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December 17, 2004

Are They Serious About Syria?

by Jim Lobe

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 Murderous Role."

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 with Damascus]."

"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, as the Post put it, "a handful of senior Iraqi Ba'athists operating in Syria."

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 backers.

As 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.

"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)


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    Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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