Background re/neocons: Syria In Their Sights (Jan 2006)


Richard Moore

Original source URL:

January 16, 2006 Issue
Copyright © 2006 The American Conservative

Syria In Their Sights
The neocons plan their next ³cakewalk.²
by Robert Dreyfuss

It¹s happening again. It all sounds depressingly familiar, and it is. The Bush 
administration accuses the leader of a major Arab country of supporting 
terrorism and harboring weapons of mass destruction. The stable of 
neoconservative pundits begins beating the drums of war. American forces begin 
massing on the country¹s border, amid ominous talk of cross-border attacks. Top 
U.S. officials warn that American patience with the country¹s leader is running 
out, and the United States imposes economic sanctions unilaterally. There are 
threats about taking the whole thing to the United Nations Security Council. 
And, in Washington, an exile leader with questionable credentials begins making 
the rounds of official Washington and finds doors springing open at the 
Pentagon, the National Security Council, and at Elizabeth Cheney¹s shop at the 
State Department.

This time it is Syria. The pressure is on, and it will likely get a lot worse 
very soon. On Dec. 15, the second installment of the report by a UN team 
investigating the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri 
is delivered. The first report, released in October, implicated several members 
of President Bashar Assad¹s family in the Hariri murder, though without hard 
evidence. It would be wrong, however, to see the Bush administration¹s campaign 
against Syria only through the lens of the Hariri case. Like the attack on Iraq,
it is a longstanding vendetta.

Three years ago, the U.S. invasion of Iraq was widely viewed as the first 
chapter of a region-wide strategy to redraw the entire map of the Middle East. 
After Iraq, Syria and Iran would be the next targets, after which the oil-rich 
states of the Arabian Gulf, including Saudi Arabia, would follow. It was a 
policy driven by neoconservatives in and out of the Bush administration, and 
they didn¹t exactly make an effort to keep it secret. In April 2003, in an 
article in The American Prospect entitled ³Just the Beginning,² I wrote, ³Those 
who think that U.S. armed forces can complete a tidy war in Iraq, without the 
battle spreading beyond Iraq¹s borders, are likely to be mistaken.² The article 
quoted various neocon strategists who sought precisely that. Among them was 
Michael Ledeen, the arch-Machiavellian and Iran-Contra manipulator-in-chief, who
argued from his perch at the American Enterprise Institute: ³I think we¹re going
to be obliged to fight a regional war, whether we want to or not. As soon as we 
land in Iraq, we¹re going to face the whole terrorist network. It may turn out 
to be a war to remake the world.²

Since then, of course, the conventional wisdom has evolved in a rather different
direction. As the war in Iraq bogged down, and as a public outcry developed 
against the neoconservatives over the bungled war, the belief took hold that the
United States had bitten off more than it could chew in Iraq‹so that Syria, 
Iran, and the rest of President Bush¹s evildoers can rest easy. According to 
this theory, the United States no longer has the stomach, or the capability, to 
spread the war beyond Iraq as originally intended. Our troops are stretched too 
thin, our allies are reining us in, and cooler heads are prevailing in 
Washington‹or so the theory goes.

But the news from Syria shows that the conventional wisdom is wrong. The United 
States is indeed pursuing a hard-edged regime-change strategy for Syria. And it 
isn¹t necessarily going to be a Cold War‹in fact, it could well get very hot 
very soon. In Washington, analysts disagree over exactly how far the Bush 
administration is willing to go in pursuing its goal of overthrowing the Assad 
government. In the view of Flynt Leverett, a former CIA Syria analyst now at the
Brookings Institution, the White House favors a kind of slow-motion toppling. In
a forum at Brookings, Leverett, author of Inheriting Syria: Bashar¹s Trial by 
Fire, announced his conclusion that Bush was pursuing ³regime change on the 
cheap² in Syria. But others disagree, and believe that Syria could indeed be the
next Iraq. For neoconservatives, Œtis a consummation devoutly to be wished. For 
the rest of us‹watching the war in Iraq unfold in horror, lurching toward 
breakup and civil war‹the prospect ought to be both tragic and alarming.

Having ridded itself of one of its own inside neoconservatives, reporter Judith 
Miller‹who once co-authored a book with the always apoplectic Laurie Mylroie, 
the originator of the novel idea that Saddam Hussein was behind the 1995 
Oklahoma City bombing‹the New York Times now warns correctly that any chance for
positive change in Syria can only occur ³if President Bush rejects the counsel 
of neoconservative advisers who have learned nothing from Iraq and now dream of 
overthrowing Mr. Assad with unilateral force.² So far, at least, there is no 
sign that the president has rejected them at all.

