Washinton's Syria Policy - What is it?
Aktham Naisse was released on $200 bail this weekend. He is the head of the Committees for the Defense of Democratic Liberties and Human Rights who was arrested in April after publishing a report on human rights in Syria and leading a campaign urging an end to 40 years of emergency law. He was charged with tarnishing the country's image. US officials, among others, have focused on his case to highlight the oppressive and arbitrary character of the Syrian regime. Bashar, who has been releasing hundreds of political prisoners of late in an attempt to take away the political prisoner issue from his detractors, may have decided Naisse's detention was too politically costly and undercut the message of reconciliation and mercy he is trying to get out.
"It was a surprise, a positive one though." one of Naisse's attorneys, Anwar Bunni, said after the court session. "He will still have to stand trial. The next session was set for October." If convicted, Naisse, 53, could be sentenced to between three years and life in prison.
"I will persist, and no one has asked me to stop. They (the authorities) are fully aware that I will never retreat," Naisse noted. "The current circumstances are conducive for more respect of human rights and for more pressure for democratic initiatives," he added. He said he expects to be sentenced to a three-year prison term when his trial convenes Oct. 24.
US pressure has created a very favorable environment in Syria for the release of political prisoners and internal reconciliation. This is perhaps the one good thing to come out of the ongoing war of nerves being waged between Washington and Damascus. Bashar has been able to neutralize Syria's opposition groups and call for national reconciliation in the face of "American hegemonic designs" on the region. The Syrian government has successfully painted the US as the oppressor of the Syrian and Arab "everyman," such that the Syrian opposition, whether Kurd, Communist, Muslim Brother, Civil Society advocates, or what-have-you have been forced to close ranks with the government in denouncing US policy toward Damascus and Iraq. This closing of ranks gives Bashar the opportunity to pardon prisoners and show that he is reaching out to his opponents, further undercutting the popular legitimacy of any radical action or demands by opposition members.
By severely limiting the field of action of the Syrian opposition, Washington is helping prisoners of conscience and, and oddly enough, Bashar. This is not the intended result of the architects of Washington's present policy of pressuring Syria economically and politically. The original plan was to bring down the Syrian regime in an effort to transform the region.
It is important to remind ourselves how Washington got itself into this war of nerves with Syria. At the moment Washington seems to be at war with itself over future policy toward the region. Some in the administration and within the various branches of government - intelligence, State, and Defense, who never bought into the neocon vision in the first place - are arguing for a major rethink of US objectives in the Middle East in light of failure in Iraq. But the neocons are tenacious and unprepared to throw in the towel on their original plans. They still see success coming out of Iraq, continue to enjoy the support of President Bush, and are pushing for more regional change, faster. That is where Syria comes in and why reading US policy motives there is anything but simple. The policy is confusing because Washington is confused.
The neocons still want what they wanted at the start of the war - a "clean break." James Bamford gives a summary of the original objectives of the neocons in his recent book, A Pretext for War: 9/11, Iraq, and the Abuse of America's Intelligence Agencies. He writes:
The Blueprint for the new Bush policy had actually been drawn up five years earlier by three of his top national security advisors. Soon to be appointed to senior administration positions, they were Richard Perle, Douglas Feith, and David Wurmser. Ironically, the plan was originally intended not for Bush but for another world leader, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
At the time, the three officials were out of government and working for conservative pro-Israel think tanks. ... A Key part of the plan was to get the United States to pull out of peace negotiations and simply let Israel take care of the Palestinians as it saw fit. "Israel," said the report, "can manage its own affairs. Such self-reliance will grant Israel greater freedom of action...
But the centerpiece of their recommendations was the removal of Saddam Hussein as the first step in remaking the Middle East into a region friendly, instead of hostile, to Israel. Their plan, "A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm," also signaled a radical departure from the peace-oriented policies of former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin...
