Israel, Syria and Stage Four in the Terror War

“I made it very clear to the prime minister, like I have consistently done, that Israel’s got a right to defend herself, that Israel must not feel constrained in defending the homeland.”
President Bush, summarizing his conversation with Ariel Sharon after the Israeli attack on Syria, Oct. 6

“I am happy to see the message was delivered to Syria by the Israeli air force, and I hope it is the first of many such messages.”
Defense Policy Board member Richard Perle, in Israel, Oct. 14

“We tolerate nuclear weapons in Israel for the same reason we tolerate them in Britain and France. We don’t regard Israel as a threat.”
A high-ranking administration official, identified by the Guardian as leading neocon John Bolton

On Sunday (October 12) the Los Angeles Times reported that Israeli and American officials had “admitted collaborating to deploy US-supplied Harpoon cruise missiles armed with nuclear warheads in Israel’s fleet of Dolphin-class submarines, giving the Middle East’s only nuclear power the ability to strike at any of its Arab neighbors.” Israeli officials publicly dismissed the story, saying that it was technically impossible to modify submarine-based missiles to carry nuclear warheads. Whether or not such deployment is in fact possible, the report is significant for what it tells us about current thinking in Washington about Israel as a (nuclear) partner in the expanding Terror War.


Terror War, Stage I: Target al-Qaeda

It seems to me that the “War on Terrorism” has gone through three distinct stages. The first began immediately after 9-11, as Bush declared that war, understood by most people to target al-Qaeda and its Taliban sponsors in Afghanistan. Victory was swift; the Taliban collapsed within weeks, and a Northern Alliance-dominated regime (a continuation of that which had been easily toppled by the Taliban five years earlier) was installed in December. Officially, Afghanistan was liberated, the Taliban defeated, al-Qaeda “on the run.” Almost two years later, we find that conditions haven’t much changed for most Afghans; quarreling warlords govern the country; the security situation for women and girls has deteriorated; the Talibs are resurgent; al-Qaeda remains active, if in unknown numbers, along the unpoliceable border with Pakistan; Osama bin-Laden probably remains at large; promised international reconstruction aid is slow in coming. But one can say that the basic operational objectives in response to the 9-11 attack were met.


Terror War, Stage II: Target Iraq

Stage Two began with President Bush’s remarkable State of the Union address January 29, 2002. Having declared victory in Afghanistan (but mentioning al-Qaeda only in passing and bin-Laden not at all), Bush abruptly changed the subject and targeted the “Axis of Evil,” including Iraq, in the burgeoning War on Terrorism. This puzzled and stunned the world. European foreign ministers suspected Bush had misspoken, but no; Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, asked at a Munich conference of European foreign ministers February 2 what “Axis of Evil” meant, merely replied: “Countries must make a choice.” The world really began to worry, and the worries deepened as persons in and around the administration sought ways to link Iraq with 9-11 in order to acquire international, and more importantly, domestic support for war. Iraqi anthrax, Prague meeting, Zarqawi’s hospitalization in Baghdad, al-Qaeda training in Iraq, weapons of mass destruction that could be given to terrorists. None of it held water, as the CIA knew better than anybody; their hesitation to doctor evidence infuriated the Defense Department so much that the latter sidelined the Agency in favor of their own secretive intelligence-spinning Office of Special Plans. The State and Defense Departments were at loggerheads, as to some extent they remain.
Terror War, Stage III: Target Arafat

Stage Three commenced with another Bush speech, in the Rose Garden, June 24, 2002. This was his long-awaited statement on the Israel-Palestine conflict, following his April comment, to reporters in the Oval Office, “I do believe Ariel Sharon is a man of peace.” That statement was made in the context of a ferocious Israeli attack on West Bank cities and Colin Powell’s efforts to pursue a (relatively) balanced policy towards the two sides. Powell had obviously been sidelined by the most pro-Likud figures in the administration. Bush reiterated his earlier stated support for a Palestinian state (a sop, many felt, to Arab and Muslim opinion irritated by the bombing of Afghanistan and preparations for war against Iraq.) But he made no effort to appear even-handed, denouncing anti-Israel “terrorism” as the principle problem in the Middle East, and mentioning specifically Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the Lebanese Shiite organization Hezbollah, and Syria. Indirectly attacking Yassir Arafat, he called for “new leadership” in the Palestinian Authority, implying that the existing leadership (as Sharon insisted) was pro-terrorist.

