A Pro Al-Qaeda Syrian Policy?

Undeterred by the flap over its discredited reasons for invading Iraq, in midsummer, the Bush administration leveled false and misleading charges against Syria, heightening tensions and cutting off vital information relating to Al Qaeda. While hosting Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi on his ranch in Crawford Texas, on July 21, 2003, President George W. Bush accused Syria and Iran of continuing to "harbor and assist terrorists," acts he called "completely unacceptable…. States that support terror," Bush said, "will be held accountable." A week later, Secretary of State Colin Powell, echoed the President, warning Syria of "regional isolation and exclusion from the Iraqi market" if it did not meet U.S. demands that it crack down on militant groups.

Yet the administration has good reason to know that its charges are not true. So far from harboring terrorists, Syria had been the leading supplier of information about Al Qaeda until the information flow was curtailed by Syrian-American differences over the war against Iraq. After Sept 11th, President Bashar Assad initiated the delivery of valuable intelligence to the United States. As described by Seymour Hersh in an article in the New Yorker ,[i] Syria’s decades long war with the Muslim Brotherhood had facilitated their penetration of Al Qaeda cells throughout the Middle East and in Arab exile communities throughout Europe. The two groups worked together. Many of the September 11th hijackers had operated out of cells in Aachen and Hamburg, where Al Qaeda was working with the Brotherhood. In the late nineties, Mohammed Atta and other Al Qaeda members worked on occasion at a German firm called Tatex Trading which was infiltrated by Syrian intelligence. "At every stage in Atta’s journey is the Muslim Brotherhood," a former CIA officer who served undercover reported to Hersh. Syria also provided the United States with intelligence about future Al Qaeda plans. Hersh cites a potential Al Qaeda operation in Bahrain "that, if carried out, would have killed a lot of Americans," according to Flynt Leverett, a former CIA analyst who served until early this year on the National Security Council.

Hersh emphasizes the "anger" by Syrian officials and intelligence professionals in Washington over the White House’s political decision to confront Syria instead of prizing the help it was getting in the struggle against Al Qaeda. Hersh stresses the "competition between ideology and practicality, over the drive to go to war in Iraq and the need to fight terrorism." He writes that the "collapse in the liaison relationship has left many CIA operatives especially frustrated. ‘The guys are unbelievably pissed that we’re blowing this away.’ The Syrians were a lot more willing to help us, but they: –Rumsfeld and his colleagues – want to go in there next."

Hersh quotes a Syrian foreign ministry official: "We could give you information on organizations that we don’t think should exist….We could have given you more but when you publicly humiliate a country, it’ll become stubborn." Hersh quotes Robert Baer, a retired CIA officer who served in Syria, who "agreed that the Syrians had more to offer" especially about Saudi financing of the Muslim Brotherhood. They for sure know the names." Hersh quotes a former State Department official who was in a position to see that "up through January of 2003, the cooperation was topnotch…Then we were going to do Iraq, and some people in the administration got heavy handed." Hersh concludes with a quote from a Defense Department official who has been involved in Iraq policy who argued that the "Syrians, despite their differences with Washington, had kept Hezbollah quiet during the war in Iraq. This was, he said, ‘a signal to us, and we’re throwing it away. The Syrians are trying to communicate, and we’re not listening.’"

Syrian Hopes Frustrated

Syrian President Assad had hoped that cooperation in the hunt for Al Qaeda would allow them to improve relations with the U.S. and would get them off the list of state sponsors of terrorism. Syria’s case was strengthened because it hadn’t been directly implicated in a terrorist act since 1986. Hersh emphasized that the Syrians wanted a back channel to Washington, a private means of communicating with the President and his aides.

In the end, the Syrian back channel proposal went nowhere. "Syria’s efforts to help seemed to confound the Bush administration," writes Hersh. "The Pentagon, preoccupied with the Iraq War and ideologically hostile to Syria, vehemently opposed a back channel." Hersh here quietly hints at the Pentagon’s civilian leadership, top heavy with pro Israeli hawks such Rumsfeld, Deputy Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz, Undersecretary Douglas J. Feith, and others. Hersh quotes two pro Israeli spokespeople as representative voices reflecting Washington’s view of Syria. Martin Indyk, former U.S. Ambassador to Israel, and former AIPAC official expressed impatience over the issue of Palestinian offices in Damascus: "They’re playing around…Why are they doing it despite our anger? They’re biding their time…There doesn’t seem to be much consequence for not heeding our warnings." Itamar Rabinovitch, former Israeli ambassador to the United States "made it clear that Israel’s distrust of Syria remains acute." Rabinovitch wondered aloud if Syrian officials might have known of Sept 11th beforehand. He spoke disparagingly of the young Syrian President. "Bashar is not in control, he can’t deliver." For that reason, Rabinovitch believed, Israel has urged Washington not to open the back channel to Assad.

Why Syrian can’t "disarm" Hezbollah

American demands that Syria quit "harboring terrorists," and disarm Hezbollah are misleading and provocative according to many Middle Eastern observers and Syrian officials. As Anders Strindberg explains in a recent article in Middle East International [ii] it’s impossible in the present political climate to "disarm" Hezbollah. Hezbollah is one of the Middle East’s most popular political movements and has become a cornerstone within the Lebanese political system. In Syria, reporter Seymour Hersh spoke to a senior Syrian foreign ministry official who said that a public stance against Hezbollah would be impossible, and pointed out that Hezbollah’s leader, Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, is enormously popular in Syria. Hezbollah is now a mainstream organization and has twelve seats in the Lebanese parliament.

For over a year Hezbollah had observed a strict code of conduct in southern Lebanon, and had made no attacks on the Sheba Farms area (disputed territory which Israel claims it won from Syria, not from Lebanon, in the 1967 war). Hezbollah has carried out no military operations except firing anti-aircraft guns over villages in northern Israel, retaliating for Israeli incursions into Lebanese air space. Israeli claims that Hezbollah is aiming at the villages are "compete crap" according to an artillery officer serving with the U.N. forces. "When you aim high velocity anti-antiaircraft pieces at something like a village, you hit your target. Hezbollah is clearly aiming above the villages." Also, they are under heavy pressure from Syria and Iran not to do anything that could escalate the situation. "I don’t know what more can be realistically expected from Syria."

Strindberg’s article appeared before the resumption of Hezbollah shelling at the Sheba Farms in early August 2003 and in tit for tat response to Israeli artillery fire, Hezbollah shells killed an Israeli teenager on August 10, 2003 in the town of Shlomi, in Israel’s far north. Hezbollah pointed out that the Sheba Farms shelling came 6 days after a booby-trapped car killed a Hezbollah official in Beirut which Hezbollah blamed on Israel. Some observers accuse Israel of deliberately provoking the Hezbollah response as a way of ensuring frosty U.S. Syrian relations.

As for Colin Powell’s warning that Syria must "crack down on militant groups," Strindberg explains that Syria sees the radical Palestinian groups as legitimate resistance organizations, emphasizing that their activities are political, not military.

Nevertheless bowing to the prevailing winds from Washington, the Damascus offices of Hamas and Islamic Jihad are now closed…. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, has rejoined the PLO, endorsed the road-map, and pledged support for Palestinian Prime Minister Abu Mazen, as have several smaller factions. The Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine has taken similar steps. A PFLP official said: "We are behaving politely now, doing as the Americans want."

Even this is not sufficient for the U.S. government. According to Strindberg, in the post-Iraq era, the U.S. wants to "force Syria to go through humiliating formalities." In addition, a State Department official claimed that the Islamic Jihad leadership in Damascus continues to issue orders for terrorist attacks in Israel. "We know this for a fact. We have picked up the calls from their cell phones. We have the proof.’" Strindberg however quotes a ranking Russian diplomat in Damascus who denied the American charges. "It is simply not true, not now, not before. We have repeatedly asked the Americans to produce these tapes, but they would always refuse…All we have is their claim backed by no evidence." Nevertheless, in recent weeks, the issue of the Palestinian offices in Damascus has been elevated into the most pressing U.S. complaint.

Strindberg summarizes the difficulty with the Americans’ demands. Essentially, there is "no carrot to balance the stick. The Syrians are not offered anything as a reward for complying but are instead shut out from the peace process and subjected to regular and humiliating threats of economic and diplomatic sanctions, not to mention opaque references to the possibility of U.S. military attack." A European diplomat based in the Middle East echoes: "How do they expect the Syrians…to undertake massive political and strategic changes without offering anything in return."

Demonizing Syria

Just a month before the U.S. invaded Iraq, Under Secretary of State John Bolton, a neoconservative hawk, told an Israeli official,: "It will be necessary to deal with threats from Syria, Iran and North Korea" after the Iraq war. In late March, before Baghdad had fallen, Rumsfeld accused Syria (without presenting evidence) of supplying Iraq with such items as night vision goggles and other military equipment. He warned that Syria would be held accountable for its actions. According to Hersh, Rumsfeld’s warning was intended to see if he could drive President Bush to move more aggressively against Syria. But the White House was not ready. According to Hersh’s contacts, "Condoleeza Rice is not going to sit on the Pentagon until the President has made his preferences clear." Hersh adds ominously that not taking decisive immediate action against Syria, would be sustainable for another administration, but Bush can’t allow such policy drift "indefinitely." Rumsfeld’s approach is to tell the President, "You do in Syria what you promised to do."

But prospects for U.S. military action against Syria (and /or Iran) before the end of Bush’s first term seems highly unlikely for several reasons. For one thing, the U.S. doesn’t posses sufficient military manpower to engage in another war while it occupies Afghanistan and Iraq. Although the U.S. has a total of 1.4 military men and women under arms, the total active duty army troops is about 491,000 and of these 370,000 are already stationed in 120 countries. In order to maintain this presence, the U.S. is currently deploying a record 136,000 Reserve and National Guard troops. Of the 33 available combat brigades, 16 are deployed in Iraq, and another 8 are deployed elsewhere. The Pentagon suffered negative PR this summer because of complaints from soldiers, reservists and their families about lengthening deployments and extended call-ups.

Secondly, the current deepening quagmire in both Afghanistan and Iraq must be giving pause to some of even the most fervent neocons, both in and out of government. Rather than embark on yet another military adventure, more likely the Bush administration plan is to allow the situation to fester at its current level –if circumstances allow — until the domestic political situation is clarified by the November 2004 elections. Moreover, the administration’s credibility with regard to its stated reasons for going to war against Iraq has sunk to the point where it’s difficult to imagine them allowing Congress to debate a new war resolution.

By putting an end to intelligence cooperation with Syria and continuing to publicly humiliate and demonize it, the pro-Israeli hawks in the administration, led by Bush and Cheney advance their plan to reorder the Middle East in Israel’s favor as they press forward their militaristic agenda. They feel most comfortable in a world of greater international disquiet and maximal preparations for war. Such an atmosphere helps to advance their war at home against civil liberties, and their economic plan to favor the rich and eviscerate federal and state programs that benefit the poor and the middle class.

The people currently running the U.S. government are a different, more radical breed from any who have ever before been in power in this country. They are extreme to a degree only hinted at in the regimes of Nixon and Reagan and the first Bush administration, which themselves were sufficiently terrible for their times. The difference now is the degree of reckless irresponsibility embodied in President George W. Bush that was not present in any of his predecessors.

Unluckily, President Bush has attained power at a time when the Soviet Union no longer exists to restrain the U.S. government from the most grandiose schemes of world empire. The arrogant undermining of the international order that is the mark of this administration has already made the world immeasurably more dangerous and is doubtless the reason that George Akerlof, winner of the 2001 Nobel Prize for Economics told Der Spiegel, "This is the worst government the U.S. has ever had in its more than 200 years of history." Outfitted with unassailable military power, the United States represents an extraordinary challenge to world peace, one not seen for more than 50 years. Fortunately, there are signs that the American public and the world community are gearing up to struggle against the unparalleled security threat posed by Bush and his neoconservative team.


[i] "The Syrian Bet," New Yorker, July 28, 2003.

[ii] "America’s nonsensical Syria policy," Middle East International, July 25, 2003.