Khalilzad Threatens Syria

The U.S. ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad says that the U.S. is “running out of patience” with Syria. That’s nothing new; U.S. officials have been saying that for several years now. After President Bush’s January 2002 speech joining together Iraq, Iran and North Korea as an “axis of evil,” evil Undersecretary of State John Bolton huffed and puffed about a second tier of evildoing nations: Syria, Libya and Cuba. The neocon program is obviously to create a string of client-states in what it calls the “Greater Middle East”—an empire dripping with oil, bedecked with U.S. military bases, spread-eagled for U.S. corporate investment, warmly receptive to Israeli advances.

The great prize of Iran, wedged between “liberated” Afghanistan and Iraq, excites particular passion in the neocon breast. Its rape, scheduled for the summer, has been postponed for several reasons, principally the resistance of the liberated Iraqis and the swelling U.S. death toll. These dampen the enthusiasm of the American people for more rapine. Overextended and bogged down in two ongoing low-intensity wars, faced with mounting antiwar sentiment and a military recruitment crisis, the Bush administration also faces a stone wall of international resistance to an Iran attack. It has failed to persuade the IAEA to find Iran in noncompliance with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty; failed to oust the honest IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei (who points out that there’s no evidence for the U.S. charge); failed to arm twist ElBaradei or the delegates of various countries to the IAEA into referring Iran to the Security Council; and failed to convince Russia, China and India to cooperate in its anti-Iran campaign.
These three nations are all powerful friends of Tehran.

Implicitly admitting the setback, Condoleezza Rice told Fox News Sept. 15, “I think the issue of a referral is something that we’ll be working for a while. I’m not so concerned about exactly when it happens, because I don’t think this matter is so urgent that it has to be on September 19.” (Sept. 19 is the next IAEA meeting.) Good! She’s realizing the humbling limits of power, and backing off for at least a few days while she breaks in those shoes she bought in New York during the urgent matter of the recent hurricane. But Bolton, now UN ambassador by special presidential appointment, must be gnashing his teeth in frustration.

Iran is a large powerful country with powerful friends. Syria in contrast, as Richard Perle has put it, “is weak.” If the Iran attack is on hold, and Rice prepared to be patient, Syria might seem all the more tempting to the salivating neocons. Among the latter, Khalilzad is well placed to sharpen the knives. Very significantly, he states that Syria is presently “a bigger threat” than Iran. An Afghan-American, a presumed Muslim in a sea of secular Jewish ideologues, this interesting figure adds diversity to the neocon community that Seymour Hersh has likened to a “cult.”

Born in Afghanistan, he has a doctorate from the Leo Stauss’s University of Chicago, where he studied under neocon guru Albert J. Wohlstetter, famed critic of nuclear arms limitation treaties and of the doctrine of “mutually assured destruction,” and advocate of the use of tactical nuclear weapons. He was a founding member of the Project for a New American Century. He has a complex history as a friend, then enemy, of the Taliban. As special U.S. envoy to Afghanistan he shaped the outcome of the Loya Jirga joke in 2002, then served as U.S. ambassador to the Karzai court before obtaining his new assignment in Iraq. What better choice for the administration’s point man on the need for an attack on Syria?

Others have built the case against Syria, as though tackling an academic assignment. “List reasons that might be adduced for an attack on Syria, adducing all evidence you can find from all sources, regardless of their reliability, and considering their potential impact on American public opinion.” Bolton drew up a case for presentation to Congress in 2003 so full of holes that the CIA forced the delay of his appearance for several months. But the administration, along with congressional allies and AIPAC, succeeded in getting an anti-Syria act passed. It followed up by combining with a (highly opportunistic) France to get the UN Security Council to pass resolution 1559. Demanding the immediate withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon, this was designed to provide a pretext for an attack, but President Assad adroitly complied even before the specified deadline. Ever upping the bar, the U.S. now demands the removal of all Syrian intelligence agents from Lebanon, aware that it will always be able to aver the presence of such agents without adducing any evidence and thus declare Damascus in violation of the UNSC resolution. Meanwhile, Syria stands accused—by mere hints dropped by administration officials and their allies—of the death of Lebanese former prime minister Rafiq Hariri. Putative sponsor of Palestinian and Lebanese “terrorist groups,” equipped with chemical weapons (to partially offset Israel’s nukes), Syria’s vulnerable to the same kind of setup that preceded the U.S. attack on Iraq.

Khalilzad’s role in that setup is to pose as the American guardian of the newly free Iraqi state besieged from Syria by “foreign” fighters. From the outset of the occupation Washington has accused Syria of actively abetting the Iraqi resistance, and permitting if not facilitating such jihadis’ entry into Iraq. I expect that from this point the incessant campaign to justify an attack on Syria will focus on the border issue. At some point Khalilzad will announce that he and the Bush administration have finally, after so many good-faith efforts to get Damascus to behave reasonably, and “live up to its international obligations,” etc., lost patience. But rational people should have no patience with superpower arrogance, indifference to human life, and Machiavellian duplicity, all of which are written all over Mr. Khalilzad’s resume.

U.S. preparations for a Syria attack may receive little support from officials of the regime midwifed into power by the occupation. President Jalal Talabani, despite his long-time close ties with the U.S., has stated, “I want to be clear on the subject of Syrian relations. All of us in the governing council are friends of Syria.” “We have a very good relationship with Syria,” he told the Washington Post this month. While the Shiite leaders in the new government such as Prime Minister Ibrahaim al-Jaafari have little sympathy for the secular Baathist ideology of the Damascus regime, they are intimate with Tehran, which has an alliance with Syria and would be deeply disturbed by an attack on it. They also no doubt believe that a U.S. invasion of a second Arab country would increase rather than diminish the level of violence in Iraq.

Meanwhile the Syrians have deftly handled U.S. pressure to date. Long on the State Department’s list of terror-sponsoring nations, Syria offered condolences to the American people after 9-11 and has cooperated in the international effort to crush al-Qaeda. Damascus reportedly has accepted al-Qaeda suspects under the U.S.’s “extraordinary rendition” program, providing the U.S. with the exquisite service of torturing information out of them. When Colin Powell demanded in 2003 that Syrian President Bashar Assad shut down the Syrian public relations outfits of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah, in light as he put it “of the new strategic situation” with U.S. forces occupying the neighboring country of Iraq, Assad acquiesced. As mentioned above, he expeditiously withdrew Syrian troops from Lebanon. But the U.S. keeps upping the bar. Vice President Cheney has declared the U.S. doesn’t negotiate with evil, but defeats it, and plainly the defeat of Syria weighs heavily on the neocon mind.

Khalilzad declines to predict a U.S. attack, merely noting (as Bush said of an Iran attack) “all options are on the table.” What could the Syrian president do, merely to get that option off? Imagine the following diplomatic note from Damascus to Washington:

“The government of Syria in deference to U.S. demands has decided

(a) to refuse entry to any person from an Arab or Muslim country arriving at Damascus Airport with a one-way ticket, and to immediately deploy half our entire army (100,000 soldiers) to police our 450-mile highly porous border with Iraq, to ensure that what you call “foreign” fighters from other kindred Arab countries do not cross that border and assist the Iraqis who constitute what you call the “insurgency” in Iraq, realizing that this deployment greatly weakens our national defense posture, but also to demonstrate our sincere desire that you not attack us using the border issue as a pretext;

(b) to immediately expel from Syria all persons known to us to be members of organizations your State Department considers “terrorist,” whether or not the government of Syria agrees with your designation, and to invite your intelligence agencies to confirm these expulsions, again to demonstrate our sincere desire that you not invade us using the presence of these individuals as a pretext, and despite the fact that we weaken our own political position by taking this highly unpopular act;

(c) to withdraw every remaining Syrian intelligence agent in Lebanon, although to do so weakens our national security, and to open our books to your intelligence agents so that you may verify this, and further agree not to make an issue of your right to maintain an intelligence apparatus in Lebanon, a country alien to you and far from your shores, in order to again show our sincere desire not to be attacked; and

(d) to destroy all chemical weapons, and to dismantle all chemical and biological weapons programs, in cooperation with the United States, despite the fact that Syria, which has no nuclear weapons program, faces a hostile Israel (occupying our Golan Heights) which possesses 200 nuclear weapons.