Sharon was delighted; Bush had publicly scolded him in the past about re-occupying Palestinian cities, but now he was basking in the glow of U.S. support. His efforts were embraced as an honorable component of the anomalous Terror War which many Americans tended to see (and still see) as an “us versus them Arabs” proposition. Jerusalem Post reporter David Horowitz told National Public Radio that the Likud government could have written the Rose Garden speech. But again, much of the world was troubled. It was not surprising that the U.S. president would condemn the above-named groups; they had long been on the State Department’s list of terrorist organizations. Nor surprising, by this point, that Bush should attempt to have Americans subliminally link those groups, most of which have no known or likely link to al-Qaeda, with the latter organization. He was already linking bin-Laden and Saddam Hussein, which didn’t make any sense. The surprising thing was that he would so arrogantly dictate to the Palestinian Authority, which the U.S. had helped establish a decade earlier,, and demand that it depose Arafat as the price for future support. The ties between the U.S. and Israel had never been closer; and now Sharon, Man of Peace, was clearly a key U.S. ally in a marginless war targeting the democratically-elected Palestinian leadership right alongside Saddam, al-Qaeda, the Taliban, Hamas, Abu Sayyaf, etc.

Sharon had always interpreted the 1994 Oslo “land for peace” framework to mean “peace for land.” That is, as soon as all violent resistance ends (which Sharon knows is not going to happen), then he’ll implement the Palestinian state part of the agreement. Meanwhile the settlements expand, the “fence” stakes out additional Israeli territory on the West Bank, and support for the expulsion of all Palestinians into Jordan mounts within the Israeli and U.S. political establishments. Bush since his speech has been passive on the issue of Palestinian statehood, his “roadmap to peace” leading (as most paying attention see) to a dead end.

Within the Bush administration, the forces most friendly to the ruling Likud Party in Israel had come to dominate Middle East policy. These included Douglas Feith, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, and Defense Policy Board Chairman Richard Perle, who working as consultants to Israel’s Likud government in 1996, authored with five others a paper entitled “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm.” This document, which calls for destroying Saddam’s regime, and destabilizing Syria, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Iran to secure the Israeli “realm,” appears to guide current Bush administration thinking. In his book Winning Modern Wars, and in his interview in the October 16 Rolling Stone, Gen. Wesley Clark states that a senior U.S. military officer told him in the Pentagon as early as November 2001 that the administration planned, following the invasion of Iraq, to conduct campaigns throughout the Middle East and beyond. “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.” This strategy at some point has to require close cooperation with Israel.

After the April speech, amidst a climate on ongoing friction between the State Department and Defense Department, the administration agreed to seek U.N. authorization for an Iraq attack, to follow a return of weapons inspectors should inspections fail. Rumsfeld effectively insured their failure, sabotaging the best efforts of Hans Blix to conduct scientific searches, insisting that they would find nothing, because the WMDs would be so well-hidden. Unconcerned about the near-universal objection to a U.S. attack on Iraq, Washington disparaged the French and German leaders, the Turkish Parliament, Arab governments and global public opinion. While (as if to invite as much global scorn as possible) Congressional cafeterias renamed “french fries” “freedom fries;” and Fox Channel’s fairly unbalanced Bill O’Reilly pronounced France an “enemy” whose products should be boycotted by loyal Americans; Richard Perle discussed ways to “contain” longtime European allies. With the significant material support of only one ally, Britain (and that support opposed by the great majority of Britons), Bush went to war March 20, and was able to declare victory over the badly-equipped, disorganized Iraqi army May 1. Bush’s approval rate was 65%.

Almost immediately the Iraq victory soured. Having lost perhaps 30,000 troops (many of them conscript teenage boys) and about 10,000 civilians in the war, and having seen their already sanctions-crippled infrastructure destroyed by the U.S. attack, Iraqis did not welcome the occupation with the expected enthusiasm. The “embedded” media dutifully reported staged jubilation scenes as indications of Iraq’s “liberation.” But soon reality sunk in. Today the mainstream press routinely reports on the depth and complexity of resistance to occupation, and notes (as do official intelligence reports) that the constant infliction of “collateral damage” on Iraqi families is producing ever more coordinated and violent response.

The Iraq war is in a second phase: the guerrilla one.

The war planners had predicted a quick withdrawal of the bulk of U.S. troops; instead, they are maintaining a force at about 130,000 and are hopelessly overextended. The soldiers are demoralized; they know they were lied to. The justifications for war have all fallen apart. The press has become more questioning, and the Plame Affair has done the Bushites much damage, involving, as it does, a major lie used as justification for the war; exposure of the rift between professional intelligence agencies and the disinformation-promoting warmongers; and exposure of the slimy character of officials who would even violate laws about protection of intelligence operatives to vent their anger on those who expose their lies.

Meanwhile since about April, numerous articles have appeared exposing the role of the neocons in all this.

A key suspect in the Plame leak (Lewis “Scooter” Libby, Vice-President Cheney’s chief of staff) ranks prominently among these, and if he goes down, they are all in trouble. If the upper tier of the Bush administration is largely of oil-baron background (Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice), the second level is these “neoconservatives” who combine a conservative domestic agenda with an activist, imperialist foreign policy that seeks to take advantage of the U.S.’s emergence as the lone post-Cold War superpower. The neocons seek a “New American Century” in which the U.S. military enjoys “full spectrum dominance” and makes use of “pre-emptive” strikes against potential rivals. Including Feith and Perle, Paul Wolfowitz, Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton, and Elliott Abrams (director of the National Security Council’s Office for Near East Affairs) they lay great emphasis upon the refashioning of the Middle East to insure the security of Israel. Weakened by the unexpected difficulties in their pet project—the conquest of Iraq—they remain powerful and continue to pursue their Middle East regime-change program.

The Los Angeles Times article about the Harpoon cruise missiles cited at the top of this column should be read in this light. According to it, a high-ranking administration official stated that “We tolerate nuclear weapons in Israel for the same reason we tolerate them in Britain and France. We don’t regard Israel as a threat.” The Guardian reporting on the story adds: “Despite the anonymity of the source, the sentiment is almost identical to that of the John Bolton, who told British journalists last week that America was not interested in taking Israel to task for its continuing development of nuclear weapons because it was not a ‘threat’ to the United States. Even if Bolton was not one of the sources for the story, his comments, coming on top of that of the two other sources, suggest the degree to which senior members of the Bush administration can now not even be bothered to hide America’s assistance and encouragement for Israel’s nuclear programme.”

(Bolton, aside from serving in the State Department has served as a lawyer for the Agency for International Development, held posts in the American Enterprise Institute and the Heritage Foundation, and served on the Advisory Board of the super-hawkish Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs. Religious affiliation unclear, he is very close to Israeli authorities, whom according to Ha’aretz Daily he told February 17 of this year, “It will be necessary to deal with threats from Syria, Iran and North Korea” after the second Iraq War. Presumably he meant: both the U.S. and Israel together.)

Terror War, Stage IV: Target Syria (with Israel’s Help)

Now this very same Bolton made a presentation to Congress September 16 laying out the case for sanctions against Syria. This may well have inaugurated Stage Four in the Terror War. He was supposed to testify in July, but the CIA offered so many objections to his prepared testimony, as the Agency has objected to so much of the “intelligence” coming out of the neocon-dominated Defense Department (feeling it skewed to promote a particular policy line), that his appearance was delayed several months. Once on stage he presented several reasons why the U.S. should impose sanctions against Syria. Syria occupies Lebanon. (Occupation, in this day and age? How awful!) Syria has weapons of mass destruction programs. (It maintains a stockpile of sarin, and appears to be trying to develop more toxic nerve agents. It has sought chemical weapons-related precursors and expertise from foreign sources. It has an agreement on “nuclear cooperation” with Russia. But other Arab countries, including Egypt, second largest recipient of U.S. aid, also have biological or chemical warfare programs. And Syria argues it needs a deterrent to Israel’s 100-200 nukes.)

Bolton intimated that Iraq’s missing WMDs might have been skirted over the border to Syria (with whom its relations have not been friendly, and which supported Iran in the Iran-Iraq War.) It will be interesting to see how this one plays out. In December 2002, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon stated, “We are certain that Iraq has recently moved chemical or biological weapons into Syria.” . (“We” meaning the ever-reliable Mossad?) After the Bush-Blair summit on April 8, 2003, an unnamed “Bush administration official” said: “Significant equipment, assets and perhaps even expertise was transferred, the first signs of which appeared in August or September 2002. It is quite possible that Iraqi nuclear scientists went to Syria and that Saddam’s regime may retain part of its army there. . . . Satellite photographs revealed heavily guarded convoys moving from Iraq to Syria last year.” Leo Strauss disciple Wolfowitz characteristically leaves the matter tantalizingly possible; he’s said “we just don’t know.” (Which means: we can make it up, if it serves our purposes, just like we did with Iraq.)

Syria, Bolton avers, “allows” fighters who want to engage U.S. forces in Iraq to cross its porous 400-mile border. (President al-Assad has told Colin Powell it’s impossible to police that border, but urges the U.S. to do so now that it’s occupying Iraq.) Syria is harboring terrorists such as members of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hizbollah. (Syria says members do reside in Syria, and have press offices there, but do not have training camps, and that Damascus gives no “operational support” to the listed organizations. And of course the Syrians contest the U.S. State Department’s definition of “terrorist,” as do lots of reasonable people.) It is clear that the Bush administration is building its case against Syria, just as it did against Iraq, packaging “intelligence” to justify a course of action already chosen.

On October 5, two weeks after Bolton’s report, as the press indicated that Congress would adopt sanctions against Syria, Israel bombed what it called a “terrorist training camp” in Syria ten miles north of Damascus. Damascus said the camp had been abandoned seven years ago. Apparently there were no casualties, and the Syrian response was restrained. There is some evidence that the Syrians are puzzled by the attack, which was (officially) in retaliation for a suicide bomb attack in Haifa which killed 21 people, and for which the Palestinian group Islamic Jihad had taken responsibility. They must assume it was approved by the U.S. While the governments of the U.K., Germany, France, and Spain all said it was “unacceptable,” the Bush administration said it was just fine, because (in the words of U.S. Ambassador to the UN John Negroponte) Syria “is on the wrong side in the war on terrorism.” (Compare the reaction of the Reagan administration in 1981, when Israel attacked Iraq’s Osiraq nuclear reactor. Then the U.S. joined the rest of the world in condemning the attack. Nowadays Israel threatens to bomb the Iranian Bushehr reactor. Should that happen while this regime remains in power, expect Bushite support and praise.) Bush declared that Sharon must “defend the homeland;” he might as well have said “secure the realm.” Bush’s stance receives bipartisan support in Congress: “The training of terrorists in terrorist camps in Syria is an outrageous affront to the civilized world,” says Rep. Tom Lantos, ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Foreign Relations. As the “Syria Accountability Act ” was passed, 398-5, by the House of Representatives Oct. 16, the Voice of America reported:

[House Majority Leader Tom] DeLay said that should send an unmistakable message to Syria. “We will send a very clear message to President Assad and his fellow travelers along the ‘axis of evil.’ The United States will not tolerate terrorism, its perpetrators or its sponsors,” he says. “And our warnings are not to be ignored.”

The White House has said it is waiting to see the final language of the Syria Accountability Act once it emerges from Congress. But the administration is clearly on board now in support of the legislation, a White House spokesman saying again just last week that Syria “remains on the wrong side of the war on terror.”

The Israeli foreign minister immediately declared he was “very happy” with the vote.

“Wrong side in the war on terror.” But Syria has cooperated extensively in the efforts against al-Qaeda. What is the U.S. trying to say, by supporting the first such strike by Israel against Syria in 30 years? (Why now, when Palestinian militant groups have been active in Syria, often more significantly than now, for a long time?) Is Damascus supposed to congratulate the U.S. on invading and occupying a neighboring Arab country? (Actually, they just, reluctantly, voted to support the U.S.-authored resolution to approve the occupation.) Is it expected to somehow prevent all supporters of the Iraqi resistance from crossing its vast border? Is it supposed to lay down its (perfectly legal) guard while Israel maintains its WMD arsenal? Is it supposed to lock up or turn over to Israeli justice all Palestinian militants resident in the country? Already the Bush administration has presented such demands (which some might find unreasonable and contrary to the “American” principle of press freedom) as insisting that Syria close down Palestinian press offices, and Syria, out of fear, has partly complied.

What, might the Syrians be thinking, does it take to satisfy these people, and prevent them from attacking us, if they’ve already made up their minds to do so, and they keep raising the bar?

“Everything’s Possible Syria is Weak.”

Expect the charges against Syria to proliferate; Haaretz reports that there are $ 3 billion in Iraqi assets in Syrian government-owned banks that may be “financing terror.” . And the saber rattling, both from Israel (which threatens another strike), and U.S. officials. On October 14, super-hawk, Defense Policy Board member, and member of Jerusalem Post board of directors Richard Perle told an applauding audience of Jewish and Christian “analysts and politicians opposed to conceding a Palestinian state” that he was “happy to see the message [that] was delivered to Syria by the Israeli air force, and I hope it is the first of many such messages.” (Repeat: he is happy about Israel bombing Syria, and hopes Israel sends many more such messages! And this warmongering, habitual prevaricator and high-profile Iraq war advocate regularly has the president’s ear.) Perle was quoted the next day in the Jerusalem Post as stating: “President Bush transformed the American approach to terrorism on Sept. 11, 2001, when he said he will not distinguish between terrorists and the states who harbor them. I was happy to see that Israel has now [sic] taken a similar step in responding to acts of terror that originate in Lebanese territory by going to the rulers of Lebanon in Damascus.” When asked whether this would include possible U.S. military action against Syria, he said: “Everything’s possible,” adding that despite heavy commitments elsewhere, it would be easy to commit U.S. forces to Syria too, because “Syria is militarily very weak.”

Generally the ideas of the Prince of Darkness are in sync with those of Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld. While it’s hard to believe this gang would be so stupid and reckless as to attack Syria at this point, given the Iraq imbroglio and mounting antiwar sentiment at home, it is, of course, part of their New American Century game plan.

As Bush’s star declines, they may become desperate to achieve their world-transforming goals before the next presidential election. As they used to say of Saddam: We must not assume that we are dealing with rational people here. They think in apocalyptic terms, certain they stand on the side of Good, no matter what happens on this fragile planet as a result of their actions. (“John Bolton,” said Jesse Helms a few years ago, “is the kind of man with whom I would want to stand at Armageddon, or what the Bible describes as the final battle between good and evil.” Salon, July 16, 2003).

In their peculiar rationality, they say of Sharon: “He is a man of peace.” And in the epoch struggle of Good vs. Evil, he is now scheduled to play a greater role. While Israel has stood on the sidelines during the Afghan and Iraqi campaigns, concentrating on the Palestinian “problem” with unprecedented U.S. support, it has fired the first shots in

what I’m suggesting will become Stage Four of the Terror War. I think it unlikely that Israel could or wants to occupy Syria, the way the U.S. is occupying Iraq (although Israel did occupy about 10% of Lebanese territory for 22 years and has occupied Syria’s Golan Heights since 1977). But the Sharon government might help the U.S. bring down a regime, with or without the above-mentioned U.S.-supplied cruise missiles armed with nuclear warheads aboard Israeli submarines, and bring more neocons dreams into perverse fruition. Whether or not U.S. troops will indeed be in Damascus soon (as Perle imagines), I don’t know. I do think that will have a lot to do with the strength of the antiwar movement, resistance among the GIs, the vagaries of electoral politics within this system (imperialist not by recent fluke but for over a century by definition), and the general progress of reason.

The neocons are not wholly in charge in Washington, and despite what some want to believe, Bush is not driven primarily either by the neocons or Israel’s interests. Israel is the junior partner, advantaged at present by U.S. policy that principally serves U.S. corporate, military and geopolitical goals. Control of Southwest Asia, a vulnerable and turbulent but resource-rich region, will give Washington enormous leverage over longstanding allies it now wants to “contain,” and over any future rivals. In Bush’s Terror War so far, Israel has played a bit part. One would think the Bushites would want to keep it that way, and given the historical antipathies, just ask Israel to stand aside and not complicate U.S. ambitions in the region. But again, one mustn’t assume that they’re acting rationally even in their own imperialist interests.

With Syria in the cross hairs, Israel will probably achieve an expanded role in this terrible war. The Prince of Darkness, and some of his colleagues, plainly want it to, even if some in the administration might be rolling their eyes, considering early retirement, wondering how much stupider U.S. policy can get. Undoubtedly al-Qaeda, the original foe of 9-11 with its own apocalyptic visions in mind, its ranks now swollen by the Iraq invasion, wants this too.

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: