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Road from Damascus

Outraged by Syria’s active opposition to the invasion of Iraq, the White House retaliated with a barrage of threats. What initially seemed an attempt by Washington to compel Damascus not to make trouble in Iraq quickly turned into a neoconservative vendetta. The administration has refused to reward or even acknowledge Syria’s efforts at fence mending, squandering the advantages of good bilateral relations. “This behavior does not serve any discernible US interest,” commented a European ambassador in Damascus, “it merely creates anger among the Syrians and resentment among the Arabs at large.” Even some U.S. diplomats in the region agree that Syria is being penalized in spite of its co-operation. One Foreign Service officer ventured a brief analysis: “This is what happens when the Defense Department ideologues get to make foreign policy.”


The force and intensity of Syria’s opposition to the invasion of Iraq was unanticipated. In a newspaper interview shortly after the war was launched, Syrian president Bashar al-Assad approvingly predicted Iraqi popular resistance. Foreign minister Farouq al-Shara’a told reporters, “Syria has a national interest in the expulsion of the invaders from Iraq.” Stopping short of aligning themselves with the government of Saddam Hussein, authorities nonetheless turned a blind eye as volunteer fighters from around the Arab world crossed the Syrian border into Iraq.


At a time when all other Arab leaders opted to sit on the fence, Syria’s rebelliousness was a singular slap in the face to those who propagated the notion that a show of force in Iraq would somehow browbeat the region into submission and pro-Americanism.


Punishment was swift. Within hours of Assad’s interview, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld announced that the Syrians were smuggling military ordnance into Iraq, triggering an anti-Syrian frenzy in Washington. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz called for regime change. Richard Perle, then chairman of the Defense Policy Board, threatened invasion and advocated crippling sanctions. Former CIA Director James Woolsey argued that bringing down the Damascus regime should be a part of the war on terrorism. The administration’s neoconservatives were joined by a bipartisan chorus on the Hill calling for measures against Syria ranging from embargoes to missile strikes.

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As penance, Syria was told not to interfere with the road map for Israeli-Palestinian peace; to disarm the Lebanese Hezbollah; to withdraw its troops from Lebanese territory; not to attempt to develop WMD capabilities; and to close the Damascus offices of the militant Palestinian factions present there and expel their leaders. The conflict was clearly about much more than Syria’s opposition to the war in Iraq.


By late June, a U.S. diplomat stationed in Damascus acknowledged that, as far as Iraq-related issues were concerned, “Syria has done everything we [had] asked them.” The country’s eastern borders were sealed. No fugitives from Saddam Hussein’s regime were let in or, at any rate, allowed to stay. And there was no credible evidence that Syria was hiding the missing Iraqi WMD.


Moreover, Syria had not interfered in the road map. The political activities in Damascus of the Palestinian groups designated as terrorist organizations had ceased. (In fact, the offices of Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad were shut down within a week of Secretary of State Colin Powell’s visit.) Syria had begun a phased withdrawal of several thousand troops from Lebanon and had repeated its calls to the Hezbollah leadership for calm and restraint.


Washington seemed not to notice. Administration officials kept berating Syria for its “unacceptable behavior,” for “playing games,” and “not doing nearly enough” to comply. In mid-July, Undersecretary of State John Bolton was scheduled to testify before Congress that the Syrians were in possession of an advanced and threatening WMD program, charges similar to those that led to the war in Iraq. Following complaints from intelligence agencies that his claims were either hyped or simply baseless, Bolton was forced to postpone his testimony.


If U.S.-Syria policy were the result of U.S. interests in Iraq, the case would have been long since closed. The administration would have tried to make positive use of the Syrians’ influence—as they have, in fact, offered—rather than alienating them. Anti-Syrian sentiment, however, is deeply entrenched among the administration’s neoconservative advisors.


In late April, Israel’s ambassador in Washington argued that the invasion of Iraq “helped create great opportunities for Israel but it was not enough … We still have great threats of that magnitude coming from Syria, coming from Iran.” The Israeli recipe: to de-legitimize and de-stabilize the Damascus and Tehran regimes “by applying political pressure and to really apply economic sanctions …” In this vein, Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), a leading advocate of a bill that seeks to place a Cuba-like embargo on Syria, reportedly announced after a meeting with Ariel Sharon in Jerusalem in mid-August that the Israeli prime minister had “endorsed U.S. economic and diplomatic pressure on Syria”—an odd choice of words that nonetheless points to the ideological dynamics in Washington.


“We find that our strictly bilateral relations with the United States almost always run smoothly,” argued a senior Syrian government official, “but that Israel and its cheerleaders in Washington … keep on throwing spanners in the works.” The charge is best illustrated by examples. For instance, the simmering allegations that Syria is hiding Iraqi WMD are based entirely on Israeli intelligence. Several senior U.S. intelligence and military officials, including, in early April, General Tommy Franks, have rejected the allegations but have been ignored by the Pentagon and the White House.


Similarly, the administration’s desire to confront the Lebanese Hezbollah by putting pressure on Syria is based on Israeli concerns. “The Israelis are terrified of the Hezbollah,” noted a U.S. defense analyst after returning from talks with Israeli military and intelligence brass earlier this year, “and see it as a formidable foe, a real threat.” Based on these fears—and although al-Qaeda has killed nearly 3,000 Americans—Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage was able to make the peculiar statement that “Hezbollah may be the A-team of terrorists and maybe al-Qaeda is actually the B-team.”


When the U.S. put forces in Lebanon in the early 1980s, Hezbollah struck with lethal force. Since the U.S. withdrawal more than two decades ago, Hezbollah has not attacked U.S. interests or citizens. Shortly after Sept. 11, at a rally in Damascus, Hezbollah deputy secretary general Shaykh Naim Qasem launched a blistering attack on al-Qaeda, and the movement’s leadership has repeatedly stated that it does not seek confrontation with America. Yet the White House has made its destruction a primary policy objective.


The withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon, another U.S. policy objective, would directly open up Syria’s vulnerable western flank to Israeli attack, a real strategic concern in Damascus. It would probably also destabilize Lebanon, since the troops are there at the request of the Lebanese government to maintain intercommunal calm. The troop presence “is just not acceptable,” explained a U.S. diplomat in Damascus, “they simply don’t belong there and the Lebanese government says only what the Syrians want them to say.” Commenting on this, a Syrian official noted, “The Americans refuse to understand that we have national security concerns also, the conflict with Israel isn’t something that we just made up. They only see Israeli security requirements, always.”


As for the Arab-Israeli peace process, Damascus has made it clear that it wants to be included in negotiations. The other members of the Quartet—Russia, the European Union, and the United Nations—support Syria’s inclusion, but the White House has blocked it. Israel believes that that it will be able to extract a better overall deal with Damascus in isolation, and according to one U.S. intelligence officer keeping Syria out was, in part, “a gift to the Israelis” intended to persuade them to sign on to the road map.

The continued penalization of an essentially compliant Damascus works to the direct detriment of U.S. security, particularly within the framework of the war against terrorism. The fiercely secular regime in Damascus has long monitored Islamic radicalism both inside its own borders and beyond. Shortly after Sept. 11, Syria allowed the CIA to set up a center in Aleppo and made available what one diplomat described as “massive amounts” of “incredibly valuable” material. In addition to information about individuals and groups, Damascus also provided early warning of a planned al-Qaeda attack on U.S. installations in Bahrain. “We were supplying useful information in the war against terrorism. The war against al-Qaeda is our war also,” a senior Syrian government official explained. “Now there is no more security cooperation.”  
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Anders Strindberg is a visiting research fellow in the Transregional Institute at Princeton University, working on a book on Syrian foreign and domestic policy.