The fall of the Assad regime could open Syria, and the region, to widespread 
instability. ³No one knows what is going to come out of it,² says Wayne White, 
the former deputy director of the State Department¹s Bureau of Intelligence and 
Research on Middle East issues. ³It¹s making me nervous. What, exactly, is 
ŒSyria¹? There are cleavages there. The place could just break up.² White says 
that no one knows the extent to which Sunni Islamic radicals have organized 
themselves in Syria, especially through the Muslim Brotherhood. ³There could be 
a lot more Islamic militancy there than we¹re aware of.²

For Assad, none of this is exactly a surprise. On March 1, 2003, as U.S. forces 
massed for the attack on Iraq, Assad addressed an emergency summit meeting of 
the Arab League. ³We are all targeted,² he said. ³We are all in danger.²

On Oct. 6, in his saber-rattling declaration of war against ³Islamofascism,² 
President Bush not-so-subtly warned Syria that it might be next. ³State sponsors
[of terrorism] like Syria and Iran have a long history of collaboration with 
terrorists, and they deserve no patience from the victims of terror,² said Bush,
speaking to the National Endowment for Democracy. ³The United States makes no 
distinction between those who commit acts of terror and those who support and 
harbor them, because they¹re equally as guilty of murder. Any government that 
chooses to be an ally of terror has also chosen to be an enemy of civilization. 
And the civilized world must hold those regimes to account.² Echoing Bush, U.S. 
Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad warned bluntly that ³our patience is running
out with Syria,² and like other U.S. officials Khalilzad blamed the Assad 
government for America¹s troubles in Iraq.

Just before the president spoke, according to Knight Ridder, senior Bush 
administration officials met in a high-level powwow to discuss U.S. options for 
dealing with Syria. Among the alternatives reportedly discussed at the meeting 
was ³limited military action,² and despite the fact that intelligence on Syria¹s
actual role in supporting the resistance in Iraq is hazy at best, the story, by 
reporter Warren Strobel, revealed that ³one option under consideration was 
bombing several villages 30 to 40 miles inside Syria that some officials believe
have been harboring Iraqi insurgents.² On Oct. 15, the New York Times reported 
that the Bush administration was threatening ³hot pursuit² and other attacks 
into Syrian territory. It added, ³A series of clashes in the last year between 
American and Syrian troops, including a prolonged firefight this summer that 
killed several Syrians, has raised the prospect that cross-border military 
operations may become a dangerous new front in the Iraq war, according to 
current and former military and government officials.²

Over the past several weeks, U.S. forces in Iraq have conducted massive air and 
ground attacks in cities along the Iraq-Syria border, in a sweeping offensive in
advance of the Dec. 15 election in Iraq. In Syria‹whose military is already in 
turmoil over its hurried evacuation from Lebanon and whose government is rattled
to the core because of charges that top Syrian officials may have been involved 
in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri‹the prospect of a 
second front along its eastern border is raising alarm. Although intelligence 
analysts assert that Syria could weather a series of limited strikes along its 
border without undue consequences for the regime, in fact such attacks could 
have unforeseen results, even if they don¹t presage a wider war by the United 
States. Still, in his Washington Post online column ³Early Warning,² William M. 
Arkin wrote on Nov. 8 that the U.S. Central Command has been ³directed by 
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to prepare a Œstrategic concept¹ for Syria,
the first step in the creation of a full-fledged war plan.²

The wider war that the Bush administration seems to be pursuing was telegraphed 
long ago by the various neocon pundits and prognosticators. Charles Krauthammer 
used his Washington Post column in March to suggest that the way to advance the 
³glorious, delicate, revolutionary moment in the Middle East² is to go after 
Syria. ³This is no time to listen to the voices of tremulousness, indecision, 
compromise, and fear,² he wrote. Instead, the Bush administration¹s commitment 
to spreading democracy should take it ³through Beirut to Damascus.² William 
Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard and co-author of The War in Iraq (³The 
mission begins in Baghdad, but it does not end there²), helpfully suggested some
options that the Bush administration is clearly thinking about now. In The 
Weekly Standard last year, Kristol wrote, ³We 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. ... It¹s time to get serious about dealing with Syria as part of 
winning in Iraq, and in the broader Middle East.²

All that is consistent with the neocons¹ long-held view about Syria and the 
region. For years they¹ve been calling for regime change in Syria, which was a 
major target in the now infamous paper written a decade ago by Richard Perle, 
Douglas Feith, David Wurmser, and others entitled ³A Clean Break: A New Strategy
for Securing the Realm,² prepared as a study-group project for Israel¹s Prime 
Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In it, the authors called for ³striking Syrian 
military targets in Lebanon, and should that prove insufficient, striking at 
select targets in Syria proper² as a ³prelude to a redrawing of the map of the 
Middle East which would threaten Syria¹s territorial integrity.² Wurmser, a 
former AEI Middle East specialist, played a key role in the Pentagon¹s Office of
Special Plans, which helped Vice President Cheney and Secretary of Defense 
Donald Rumsfeld manufacture false intelligence to justify the war in Iraq. 
Wurmser is currently an aide on Vice President Cheney¹s national-security staff.

In 1997, the same circle‹Perle, Feith, Ledeen, Wurmser, et al.‹created the U.S. 
Committee for a Free Lebanon. The USCFL‹like the Committee for the Liberation of
Iraq, which involved the same cast of characters‹lobbied hard for the so-called 
Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Act (SALSA), which was passed by 
Congress and signed into law in 2003. It was SALSA that set into motion the Bush
administration¹s current squeeze on Syria, beginning with limited U.S. economic 
sanctions on Damascus triggered by the act. One of the chief problems with 
SALSA, which was opposed by just about all of the foreign-policy professionals 
in the State Department and among Middle East experts, is that it created a 
slow-motion confrontation with Syria precisely at the moment when the United 
States most needed Syrian co-operation both in the war against Osama bin Laden¹s
al-Qaeda and in helping to stabilize Iraq. ³In Iraq, the two countries we most 
need the help of are Syria and Iran,² says Chas W. Freeman. ³We¹re not trying to
involve them. We¹re trying to up the ante by confronting Syria and Iran.²

Wesley Clark, a retired Army general who served as supreme allied commander in 
Europe, wants to see the United States engage Syria in a diplomatic dialogue. 
³The very last thing we need to do is to engage in hot-pursuit raids into 
Syria,² he says.

The fact is, after 2001, Syria worked closely with the United States in tracking
down al-Qaeda cells and, according to former U.S. intelligence officials, Syrian
intelligence was very helpful. (Perhaps even too helpful, since the United 
States apparently ³rendered² suspects captured in the war on terrorism to 
Damascus for less-than-civil interrogation by Syrian authorities.) ³In the 
aftermath of 9/11, Syria provided the United States with actionable intelligence
on al Qaeda affiliates, as administration officials publicly acknowledge,² wrote
Flynt Leverett, the former CIA Syria expert. ³While I was serving on the 
National Security Council, this information let U.S. and allied authorities 
thwart planned operations that, had they been carried out, would have resulted 
in the deaths of Americans.²

Even after the war in Iraq, while some U.S. officials threatened Syria for its 
alleged, but unproven, support for Iraqi resistance groups, other U.S. officials
worked to establish better relations between Washington and Damascus. It isn¹t 
hard to guess which was which: the Bush administration¹s neocons wanted a 
showdown with Syria, while the realists at the CIA and the State Department 
sought a settlement. The prospects of a U.S.-Syria deal reached their high-water
mark in September 2004. During that period, top U.S. officials, including 
William Burns of the State Department, visited Syria to talk about getting 
Syria¹s help in shutting down the Syria-Iraq border, establishing joint 
U.S.-Syrian border patrols, and providing Syria with high-tech surveillance gear
to help stop the infiltration of Islamist radicals into Iraq. There were rumors 
everywhere, too, about Syrian-Israeli peace talks over the Israeli-occupied 
Golan Heights. And Secretary of State Colin Powell, visiting the region, went so
far as to praise what he saw as ³positive² news from Syria. ³I sense,² he said, 
³a new attitude from the Syrians.² So obvious was the effort that Time magazine 
published a story entitled ³Cozying Up to Syria,² an idea that seems quaint now.

That all came to a crashing end a few days later after an assassination that 
stunned the world‹no, not Hariri¹s, but the murder of Izzedine Sheik Khalil, a 
top official of Hamas, apparently by Israel¹s Mossad, in a huge car bomb in 
Damascus. It was the latest in a string of Israeli provocations against Syria, 
including the killing of a Hamas leader in Beirut, an Israeli air force strike 
at a Palestinian training camp outside Damascus, and Israeli overflights that 
buzzed the Assad family¹s home in Latakia. Not without reason, Syria¹s Foreign 
Minister Farouq Sharaa charged that the Israeli assassination was meant 
specifically to disrupt the progress in U.S.-Syrian relations. And so it did.

Not coincidentally, the end of the thaw in relations between Washington and 
Damascus occurred as the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1559, aimed at 
putting pressure on Syria to end its presence in Lebanon. Along with SALSA, 
Resolution 1559‹which followed a stupid and clumsy attempt by Assad to extend 
the presidency of the pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud of Lebanon‹set into 
motion the train of events that led to Hariri¹s assassination on Valentine¹s Day
2005. By October 2004, a full-blown crisis between the United States and Syria 
was underway. Even the Washington Post began calling for war. ³Syria¹s 
government has been a longtime sponsor of terrorism, a stockpiler of missiles 
and chemical weapons, and an unapologetic ally of Islamic extremists; it has 
allowed hundreds, if not thousands, of insurgents to stream across its borders 
to fight U.S. forces in Iraq,² thundered the Post, though utterly wrong about 
nearly every one of its charges. Concluded the Post, the United States could no 
longer tolerate Syria and had to consider ³breaking off of relations [and] 
military retaliation.²

Since then, the United States has moved closer and closer to war with Syria. In 
this history-as-farce rerun of the war with Iraq, there is even a Syrian Ahmad 
Chalabi, namely Farid al-Ghadry, the founder of the exile Reform Party of Syria,
which is mixing it up with a varying cast of characters among Syrian exiles and 
reformers, from those with democratic ideals all the way to Syria¹s Muslim 
Brotherhood. Earlier this year, Ghadry and a cohort of allies won an audience 
with a gaggle of top U.S. officials from the State Department, the National 
Security Council, and the Defense Department.

Virtually no one believes that Ghadry, a U.S. businessman, has any future in 
Syria. But the astonishing thing about the Bush administration¹s destabilization
of the Syrian regime is that no one in Washington has any idea who or what might
emerge to replace Assad¹s government. Asked to guess, most intelligence analysts
throw up their hands. Some argue that the most likely heir to a post-Assad Syria
would be the Muslim Brotherhood, an underground secret society that has long 
been at war with the regime in Syria, ever since President Hafez Assad 
inaugurated a new constitution in the early 1970s that proclaimed Syria to be a 
secular, socialist republic. But Syria, a nation of just 18 million people, has 
as many as two million Christians, two million Kurds, and many other non-Sunni 
minorities‹including the ruling Alawite group, to which the family of the 
president and his chief backers belong. As a result, Syria would not be ruled 
easily by Muslim Brotherhood-style Islamists.

Meanwhile, the UN investigation into Hariri¹s murder is a ticking time bomb for 
Assad. Already beset by the conflict with Israel, the war in Iraq, and a crisis 
in Lebanon, Bashar Assad will have to summon all the wiliness of his late father
to survive the next few months. In an interview with CNN¹s Christiane 
Amanpour‹who, in parroting the White House line, seemed to be auditioning to 
reprise the role of Judy Miller in this Middle East war‹Assad plaintively 
pointed out that there is little that Syria can do to stop insurgents from 
crossing the long desert border between Syria and Iraq, and he added that the 
United States had failed to control the Iraqi side. ³There is nobody on the 
Iraqi side, neither Americans nor Iraqis,² said Assad. (Amanpour was unmoved. 
³Why cannot your forces go house to house? Why cannot you actively stop this, 
close it down?²) ³We are interested in a more stable Iraq,² insisted Assad. 
³[The United States] only talks about a stable Iraq, but the mistakes they make 
there every day give the opposite result.²

Imad Moustapha, Syria¹s ambassador to the United States, told the Boston Globe 
in November that the United States recently refused yet another proposal from 
Syria to revive co-operation with Damascus on intelligence. ³What we see in 
general is an administration that is categorically refusing to engage with Syria
on any level,² said Moustapha. ³We see an administration that would really love 
to see another crisis in the Middle East, this time targeting Syria. ... Even 
before the Iraq war started, they had this grand vision for the Middle East.²

Less grand is the vision of Bill O¹Reilly, the Fox News host, who ripped a page 
from Pat Robertson¹s assassination handbook. ³It¹s Bashar¹s life,² said O¹Reilly
on Oct. 5. ³I mean, we could take his life, and we should take his life if he 
doesn¹t help us out.²


Robert Dreyfuss is the author of Devil¹s Game: How the United States Helped 
Unleash Fundamentalist Islam. He covers national security for Rolling Stone and 
writes frequently for The American Prospect, The Nation, and Mother Jones.

January 16, 2006 Issue

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