As part of their "grand strategy," they recommended that once Iraq was conquered and Saddam Hussein overthrown, he should be replaced by a puppet leader friendly to Israel. "Whoever inherits Iraq," they wrote, "dominates the entire Levant strategically." They suggested that Syria would be the next country to be invaded. "Israel can shape its strategic environment," they said.
This would be done, they recommended to Netanyahu, "by reestablishing the principle of preemption" and by rolling back" its Arab neighbors. From then on, the principle would be to strike first and expand, a dangerous and provocative change in philosophy. They recommended launching a major unprovoked regional war in the Middle East, attacking Lebanon and Syria and ousting Iraq's Saddam Hussein. Then, to gain the support of the American government and public, a phony pretext would be used as the reason for the original invasion.
The recommendation of Feith, Perle and Wurmser was for Israel to once again invade Lebanon with air strikes. But this time, to counter potentially hostile reactions from the American government and public, they suggested using a pretext. They would claim that the purpose of the invasion was to halt "Syria's drug money and counterfeiting infrastructure" located there. They were subjects in which Israel had virtually no interest, but they were ones, they said, "with which America can sympathize."
Another way to win American support for a preemptive war against Syria, they suggested, was by "drawing attention to its weapons of mass destruction program." The claim would be that Israel's war was really all about protecting Americans from drugs, counterfeit bills, and WMD - nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons....
Once inside Lebanon, Israel could let loose - to begin "engaging Hizballah, Syria, and Iraq, as the principal agents of aggression in Lebanon." They would widen the war even further by using proxy forces - Lebanese militia fighters acting on Israel's behalf (as Ariel Sharon had done in the 1980s) - to invade Syria "by establishing the precedent that Syrian territory is not immune to attacks emanating from Lebanon by Israeli proxy forces."
As soon as that fighting started, they advised, Israel could begin "striking Syrian military targets in Lebanon, and should that prove insufficient, striking at selected targets in Syria proper. [emphasis in original]."
Years later, [they would use this method] to justify their own Middle East war; Iraq would simply replace Syria and the United States would replace Israel.
Although Netanyahu rejected the task force's plan for a bloody war that would get rid of Saddam Hussein and also change the face of Syria and Lebanon, writes Bamford, Bush was receptive and incorporated much of their preemptive war strategy as his own in order to "correct the imbalances of the previous administration on the Mideast conflict," George W. stated.
Although the neocons have lost a lot of support within Washington as Iraq has turned sour and other, more realistic, policy makers are beginning to push for more modest goals in the region and for US re-engagement in peace negotiations to solving the Arab-Israeli conflict, the neocons continue to agitate for more dramatic action toward Syria, the "low hanging fruit." [See my march article on US policy toward Syria.]
For an example of the continuing call for action against Syria, see yesterday's article by Michael Ladeen in the National Review. He tops off this week's spin by insisting that Hizballah is really the paymaster and "operational glue that binds together the various terrorist factions on the ground in Iraq." Of course Hizballah is controlled by Syria and Iran, which Ladeen assures us is "the organizing center" or "directorate" of the "regional war" we are fighting. Iran and Syria have mapped out a master plan to drive the US from Iraq, and they are directing the Iraqi resistance movement and terror organizations of the region. In fact, there are no autonomous or individual terror organizations such as al-Qa'ida, the Zarqawi group, or Hizballah, Ladeen argues, just one big enemy coordinated by Iran and its henchman, Syria. If we can liberate those two countries, we can win. Our quagmire in Iraq will quickly come to a happy resolution and the peoples of the entire region will rise up to celebrate democracy, freedom and apple pie. It won't be hard to win, he continues. "We could liberate Iran in a matter of a few months. And if Iran falls, Syria will most likely come right alongside."
The drug smuggling of the 1990s and counterfeiting are no longer major concerns and cannot be used as a pretext to interest Americans in action against Syria. Today the focus is on the Lebanon occupation, WMD, Palestinian terror groups, political repression in Syria and, the important new issue, securing the Iraq border. The new Iran nuclear scare would seemingly help Syria by moving it down on the US priority list. This isn't the case though. The neocons have been reinvigorated by the Iranian Nuclear mess. If they can mobilize the US to take action against Iran, perhaps Syria can be folded into the general hit list.
This is what Ladeen is after, by arguing that Hizballah is actually the master terrorist group, not Bin Laden, he brings the focus back to Lebanon and Syria. It is also the reason he tries so hard to discredit recent reports that al-Qa'ida is not a centralized organization, but rather has continued more as an idea, giving legitimacy and an ideological focus to what has become a diffuse collection of autonomous or loosely related terrorist groups. Richard Armitage was picking up on this argument a year ago when he announced that Hizballah was the "A" team of terrorism, whereas, al-Qa'ida was only the "B" team.
Richard Armitage's statement a week ago that the US was preparing "a more draconian sanctions regime" for Syria may spell the beginning of a new round of tensions between Syria and the US. The Washington Times, a main outlet for neocon opinions and unnamed sources at the Defense Department, carried an article yesterday entitled, "Saddam agents on Syria border helped move banned materials" by Rowan Scarborough. The article resurrects all the old accusations about Syria taking in Iraq's WMD. The only new material in the article is that some Iraqi border guards have confessed that "Saddam Hussein periodically removed guards on the Syrian border and replaced them with his own intelligence agents who supervised the movement of banned materials between the two countries." This meaningless information gives the author the opportunity to renew old allegations that Bashar was in cahoots with Saddam.
Vincent Battle, the departing US ambassador to Lebanon, renewed calls on Monday for Syria to pull its troops out of Lebanon, 48 hours after a US Congress delegation made a similar plea.
He said it "was time the Syrian army withdrew from Lebanon" He added that differences between Washington and Beirut were growing over the question of southern Lebanon and the Syrian-backed Shiite Hezbollah militia which holds sway there and is branded a "terrorist organization" by the US government. "We have begun talks with the Lebanese government with a view to deploying the Lebanese army in southern Lebanon and disarming Hezbollah, but they haven't brought about a result for the time being," Battle added.
US lawmakers led by Christopher Shays, a Republican from Connecticut, announced as they were leaving Lebanon for Damascus yesterday: “We will talk with President Bashar about the Syrian government’s interference in Lebanon ... and we will be discussing our concerns about weapons of mass destruction in the region, the situation at the border between Syria and Iraq, and the support of extremists by the Syrian government.” After Shay's talks with Bashar al-Asad, Shay made no pronouncements about Lebanon, however. The Syrians insisted their talks centered on the Iraq situation and US-Syrian dialogue. Meanwhile, Lebanese from every sector of society and several presidential hopefuls condemned the US and Shays' visit and intentions. For their actual words, see the interesting article in the Daily Star.
Something new is going on in Israel, however.
Ze'ev Schiff wrote in Haaretz on 16/08/2004 that the top brass of the IDF is pressuring Israel's politicians to resume talks with Bashar. "IDF Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon is essentially recommending a return to Yitzhak Rabin's position," Schiff writes.
Syria belittled Ya'alon's remarks, claiming that Israeli's political leadership would have to state unambiguously that it was ready to return the Golan in order to impress Syria. Other Syrian commentators suggested Israel is just playing Washington politics as usual during presidential election time or that it is trying to get cover for an eventual strike against Iran's nuclear development sites.
When Syrian President Bashar Assad reiterated in January 2004 that he was willing to resume negotiations with Israel, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom approached Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and recommended not rejecting Assad's proposal. Sharon's response was: Is the price clear to you? He wants the Golan Heights and I am not willing.
The Israel Defense Forces agreed with Shalom. So did Chief of Staff Moshe Ya'alon, as did head of Military Intelligence Aharon Ze'evi-Farkash. Both of them doubted Assad's offer was serious. They knew the Iranians were pressuring him not to hold talks with Israel. But the IDF top brass believed that if it became clear Assad meant what he said, that would be good. And if the whole thing was only a gimmick to remove American pressure, well, it would be good to reveal the gimmick for what it was.
The IDF holds the opinion - also found in the recently published memoirs of former U.S. President Bill Clinton and of U.S. special Middle East envoy Dennis Ross - that Israel is at fault for the failure of the talks with the Syrians at Shepherdstown, West Virginia, in January 2000, and that at that time it would have been possible to reach an agreement with Hafez Assad, the father of the current president.
Last weekend Ya'alon did something else that raised eyebrows in the Arab world as well. He told Yaron London in an interview for Hebrew-language daily Yedioth Ahronoth that if the political leadership reaches a peace agreement Syria in which it gives up the Golan Heights, the IDF will be able to defend Israel without the Golan.
On another front, Vice Prime Minister Ehud Olmert claims that Washington is placing considerable pressure on Israel to begin peace talks with the Palestinians again and to give up settlements.
Two things seem to be going on in Israel. First, the Israelis are divided over how to proceed with the Palestinian issue and Syrian issue. The success of Sharon's policy of expansion in the West Bank has forced many Israeli realists to question anew how they will rule Palestinians without destroying Israel and how they will come to terms with their Arab neighbors.
"In the future there will be a need to evacuate more settlements in the West Bank - not because it's just, but because there is no choice if we want to remain a Jewish and democratic state," Vice Premier Ehud Olmert's office quoted him as telling settler leaders.
Olmert, who is close to Sharon and has often floated ideas at the prime minister's behest, said dismantling settlements in the West Bank would prevent Israel from becoming a pariah state. "The United States is virtually our only friend so we must remember that it too supports a withdrawal almost to the borders of 1967," said Olmert, referring to the lines Israel held before it captured the West Bank and Gaza in the 1967 Middle East war.
Olmert has said in the past that Israel would eventually have to remove tens of thousands of the 230,000 settlers living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. His latest comments indicated the possibility the disengagement plan, which calls for uprooting all 21 settlements in Gaza and four of 120 in the West Bank, may be followed by a more extensive withdrawal.
The second is that the United States may actually be altering its Israel policy and readying itself to revitalize the peace talks. Those who never believed that the road to Jerusalem passed through Baghdad may be on the offensive again, arguing that the road to Baghdad runs through Jerusalem. If the US has any hope of calming down the Iraq situation and defusing the deep distrust of most Arabs, it must show a creditable effort to adjudicate between Israel and the Palestinians, rather than just leave the Palestinians to the tender mercies of the Israeli right.
So what does this all mean for Syria? Damascus is undoubtedly as confused as any observer would be in trying to figure out what the US really wants. Are its complaints about WMD and Lebanon really only a pretext for neocon hostility? Do their hopes for another opportunity to carry out regime-change in Damascus still carry weight in Washington?
Not even the Lebanese seem to take Washington seriously any more. That is the significance of the anti-US remarks made by the many Maronites who recently entertained Senator Christopher Shays and his delegation. Surely, they would all be happy for Syria to decamp from their country, but they know that to go out on a limb for Washington is foolishness. Syria would punish them and Washington would stand by and watch. That is the gist of Patrick Seale's report in today's Daily Star. He writes:
"There are no secrets or surprises in Lebanon's political life," an eminent Lebanese journalist said to me the other day. "Decisions are made in Damascus. Politics are reduced to local squabbles between president, prime minister and speaker of Parliament. Nothing much takes place except that the national debt has soared to above $35 billion. No one cares about Lebanon any more. It has slipped out of the world's consciousness."The Lebanese know Washington is posturing. Damascus suspects the same. But there is always the possibility that Washington will learn from its Iraq lesson and return to its customary realism. Perhaps the remarks of Israeli politicians should give it some hope that Washington is preparing to engage in constructive dialog with Damascus? Maybe Washington now realizes that Bashar is here to stay and that he will need carrots and have to be dealt with as a ruler and not just a temporary nuisance. Let's hope so.
(I will respond to some of the criticism of my last post soon.)