ultimately failed in talks in December 1999 over Israel’s unwillingness to withdraw all the way to the June 4, 1967, border, which would have re-established Syria’s foothold on the Sea of Galilee.
Syria continues to offer Israel “full peace for full withdrawal” as it has for the last ten years. In contrast Israel now offers only talks “without preconditions.” In January, Sharon declared, “I’d be happy to visit Damascus,” fully aware that this offer is a nonstarter absent a prior Israeli commitment to full withdrawal from the Golan.
Without U.S. pressure on Israel, Syria has few cards to play. It continues to exert pressure on Israel by way of Hezbollah in South Lebanon through the Shebaa farms dispute, a high-risk endeavor. Syria has in the past sought influence over the Palestinians and Jordan to augment its strategic weakness, but gradually lost influence over both. Only its sponsorship of “rejectionist” Palestinian groups gives it tangible leverage. In late January, for example, Syria initially reigned in groups that wanted to go to Cairo to discuss a Palestinian-Israeli ceasefire, leading to the postponement of the meeting.
S yria’s starring role in the Arab-Israeli conflict has made it invaluable when America is interested in the “peace process.” Right now, despite noises about the “Road Map,” the U.S. is not very interested. The appointment of Elliot Abrams to an NSC post that includes the Arab-Israeli portfolio is a disquieting omen. Abrams is an anti-Oslo, pro-Likud hawk opposed to trading land for peace. Attempts have been made to build relations through officials of the previous Bush administration. Talks took place between Farouk al-Shara and former U.S. ambassador to Syria Edward P. Djerejian at the Baker Institute in January 2003. However, that old guard appears to hold little sway in the neo-conservative second Bush administration.
Israel is making the most of the negative U.S. disposition towards Syria, stressing Syria’s ties to “terrorism” and attempting to connect Syria to Iraq’s WMD program. In late December 2002, Sharon suggested that Syria was hiding Iraq’s WMD while UN inspectors scoured Iraq. Syria issued a denial, replying that the charges were “intended to divert attention from the nuclear, chemical and biological weapons that Israel holds.” Israel has also repeatedly tried to connect Hezbollah to Al-Qaeda, claiming Bin Laden’s supporters had found their way to the Beka’a valley after fleeing Afghanistan, without providing proof. “We know that they are in Lebanon, working closely with Hezbollah,” Sharon claimed in December.
Israel’s efforts in this regard dovetail nicely with Washington’s new strategic disposition. The release of National Security Presidential Directive 17 and Homeland Security Presidential Directive 4, on December 10, 2002, makes explicit the U.S. willingness to use preemptive force, including nuclear weapons, to prevent any enemy from using WMD against the U.S. A classified appendix names Iran, Syria, North Korea, and Libya as targets of this doctrine. U.S. officials have indicated that the policy is intended to prevent these countries from allowing WMD or long-range missiles to cross their borders. Sharon’s statements of late December could not have been any more directly targeted.
U . S. officials make it clear that support for Hezbollah alone would earn Syria a place on the state sponsors list. Israel’s magnifying of the Hezbollah threat plays to existing U.S. prejudices. To the U.S. government and ordinary Americans, Hezbollah has become synonymous with terrorism. In early September U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said Hezbollah was “the A-team of terrorists.” To Syria and most Arabs the group is instead a heroic national liberation movement. On this question, Syria and the U.S. can never come to accord.
Just as Israeli hawks cite the withdrawal from Lebanon as emboldening their enemies, U.S. hawks cite the U.S. withdrawal from Lebanon following the attack on the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983 as emboldening U.S. enemies, including Bin Laden. To both Israel and the U.S., Hezbollah is an open account that must be settled. “They’re on the list and their time will come,” Armitage said in September. Although Hezbollah has repeatedly made its desire to maintain a ceasefire known, Israel or the U.S. may now perceive an opportunity to strike at them, possibly drawing in Syria.
S yrian foreign policy remains heavily indebted to the pragmatic yet rhetorically pan-Arab legacy of Hafiz Al-Assad. Syria played all sides in the Lebanese civil war to retain the role of kingmaker, sided with non-Arab Iran in the Iran-Iraq war, and fought against its Ba’athi cousins in the Gulf War. Still, Assad’s pragmatism grew out of a genuine desire to strengthen Syria as a frontline state against Israel to what he perceived as the collective benefit of the Arabs. Syria remains the central player in Lebanon, retains its alliance with Iran, and had been normalizing relations with Iraq.
A U.S. occupation and/or pro-American Iraqi regime would bifurcate the Syrian-Iranian alliance and imprison Syria geographically. This encirclement has long been an ambition of the neo-conservatives, now the most influential group shaping U.S. Middle East policy. Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, Elliot Abrams, I. Lewis Libby et al., share a collective vision: the removal of the Iraqi regime igniting a chain reaction of “democratization” in the Arab Middle East, with the resultant U.S.-friendly regimes 3inclined to acquiesce to Israel’s strategic prerogatives.
