Just 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.
The 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
Then 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
"We 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...."
On 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.'"
The 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.
Within 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."
In 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).
But, 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 political consequences.
But 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.
In 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,
the Post put it, "a handful of senior Iraqi Ba'athists operating
One 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."
These 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.
The 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."
While 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.
Indeed, 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."
At 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
As Josh Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma, suggested in
log, or "blog," the hawks want a foreign scapegoat for an insurgency
about which they still know remarkably little.
"Post-Fallujah," 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."
Moreover, 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 campaign?"
Bassam 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.
First, 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.
"There's 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.
The 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," he added.
But 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 leaders."
"I 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."
(Inter Press Service)