Israel’s Bush-Back Attack on Syria

“What I said to [Syrian President Bashar al-Assad] very clearly is that there are things we believe he should do if he wants a better relationship with the United States, if he wants to play a helpful role in solving the crisis in the region. So if President Assad chooses not to respond, if he chooses to dissemble, if he chooses to find excuses, then he will find that he is on the wrong side of history.”

Secretary of State Colin Powell, following a visit to Syria, reporting on his talks with Syrian leader, and his side of history, to the press in Jerusalem, May 11.

Five months after Powell laid down the law to Bashar al-Assad, Ariel Sharon struck at Syria, targeting (as he explains it) a terrorist training facility for members of Islamic Jihad in retaliation for the bombing of a restaurant in the Israeli town of Haifa that killed 19. Islamic Jihad says the camp was not in use; Syria says the attack was on a civilian area. In any case, the Israeli action (like the restaurant attack) has been pretty much universally condemned. The German Chancellor says it “cannot be accepted.” Britain agrees it is “unacceptable.” “The Israeli operation… constituted an unacceptable violation of international law and sovereignty rules,” declares the French Foreign Ministry. The Spanish UN Ambassador Inocencio Arias calls it an attack of “extreme gravity” and “a clear violation of international law.” But Washington responds to the Israeli attack on Syria by blaming the targeted nation: “Syria,” declares U.S. UN Ambassador John Negroponte, “is on the wrong side in the war on terrorism.” (This, despite all Syria’s help in the war against al-Qaeda.) President Bush says that on Sunday he spoke with Ariel Sharon, and “made it very clear to the prime minister that… Israel’s got a right to defend herself, [and] Israel must not feel constrained in terms of defending the homeland.”

(Notice how, although burdened with a muddled brain, Bush is always announcing how he’s made things clear. I’m trying to imagine what comment by Sharon occasioned this particular pontifical clarification. Did the butcher of Sabra and Shatilla, smitten by self-doubt, ask Dubya over the phone, “Mr. President, do you really think I was right to conduct an air strike against Syria, the first time Israel’s done this in 30 years?” And did Dubya, who in his historical-revisionist mind knows that President Sharon is a “man of peace,” in his sweetest pastoral manner reply, “Gentle Ariel, let me be clear: you have the right to defend yourself by bombing Syria”? And what’s with this “in terms of defending the homeland” bit? Not “your homeland,” but the homeland, as though the U.S.A. homeland and the Israeli homeland are one?)

Bushite acceptance of the unacceptable is not surprising. Syria, long vilified by the neocons in charge of the White House, was bound to come under either U.S. or proxy attack. Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle are determined to bring down the Baathist regime. In July, Undersecretary of State John Bolton, who wants to expand the “Axis of Evil” to include Syria, and who has a history of making asinine accusations about Third World countries designed to justify preemptive U.S. attacks, was supposed to tell members of a House of Representatives International Relations subcommittee that “Syria’s development of biological, chemical and nuclear weapons had progressed to such a point that they posed a threat to stability in the region.” The CIA, by that time professionally embarrassed by the egregious sewing of disinformation by the neocons in pursuit of their endless war, submitted over 35 pages of objections to Bolton’s proposed testimony, so Bolton’s appearance was postponed. But he presented his revised condemnatory report September 16. That report, which still depicted Syria as a grave threat (and likely the recipient of some of those missing Iraqi WMPs), was leaked in advance to New York Times veteran disinformation specialist and War Party groupie stooge Judith Miller. The Vilify Syria Propaganda Machine is now in full swing.

For months the Syrians have been accused by Washington of “allowing” “Arab” and “foreign” volunteers to cross the Syria-Iraq border to assist Iraqis fighting back against the foreign occupation. As though there were something wrong about that in principle, and as though a poor weak regime could, even if it really wanted to cooperate with a hostile occupation regime next door, better police its 400 mile border with Iraq than California can police its 150 mile border with Mexico. Anyway it’s clear the neocons want regime change in Syria , not so much because of the above-mentioned reasons, but because Damascus supports Hizbollah and Hamas, neither of which attack the U.S. outside their own turf, or have any appreciable ties with al-Qaeda, but who oppose Israeli occupation of Lebanese and Palestinian territory.

