“Oh yes, sir, not only is it Afghanistan. There’s a list of countries. We’re not that good at fighting terrorists, so we’re going after states: Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Somalia and Iran. There’s a five-year plan.”
A Pentagon general to Gen. Wesley Clark, Nov. 2001
As someone who believes that the Bush administration fully intends to implement the neocon plan for regime change in Syria, Iran, and Lebanon in the next couple years, I’ve watched it and the compliant media build the cases necessary for attack. Just as the disinformation apparatus spun out charges one after one against Iraq (many of them now forgotten, although they produced a climate of fear and hatred and served their psy-war purpose at the time) from 9-11 to March 2003, so they have piled on accusations and insinuations against Syria, Iran and Lebanon’s Hizbollah.
These charges collect, growing ever more shrill. Syria stands accused of sponsoring terrorism, having weapons of mass destruction, facilitating foreign fighters’ entry into Iraq (to fight other foreign fighters in Iraq), hosting fleeing Iraqi Baathists, providing banking services for the Iraqi insurgents, occupying Lebanon in defiance of the people’s will, encouraging Hizbollah attacks on Israel, orchestrating a legal change authorizing an extension of the (Christian pro-Syrian) Lebanese president’s term, and (although this is only insinuated) assassinating former Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri. Every Palestinian suicide-bomber attack on Israelis is laid at the Syrian doorstep. “Axis of Evil” component Iran is also charged with sponsoring terrorism, assisting anti-US forces in Iraq, and funding Hizbollah and Palestinian organizations. In addition it’s accused of seeking to produce nuclear weapons. As was case with Iraq, the possible presence in Iran of al-Qaeda forces fleeing Afghanistan in 2001-2 has been represented as active Iranian complicity in al-Qaeda terrorism. Hizbollah, long vilified by the U.S., is repeatedly linked to terrorist actions taken in Israel by Palestinian groups. The list of reasons for regime change lengthens.
But there have been some developments in the last week that some interpret as setbacks for the neocons’ Five Year Plan. The administration has agreed to support the Europeans’ negotiations with Iran pertaining to the Iranians’ nuclear program, and by some accounts to accept Hizbollah’s role in Lebanese politics. There is a curious dialectic at work here, but I don’t think it fundamentally affects the Plan.
Following the February 14 assassination of Rafik Hariri, the U.S. baselessly implicated Syria, stepping up the pressure on Syria building since the passage of UNSC resolution 1559 last September. Anti-Syrian demonstrations conducted by young well-heeled Lebanese, labeled by the mainstream press the “Cedar Revolution” and compared to the U.S.-financed “Orange Revolution” in Ukraine (but labeled the “Gucci revolution” by critically-minded observers) culminated in a rally of 70,000 March 7 demanding the withdrawal of Syrian troops. The U.S. press true to form lauded the “successes” of Bush’s Middle East policy, driven supposedly by the heroic impulse to bring “freedom” to benighted Arabs, and pronounced the president’s policies vindicated by the happy telegenic faces in Beirut.
Syria buckled under, and declared it will withdraw the last 14,000 of the 45,000 troops it has deployed in Lebanon originally at Lebanese request. To save face it stated that it is merely following through on the Taif agreement of 1989.
The U.S. responded: That’s not good enough. Bully Bush brandishing Resolution 1559 (as though it held greater weight than any of the resolutions pertaining to Israel blithely ignored by the Jewish state) demanded all Syrian forces be out by May. Upping the ante, he also demanded the 1000-plus intelligence officers be withdrawn as well. (But given the nature of the intelligence field, it will be difficult to ascertain whether any Syrian spies remain. Thus it will always be possible, citing unspecified intelligence sources, to assert that some intelligence officers linger and hence Syria is “defying the international community” by their presence. As was the case with Iraq, the U.S. heaps upon Syria demands that it either cannot meet or cannot prove having met; the point is not really to get Assad to change but to change—i.e. topple—the Syrian regime and implant a client pro-U.S., Israel-friendly one. By the way, surely there are U.S. intelligence officers in Lebanon; wasn’t CIA station chief William Buckley executed there by kidnappers in 1984? What if Syria was to demand, tit-for-tat: “Get your spies out and we’ll do the same”?)
March 8: In response to all the above, Hizbollah organized a massive rally of 500,000 in Beirut to express gratitude to Syria, and to demand that the U.S. stop interfering in Lebanese affairs. Christians and Sunnis as well as Shiites participated in this nationalist-themed demonstration. It was too huge for the U.S. media to ignore, although it was downplayed, and explained away by some (like Al Hunt on CNN’s “Capital Gang”) as involving thousands bussed in from Syria.
The U.S. responded to the embarrassingly substantial demo by intimating that it would be willing to accept a Hizbollah role in Lebanese politics, but quickly backtracked on the question (suggesting ongoing debate in the administration) and pressured the EU that has long resisted such a move to list Hizbollah as a “terrorist organization.” In return for Europe’s shift, the U.S. agreed to support Europe’s efforts to peacefully resolve the Iranian nuclear issue. If Iran agrees not to enrich uranium, the U.S. will support Iran’s admission into the WTO and won’t object to its purchase of spare civilian aircraft parts from the EU.
Do these moves represent some slippage in the neocon program, or just clever tactics? I think the latter. The new Euro-American united front will tell Hizbollah, “We understand you are the largest political party in Lebanon and command much respect and support. We know that the Lebanese constitution revised in 1989 gives the Christian minority 50% of parliamentary seats and the presidency, and so long as you agree with that set-up and also disband your militia and cease attacks on Israel we’ll take you off our terror list and work with you.” Hizbollah will say “no thank you,” and so despite its show of strength March 8 will remain a target. Thus the Lebanese state in which Hizbollah plays a prominent mainstream political role will remain a target, along with Syria.
Iran, allied with Syria and Hizbollah and enjoying cordial relations with the still unannounced quasi-independent regime in U.S.-occupied Iraq, will say “no thank you” to the U.S.-EU offer to exchange airplane parts for Iran’s unquestionable right by international law to enrich uranium. This for the Iranians is a matter of national pride, and the neocons know it. They also know that the Netherlands, Japan and other nations without nuclear weapons programs have been allowed to master the nuclear cycle. But U.S. policy has been to deny Iran, specifically, that right for one reason alone: Israel.
Iran, of course, has stated repeatedly that it does not plan or wish to produce nuclear weapons, and its religious leadership has condemned them as “un-Islamic.” Iran has opened itself up to the most intrusive IAEA inspections ever; the agency head Mohamed ElBaradei has reported no evidence that Iran is working on a nuclear weapons program; and a Bush-appointed bipartisan commission investigating the issue states that U.S. intelligence provides no evidence either.
But the neocons aren’t impressed with such reports. They reason as follows. If Iran enriches uranium, there’s the possibility it will produce nuclear weapons and use them against Israel. To quote Gen. Clark again: he told the Guardian in August 2002 that, “Those who favor [the attack on Iraq] now will tell you candidly, and privately, that it is probably true that Saddam Hussein is no threat to the United States. But they are afraid at some point he might decide if he had a nuclear weapon to use it against Israel.”
Not against the U.S. but against Israel. Bush administration policy is to prevent any nation hostile to Israel (any embracing the historical narrative according to which the settler-state established itself at the expense of the indigenous Palestinian population) from mastering the nuclear cycle since such mastery would constitute an “existential threat” to the Jewish state. One could argue, as some do, that a nuclear Iran would merely counterbalance the existing nuclear Israel and that the two could coexist as did the U.S. and USSR throughout the Cold War, when the “mutually assured destruction” doctrine prevailed. But the Bush administration has made its policy clear: if Iran seems poised to enrich uranium, either Washington or Israel (remember the bombing of Osiraq in 1981?) will preempt that possibility.
The Bush administration meanwhile knows that Syria will not be able to demonstrate compliance with Washington’s mounting demands, and that Hizbollah will not dismantle its much-admired militia that drove the invading Israelis from south Lebanon in 2000. They know Iran will not—in deference to the feelings of a nuclear power illegally occupying and settling Arab lands and brutally suppressing a popular uprising—agree to accept second-class citizenship in the community of nations by agreeing to never, ever do what international law allows: enrich uranium. The neocons know that when Syria, Hizbollah and Iran say no to their accelerating schedule of unreasonable demands, they’ll maintain their case for attacks. But this time they’ll have Europe (notably a wheeling and dealing imperialist France, which is doing business with the U.S. regarding its former Syrian and Lebanese colonies, to say nothing of Haiti), on their side as they pursue their five-year regime change plan.
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I suspect that many Americans first hear about Syria when as children they encounter the familiar Christmas story: “Now it came to pass in those days that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria” (Luke 2:1-2). The author of the Gospel of Luke like other subjects of the Roman Empire regarded Palestine as part of “Coele-Syria,” which also embraced Syro-Phoenicia or what we now call Lebanon. Syria has in various historical periods stretched from the Mediterranean to the Euphrates, overlapping parts of modern Iraq. Some very important Syrian towns such as the early Christian center of Edessa fall within modern Turkey. Many Christian texts were authored in Syriac, a dialect of Aramaic. (Aram is a synonym for Syria that often occurs in the Bible.)
Under the Ottoman Empire, Lebanon and today’s Syria constituted the province of Greater Syria. The Lebanese region had a majority Christian population, which from the time of Napoleon’s Middle East conquests France determined to protect from attacks by Druze and other religious communities. Under French pressure, the Ottomans granted Lebanon some local autonomy. After World War One, the League of Nations granted France a mandate over the “Levant states” (Syria and Lebanon), insuring French control of the Iraq Petroleum Company pipeline from Iraq to Tripoli. The modern state of Lebanon was drawn by a French colonialist’s pen and designed to be a majority-Christian state aligned with France and serving French geopolitical interests. But its long history is generally coextensive with that of neighboring Syria. President Bush has a BA in history from Yale, but he probably has no clue about all this history, other than what he encounters when people read to him from the Bible. Maybe someone’s told him that Israel’s King David once conquered Syria, and “put garrisons in Syria of Damascus: and the Syrians became servants to David, and brought gifts. And the Lord preserved David withersoever he went” (2 Samuel 8:6). Recall that Bush told Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in 2003 that “God told me to smite [Saddam Hussein]. And I smote him”? The man truly believes he’s doing the Lord’s will, like King David, and that God will bless him too with victory.
The French allowed Lebanon to become a “self-governing republic” in 1926, but it remained subject to French control, including under the fascist Vichy regime in 1940 and the Free French with their British allies from 1941 to 1944. In the latter year Lebanon became an independent nation, with a constitutional arrangement apportioning parliamentary power to the various communities: Christians, Sunni Muslims, Shiite Muslims, Druze. 60% of parliamentary seats went to the Christians, principally Maronites, and the presidency was to always be held by a Christian.
The demographics of Lebanon have changed significantly since 1944. The Muslim birthrate is higher than the Christian, and although for political reasons there have been no comprehensive censuses taken in Lebanon since 1933, it was clear by the mid-1950s that Christians held a disproportionate share of power. This prompted a Muslim uprising in 1958, backed by Syria; its proximate cause was an effort by Christians to unconstitutionally extend the term in office of the Christian president. (Compare the recent controversy over the extension of Emile Lahoud’s presidency, which the U.S. treats as some sort of scandal.) 5000 foreign troops, not from a neighboring brotherly country but from the distant and culturally alien U.S.A. arrived to maintain order and “protect U.S. interests.” In the 1970s, Muslim frustration with the power structure led to a civil war, claiming 60,000 lives before Syria, at Lebanese (and specifically Lebanese Christians’) request, sent troops in to restore order. This was done with French, and tacit U.S., approval. Bush won’t tell his flock about these things.
Lebanon was invaded and partly occupied in 1982 by Israeli forces headed by current Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon, whom Bush has lauded as “a man of peace.” Reacting to PLO attacks from refugee camps in southern Lebanon, Israeli troops advanced way up to Beirut, where Israeli forces watched passively as local Christian fascists (Phalangists) slaughtered two thousand Palestinians (mostly children) in the Shattila and Sabra camps. The PLO leadership headquartered in Beirut was obliged to flee Lebanon for Tunisia. U.S. troops again intervened, alongside French troops, but being associated with Israel and the Christian fascists, these met with fierce opposition from local forces including the newly formed Shiite militia Hizbollah. President Reagan pulled out the Marines after 241 were slain in a Hizbollah attack in October 1983.
Israeli invaders redeployed to the south as Syria, avoiding confrontation with the Israelis, sent in reinforcements to stabilize the situation. Syria’s alliances shifted from the Christian community to the Shiites and Palestinians. Hizbollah, with Shiite Iran’s support, emerged as a large political organization respected for its provision of social services (schools, hospitals) for many in Lebanon. It not only acquired significant representation in the skewed Lebanese parliamentary system but also drove out the Israelis from southern Lebanon (Sheba Farms excepted) in 2000.
Lebanon today is arguably the most democratic country in the Arab Middle East, with numerous political parties, a relatively free and lively press, and a largely secular culture. The Syrian presence, increasingly discreet, and much less in-your-face than the far less welcomed U.S. presence in neighboring occupied Iraq, hasn’t altered that. Bush, who has come to pose as a Wilsonian missionary of democracy to the lost souls of the benighted Muslim world, depicts Lebanon as a nation victimized by foreign occupation, yearning for the sort of freedom only the U.S. can confer.
Concerning the upcoming Lebanese elections, Bush has stated that free elections can’t be held under occupation, or even in the context of a Syrian intelligence presence. He says this having orchestrated elections in locked-down Iraq, their results still unannounced more than six weeks after the poll, results that will certainly be influenced by U.S. intelligence operatives in that unfortunate occupied country. One wants to refer the hypocrite to Matthew 7:3-5: “And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? Or wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote of thine eye; and behold, a beam is in thine own eye? Thou hypocrite, first cast out the beam out of thine own eye; and then shalt thou see clearly to cast out the mote out of thy brother’s eye.”
GARY LEUPP is Professor of History at Tufts University, and Adjunct Professor of Comparative Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is also a contributor to CounterPunch’s merciless chronicle of the wars on Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia, Imperial Crusades.
He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org