“Israel can shape its strategic environment,” Perle and Feith wrote in a memorandum to the newly elected Benjamin Netanyahu in 1996, “in cooperation with Turkey and Jordan, by weakening, containing and even rolling back Syria. This effort can focus on removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq.”
Such grandiosity naturally involves purging the Arab world of the unifying ideology of Arab nationalism, which is strongly anti-Zionist. “Iraqi government officials would be subjected to ‘de-Baathification,’…a program that borrows from the ‘de-Nazification’ program established in Germany after World War II,” the Washington Post reported on February 21. A war on the ideology of Pan-Arab Nationalism is now underway next door to Ba’athi Syria, which has long called itself “the Beating Heart of Arab Nationalism.”
Testing Times Ahead
A procession of U.S. officials has publicly attacked Damascus since the invasion of Iraq. Donald Rumsfeld alleged on March 28 that Syria was providing military equipment to Iraq, which he termed a “hostile act,” and has since alleged that Syria is providing Iraqi Ba’ath officials sanctuary. Rumsfeld’s deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, told Tim Russert on April 6, “there’s got to be changes in Syria as well.” On April 15, secretary of state Colin Powell said, “In light of this new environment,” Syria should “review their actions and behavior, not only with respect to who gets haven in Syria, and weapons of mass destruction, but especially the support of terrorist activity.” It has been left to Tony Blair to reassure Assad that Britain, for what it’s worth, “completely disagrees with those who (call for) targeting Syria.”
U.S. allegations about Syria’s WMD have likewise resurfaced. On May 6, 2002, Bolton accused Syria of maintaining an extensive chemical and biological warfare program and accused it of pursuing nuclear weapons in later testimony to Congress. President Bush, on April 13 of this year, cited a recent CIA report, which alleges that Syria is developing chemical weapons, as did Secretary Rumsfeld the next day. The regional context of Israel’s highly sophisticated WMD program has apparently escaped their notice.
Israel, true to form, has continued prod the U.S. and Syria into confrontation. IDF Military Intelligence claimed on April 7 that Syria was likely hiding missiles and WMD for Iraq. A week later, Shaul Mofaz, Israel’s Defense Minister, reiterated that Syria had “taken in senior Iraqi figures” and “allowed terrorism to be launched” on U.S. forces in Iraq. Assad is “dangerous,” Sharon chimed in the next morning, calling for “heavy pressure” on Damascus and providing a list of demands Washington could make of Syria for good measure. Syria has strongly denied the onslaught of American and Israeli accusations.
How might a U.S.-Syrian confrontation develop? It might begin with demands for WMD inspections, leveraged by an intense effort to isolate Syria diplomatically and impose comprehensive sanctions by way of the Syria Accountability Act. Secretary Powell hinted as much in statements on April 14. The Kuwaiti daily Al-Rai Al-Aam claimed on April 2 that Washington had already taken punitive action when U.S. special forces destroyed the Iraqi pipeline through which Syria allegedly imported oil outside of UN control.
Stronger measures such as a full scale invasion, while unlikely, cannot be ruled out. A report in the Guardian on April 15 claimed that Donald Rumsfeld had ordered his deputies, Douglas Feith and William Luti, to develop “contingency plans for a war on Syria to be reviewed following the fall of Baghdad,” and “put together a briefing paper on the case for war.”
The most likely flashpoint, however, remains Hezbollah. Washington may issue an ultimatum for Syria to end support for the group or ask that it be disarmed, something that it alone amongst Lebanese militias was not required to do when the Lebanese civil war ended. Unsatisfactory responses to either demand might result in limited air strikes, possibly through the IDF on the Beka’a valley or militant targets inside Syria.
A key element determining the direction of U.S.-Syrian relations will be the ability of the largely untested Bashar Al-Assad to steer the ship of state into safe waters. The Bush administration may yet credit his ability to reform Syria’s economy and authoritarian political system and continued cooperation in the war on terror. The U.S. may not wish to prejudice the young president too far against them during a complex occupation of Iraq. Unlike Saddam Hussein, the U.S. appears to have no personal grudge against Bahsar Al-Assad.
Weighed against these considerations is the counsel of Ariel Sharon. “If he [Syrian President Bashar Assad] felt isolated in the international community because of his support for terror, and if there was a political and economic price to pay for this, perhaps his policy would change,” Sharon told a visiting U.S. Senator in January. There has been no daylight between Israeli and American policy on Yasser Arafat or Iraq. The question is: will there be on Syria?
Ashraf Fahim is a freelance writer living in New York City. His work has appeared in the Palestine News and in the online magazines Al-Bawaba and the Palestine Chronicle . He has an MA in International Studies and Diplomacy from SOAS, University of London, where he did his dissertation on the Syrian-Israeli Conflict.
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