The Neo-cons Threaten Syria

“The Organization is based on the principle of the sovereign equality of all its Members…All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations.”

Article 2, Chapter 1, Charter of the United Nations

Those invaders of Iraq are at it again. Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and their neo con staff led by Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and Under Secretary of Defense for Policy Douglas Feith, have conjured up another villain: Syria.

They want to punish Bashar Al-Assad’s regime for Saddam-like crimes weapons of mass destruction and fomenting terrorism. Although, their aggressive verbal assault might have as its real design the deflection of criticism over spying and leaking from the Vice President’s office. Justice Department investigators focus on Cheney’s top aides as likely culprits who fed journalist Robert Novak the name of undercover CIA operative Valerie Plame. When Novak “outed” her, Plame abandoned her mission and career. The Bushies thus showed other potential truth-tellers the high cost of “embarrassing” the Administration by telling the truth. Plame’s husband, Ambassador Joseph Wilson, had publicly demolished Cheney’s “Saddam tried to buy uranium in Africa” story.

More recently, the FBI has named a Cheney aide and members of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) as involved in spying for Israel. This Israeli lobby that claims to represent the Jewish population has for decades distracted attention away from Israeli aggression and manipulation of US policies by accusing Israel’s unfriendly neighbors of terrorism–first Iraq, now Syria and Iran.

The “t” word took on new meaning in early September when Russian troops and Chechen separatists together killed 300 plus people and Israeli forces assassinated 14 Palestinians in Gaza. In this terrifying atmosphere, Syria should have won status as a major non-issue. Nevertheless, the Israeli lobby’s influence overcame the headlines. So, by the Fall of 2003, the Israeli lobby convinced liberal Democrats like California Senator Barbara Boxer and Los Angeles Congressman Henry Waxman to generate support for the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act, legislation that punished Damascus for alleged terrorist connections and accumulation of WMD. Indeed, the vast majority in Congress right, left and center — voted for the legislation without engaging in any fact-finding or serious debate. Bush signed the Act into law in December and in May 2004 banned US exports to Syria and Syrian flights from entering or leaving US territory.

The US Committee for a Free Lebanon led the anti-Syria charge. Founded as an Israeli front in 1997, under Ziad K. Abdelnour, the Free Lebanon Committee worked with AIPAC and the neo cons to push for anti-Syria sanctions. In lashing out at Syria, Washington was in effect punishing Damascus for having helped the United States. In so doing, Washington demonstrated its unpredictable nature to other regimes in the region.

In the early 1990s, Syria actively promoted Washington’s attempt to organize a peace meeting in Madrid. Even more baffling, Syria provided crucial intelligence to the CIA to prevent an Al-Qaeda attack against US personnel in Bahrain in the post 9/11 period.

As if to prove that no good deed goes unpunished, Bush resorted to arm-twisting diplomacy to attack Syria at the United Nations. During the pre-Iraq invasion period, this kind of behavior had soured believers in the rule of law and the efficacy of the United Nations. On September 2, Washington pushed the Security Council to approve Resolution 1559 (9 out of 15 votes affirmative), which targetsbut doesn’t specifically name –Syria for maintaining troops in Lebanon and interfering in the upcoming Lebanese presidential elections.

This time, France co-sponsored the Resolution, a dramatic turnabout from its 2003 refusal to back Washington’s Iraq invasion. A spokesman from Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s office welcomed the resolution, but lamented that it fell short of sanctioning Damascus. The Security Council’s action did, however, express contempt for the UN’s founding principles: respect for sovereignty and non-interference in domestic affairs. The resolution called for “all remaining foreign forces to withdraw from Lebanon” and “a free and fair electoral process in Lebanon’s upcoming presidential election conducted according to Lebanese constitutional rules devised without foreign interference or influence.”

Lebanon had not requested Security Council action. Indeed, on the following day, September 3, Lebanon’s Parliament amended its Constitution (96-29) and extended pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud’s six-year term, which was to expire on November 24.

Rather than inquire into Syria’s motives for maintaining its Lebanese force, the mainstream press simply printed the White House spin as news: Syria as an evil occupying force. How ironic, in light of the current US occupation of neighboring Iraq and the history of Israeli troops in Syria’s Golan Heights.

History has not intruded on Bush’s explanation of global good and evil, but had he offered appropriate background one could understand why Syria became involved in the 1975-1990 Lebanese War. In May 1976, with Arab League backing, President Hafez al-Assad sent troops to Lebanon to help Christian militias. By doing so, Syria countered Israel’s foe, the PLO, who had allied with Lebanese National Movement.

In October 1976, Arab leaders negotiated a cease-fire between Syria and the PLO. The agreement called for Arab forces — mainly Syrians — to remain in Lebanon to maintain order. Assad used this accord as a lever in Lebanese politics, and Lebanese territory as a buffer against Israel.

But Assad couldn’t end the Civil War in which foreign and domestic interests sought advantage. Instead, from late 1976 on, outside powers supported rival Lebanese militia factions as they destroyed their own country.

In 1982, to demolish the PLO’s military wing, Israel invaded Lebanon and worked with Christian Maronites in carrying out massacres of Palestinians at the refugee camps at Sabra and Shatilla. Israel also hoped to force Assad’s withdrawal of Syrian troops, whose proximity to Israel created security discomfort. Israeli troops remained as occupiers in southern Lebanon until May 2000 (except for a strip along the Lebanon-Syria border), when the Israeli public demanded an end to the occupation.

But Syria, less concerned with public opinion, remained in Lebanon, which makes Israel uncomfortable. Israel’s behavior has helped Arab states forge alliances. But Israel with US support– has also convinced some of the most rabid anti-Israel regimes to abandon the PLO. In turn, the “Arab street” has responded by fomenting religious and ethnic-based violence, which has destabilized parts of the region.

Byzantine? No, pre-Byzantine. Contemporary Middle East politics have pre-colonial roots, pre-dating the European ouster of the Ottoman Empire. As Bush discovers daily in Iraq, US war makers had little historical context for establishing their peace. Nevertheless, the planners of the Iraq invasion, some of whom may have had links to espionage operations, have offered up the “blame Syria” scenario.

They demand harsh US actions against that country to “fight terrorism” and usher in US-style democracy. Like Iraq, Syria has had a stable and secular, albeit authoritarian government. Hafez Al-Assad ruled from 1971-2000; Bashar, his son, from June 2000-present.

The media has not even covered the barest historical bones that we have outlined. Nor has the press commented on the selective enforcement of Security Council resolutions related to the Middle East. Iraq got punished for deeds similar to those committed by Israel: invading neighbors, accumulating destructive weapons and human rights violations.

In October 2003, Israel bombed Syria to punish Damascus for backing terrorism. Israel furnished no evidence. The Security Council did not condemn Israel for that act of aggression. But the Council now demands the withdrawal of foreign forces from Lebanon, without mentioning Israel’s continued occupation of Syria’s Golan Heights. In 1981, the Council passed Resolution 497, calling Israel’s jurisdiction there “null and void and without international legal effect.” Since 1967, Israel has occupied Palestinian territories acquired by force, directly violating Resolutions 242 and 338.

State Department spokesman Tom Kasey called the decision to extend the Lebanese president’s term “a crude mockery of democratic principles.” A Syrian diplomatic source said that “after the Florida election in 2000, the Bush Administration has some nerve telling other people how to follow democratic rules.”

The Lebanese Parliament’s vote to change the Constitution, benefiting Syria, reflects more of a quest for stability than anti-democratic tendencies. But no democrat should condone continued Syrian influence in Lebanese politics. However, even if Syria wanted to withdraw, it would not erase several centuries of colonialism, from the Ottomans through the British and French. Arabs have had imperial rule stamped indelibly into their political culture. Between the two World Wars, France ran Syria and manipulated its Constitution to suit its imperial purposes. France supported Christians over Muslims in Lebanese politics and, along with the United States and England, consistently backed Israeli interests.

Ironically, when Middle East politics take anti-Israeli turns, the United States preaches “democracy.” In fact, Washington’s “appointocracies” in Iraq and Afghanistan rule through US power, not popular mandate. Washington’s verbal “commitment” to democracy has led “the Arab street” not only in Damascus — to become highly skeptical of US motives.

Saul Landau is the Director of Digital Media and International Outreach Programs for the College of Letters, Arts and Social Sciences. His new book is The Business of America.

Farrah Hassen was one of the filmmakers for SYRIA: BETWEEN IRAQ AND A HARD PLACE.



Farrah Hassen, J.D., is a writer, policy analyst, and adjunct professor in the Department of Political Science at Cal Poly Pomona.