The neocons are weakened by the fiasco they’ve created in Iraq and Afghanistan, and may take a body blow (and greater mainstream media scrutiny) if Lewis “Scooter” Libby falls due to the “Plame Affair”. But they may still desperately attempt Syrian regime change while still in power. (Never mind that Powell has said the U.S. won’t attack. Never mind that former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger has stated Bush should be impeached if he attacks Syria. Or that Former Secretary of State James Baker agrees with Eagleburger. The neocons are hot to trot to remake the Middle East. They are prone to recklessness, and if they sense some resistance to their agenda in Washington, they might well try to coordinate with their close partners—in the regime which just attacked Syria—to keep the ball rolling.

Colin Powell (not a neocon, but their sometimes reluctant spokesman) told Syria’s President Assad in May that Syria would be “on the wrong side of history” unless he took action against Palestinian militant groups in Syria, and prevented volunteers from crossing the 400 mile-long Syria-Iraq border to assist the Iraqi resistance to occupation. Being “on the right side of history,” you see, means being on the side of those whose roadmap for peace simply requires Arab governments, like the one in Damascus, to ally with the U.S., recognize Israel, collaborate in the suppression of Palestinian militancy, close down Palestinian news media, accept a noncontiguous Palestinian Bantustan state, acknowledge the demographic inconvenience to Israel of the Palestinian right to return, absorb the Palestinian refugee population at their own expense, eliminate any weapons of mass destruction which might threaten nuclear Israel, actively suppress elements of Islam objectionable to Israel and the U.S., and accept the U.S. occupation of Iraq. It would be helpful, too, if they fully open their markets, place their banks, industries and utilities under foreign control, and host U.S. military bases. That’s how to board the historical bandwagon and help implement inevitability.

But getting real As an historian, I’m always leery about politicians’ statements about History with a capital H. They are just soHegelian. The German philosopher Georg Hegel believed that the Absolute Idea (something like “God,” only without a personality, evolving over time, unloading into human events) constituted the historical process; that is, History is a thing outside of what you and I do. It has its own logic, which you can side with (to help supersede what’s gone before—to be part of progress) or oppose (and thus be historically irrelevant, as the Bushites, when they don’t need it, sometimes paint the UN). But the far more brilliant Karl Marx disagreed: “History,” he wrote, “does nothing, possesses no enormous wealth, fights no battles. It is rather man, the real, living man, who does everything, possesses, fights. It is not History, as if she were a person apart, who uses men as a means to work out her purposes, but history itself is nothing but the activity of men pursuing their purposes.” History is merely the movement of people through time, and time, like space, has no “sides” you can be on, whether to advance or impede it.

The Bush administration is pursuing its own historical purposes, insisting in doing so that it is fulfilling God’s will. Top administration officials believe they’re implementing an inevitable, predetermined historical course, foretold by the Old Testament prophets and the Book of Revelation. Not that their curious historicism is specifically religious in the narrow sense. The neocons include Francis Fukuyama, who in fine Hegelian fashion has declared “the end of history” with the putative triumph of western political institutions and (more importantly) capitalism over the colossal 20th century challenge of Marxist socialism. These people wield their imagined capital-H History like a club, and integrate “history” into their gibberish to smugly announce the end of what is in fact an ongoing fight between ongoing cross-purposes.

Syria on the wrong side? Who’s on the right side of this bogus History? History as such chooses no side. People, responding to the conditions of their lives, do that, in certain predictable patterns. “Lives there who loves his pain?” wrote Milton, in the wake of the English Revolution. “Who would not, finding way, break loose from Hell, though thither doomed?” He puts the words in the mouth of Satan, and there can be great evil in the acts of the oppressed breaking loose as well as the oppressor. But that doesn’t mean that the former challenge any valid van of rightful progress.

As Marx writes in Capital, referring to the struggle over wage levels between employers and employees: “There is here, therefore, an antinomy, right against right, both equally bearing the seal of the law of exchanges. Between equal rights force decides.” So far imperialist force has imposed imperialist right in the Middle East and most everywhere. But it’s not over until it’s over, and the news out of Iraq (and some other parts of the world) isn’t good for the Bushites, who will soon (pardon the expression) be history.

GARY LEUPP is a professor of History at Tufts University and coordinator of the Asian Studies Program.

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Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: