It’s 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 country’s border, amid ominous talk of cross-border attacks. Top U.S. officials warn that American patience with the country’s 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 Cheney’s 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 Assad’s family in the Hariri murder, though without hard evidence. It would be wrong, however, to see the Bush administration’s 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 didn’t exactly make an effort to keep it secret. In April 2003, in an article in The American Prospect entitled “Just the Beginning,” I wrote, “Those who think that U.S. armed forces can complete a tidy war in Iraq, without the battle spreading beyond Iraq’s borders, are likely to be mistaken.” 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: “I think we’re going to be obliged to fight a regional war, whether we want to or not. As soon as we land in Iraq, we’re going to face the whole terrorist network. It may turn out to be a war to remake the world.”

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 Bush’s 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 isn’t 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: Bashar’s Trial by Fire, announced his conclusion that Bush was pursuing “regime change on the cheap” in Syria. But others disagree, and believe that Syria could indeed be the next Iraq. For neoconservatives, ‘tis 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 “if President Bush rejects the counsel of neoconservative advisers who have learned nothing from Iraq and now dream of overthrowing Mr. Assad with unilateral force.” 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. “No one knows what is going to come out of it,” says Wayne White, the former deputy director of the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research on Middle East issues. “It’s making me nervous. What, exactly, is ‘Syria’? There are cleavages there. The place could just break up.” White says that no one knows the extent to which Sunni Islamic radicals have organized themselves in Syria, especially through the Muslim Brotherhood. “There could be a lot more Islamic militancy there than we’re aware of.”

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. “We are all targeted,” he said. “We are all in danger.”

On Oct. 6, in his saber-rattling declaration of war against “Islamofascism,” President Bush not-so-subtly warned Syria that it might be next. “State 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,” said Bush, speaking to the National Endowment for Democracy. “The United States makes no distinction between those who commit acts of terror and those who support and harbor them, because they’re 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.” Echoing Bush, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad warned bluntly that “our patience is running out with Syria,” and like other U.S. officials Khalilzad blamed the Assad government for America’s 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 “limited military action,” and despite the fact that intelligence on Syria’s actual role in supporting the resistance in Iraq is hazy at best, the story, by reporter Warren Strobel, revealed that “one option under consideration was bombing several villages 30 to 40 miles inside Syria that some officials believe have been harboring Iraqi insurgents.” On Oct. 15, the New York Times reported that the Bush administration was threatening “hot pursuit” and other attacks into Syrian territory. It added, “A 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.”

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 don’t presage a wider war by the United States. Still, in his Washington Post online column “Early Warning,” William M. Arkin wrote on Nov. 8 that the U.S. Central Command has been “directed by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to prepare a ‘strategic concept’ for Syria, the first step in the creation of a full-fledged war plan.”

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 “glorious, delicate, revolutionary moment in the Middle East” is to go after Syria. “This is no time to listen to the voices of tremulousness, indecision, compromise, and fear,” he wrote. Instead, the Bush administration’s commitment to spreading democracy should take it “through Beirut to Damascus.” William Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard and co-author of The War in Iraq (“The mission begins in Baghdad, but it does not end there”), helpfully suggested some options that the Bush administration is clearly thinking about now. In The Weekly Standard last year, Kristol wrote, “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. … It’s time to get serious about dealing with Syria as part of winning in Iraq, and in the broader Middle East.”

All that is consistent with the neocons’ long-held view about Syria and the region. For years they’ve 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 “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm,” prepared as a study-group project for Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In it, the authors called for “striking Syrian military targets in Lebanon, and should that prove insufficient, striking at select targets in Syria proper” as a “prelude to a redrawing of the map of the Middle East which would threaten Syria’s territorial integrity.” Wurmser, a former AEI Middle East specialist, played a key role in the Pentagon’s 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 Cheney’s 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 administration’s 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 Laden’s al-Qaeda and in helping to stabilize Iraq. “In Iraq, the two countries we most need the help of are Syria and Iran,” says Chas W. Freeman. “We’re not trying to involve them. We’re trying to up the ante by confronting Syria and Iran.”

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. “The very last thing we need to do is to engage in hot-pursuit raids into Syria,” 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 “rendered” suspects captured in the war on terrorism to Damascus for less-than-civil interrogation by Syrian authorities.) “In the aftermath of 9/11, Syria provided the United States with actionable intelligence on al Qaeda affiliates, as administration officials publicly acknowledge,” wrote Flynt Leverett, the former CIA Syria expert. “While 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.”

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 isn’t hard to guess which was which: the Bush administration’s 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 Syria’s 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 “positive” news from Syria. “I sense,” he said, “a new attitude from the Syrians.” So obvious was the effort that Time magazine published a story entitled “Cozying Up to Syria,” 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 Hariri’s, but the murder of Izzedine Sheik Khalil, a top official of Hamas, apparently by Israel’s 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 family’s home in Latakia. Not without reason, Syria’s 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 Hariri’s assassination on Valentine’s 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. “Syria’s 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,” 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 “breaking off of relations [and] military retaliation.”

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 Syria’s 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 administration’s destabilization of the Syrian regime is that no one in Washington has any idea who or what might emerge to replace Assad’s 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 Hariri’s 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 CNN’s 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. “There is nobody on the Iraqi side, neither Americans nor Iraqis,” said Assad. (Amanpour was unmoved. “Why cannot your forces go house to house? Why cannot you actively stop this, close it down?”) “We are interested in a more stable Iraq,” insisted Assad. “[The United States] only talks about a stable Iraq, but the mistakes they make there every day give the opposite result.”

Imad Moustapha, Syria’s 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. “What we see in general is an administration that is categorically refusing to engage with Syria on any level,” said Moustapha. “We 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.”

Less grand is the vision of Bill O’Reilly, the Fox News host, who ripped a page from Pat Robertson’s assassination handbook. “It’s Bashar’s life,” said O’Reilly on Oct. 5. “I mean, we could take his life, and we should take his life if he doesn’t help us out.”

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Robert Dreyfuss is the author of Devil’s 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.