All that we ask in return is that you agree not to attack or attempt regime change in our sovereign nation. Should we conclude such an agreement, we look forward to a period of cordial relations between our two countries.”

Would that bend-over-backwards attitude take care of the problem? Or would the neocons who want to rule Syria shake their heads and say, “Those tricky bastards!”? Would they reply to the initiatives: “Too little, too late! Assad must agree to leave the country. The Baath Party and Syrian military must disband”? Those are the sort of demands the Bush administration presented to Saddam Hussein after his government in late 2002 made equally sweeping, desperate peace proposals to the U.S.
Defense Policy Board chair Richard Perle, assigned to meet with Iraqi representatives, dismissed them as “non-starters.” But of course! What the neocons want is not mere humiliating concessions but abject submission. If they don’t find it, they become frustrated. Their patience is tried in the process. If they have their way on Syria they’ll say some months from now, “We made an effort! Many efforts! War was a last resort! But Bashar Assad—a modern Hitler!—sent terrorists across his border to help Zarqawi and al-Qaeda and kill our brave men and women in uniform. We had no choice but to cross that border to wipe out those terror camps”

Actually, I understand that Assad is a mild-mannered London-trained ophthalmologist, who never intended to acquire political leadership, who’s trying to undertake political reforms to reduce unrest (some of it encouraged by outside forces) in Syria. The vilification of this particular person, who presides over a secular state where Christians and Muslims hold equal rights and where women enjoy greater freedom than in most Arab countries, is obviously driven by an impatient political agenda. Those pursuing that agenda want us all to believe that Syria’s “on the wrong side of history,” and that Cleo the Goddess of History Herself demands its doom. But seems to me Syria’s just your basic, normal country, fated to fall into the crosshairs of another country that happens to be in the clutches of a gang of bullying thugs. For those thugs, the virtue of patience is in fact wholly alien.

Not that I counsel patience for us, in the antiwar movement. This thuggery has gone on too long. Should the U.S. attack Syria, may the streets swarm with millions demanding the ouster of the warmongering regime. Imagine the joy of the people of the world would experience, witnessing the spectacle of the American people themselves repudiating the war on the world that the impatient Khalilzad and his bullying ilk are inflicting with no end in sight.

In the meantime, a big anti-war demo in Washington D.C. this weekend. A huge turnout might reduce the prospect for attacks on Syria, Iran, and other countries, and hasten the end of the occupation of Iraq. Support for the war and for Bush has nose-dived, despite the efforts of the corporate press to provide an upbeat “patriotic” take on events in the world. Now is the moment for the “reality mode” crowd to observe its obligations to the real world, in the face of the world of myth so exploited by twentieth century fascisms. If there’s anything you ever felt urgently inclined to do, please do this. See you in D.C.!

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:








We published an article entitled “A Saudiless Arabia” by Wayne Madsen dated October 22, 2002 (the “Article”), on the website of the Institute for the Advancement of Journalistic Clarity, CounterPunch, (the “Website”).

Although it was not our intention, counsel for Mohammed Hussein Al Amoudi has advised us the Article suggests, or could be read as suggesting, that Mr Al Amoudi has funded, supported, or is in some way associated with, the terrorist activities of Osama bin Laden and the Al Qaeda terrorist network.

We do not have any evidence connecting Mr Al Amoudi with terrorism.

As a result of an exchange of communications with Mr Al Amoudi’s lawyers, we have removed the Article from the Website.

We are pleased to clarify the position.

August 17, 2005


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: