Constructive Engagement or a New Tonkin Gulf?

While the war in Iraq is today the main test of the power of the United States in the Middle East, U.S. intentions in neighboring Syria are often ignored. While there seems to have been a major shift in relations with Syria over the past two years, it should be seen in the context of a decades-old process of “constructive engagement.”

Accusations that the Syrian government was responsible for the grisly assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri in February have brought Syria into public view like never before. For instance, the establishment liberal Hillary Rodham Clinton told a private group early this year that terrorism “flows from Damascus” to a very “dangerous neighborhood”-evidently, her shorthand for the Middle East. We should not be so quick to rush to judgement because Damascus is not the only party being considered in connection with the crime and the UN-sponsored investigation is not yet finished. It is also taken for granted that there has been, in the words of the right-wing Middle East Bulletin, a “seismic shift in American-Syrian relations” over the past two years. The truth of the matter, though, is actually more complex.

A variation on containment based on the “carrot and stick” principle, constructive engagement aims to gain influence with states outside the U.S. sphere of influence. This policy has two basic “phases”:

persuasion: granting some form of material assistance or preferential treatment to encourage actions not opposed to U.S. interests; and

coercion: withdrawing assistance and applying varying degrees of force to discourage actions opposed to U.S. interests.

Negotiations with Egypt and Mainland China in the 1970s are noted examples. The U.S. government has used constructive engagement with other nations, including Syria. Syrian constructive engagement is well into the coercive phase-if it has not been replaced altogether by the goal of “regime change.”

The U.S. claim is that Syria is anti-American and meddles with its own neighbors. But this does not sit well with the facts that Syria belonged to the anti-Saddam coalition in 1991 and Washington supported the Syrian occupation in Lebanon at least until early 2003. So why is Syria considered a member of the Axis of Evil? A full answer is not yet available to the public. But the magnitude of official dishonesty becomes clearer when recent Syrian-U.S. relations are examined.

The Arab Ba’ath Socialist Party formed in Damascus in 1947, has controlled the Syrian Arab Republic since the early 1960s. The Syrian Ba’ath-not to be confused with the group that ruled Iraq with an iron fist between 1968 and 2003-claims to be dedicated to protecting “the Arab nation” (after a short interlude in the late 1950s, the Syrian and Iraqi Ba’athists became bitter enemies). Minister of Defense Hafez al-Assad led a bloodless coup against a civilian government in 1970 and ruled Syria until his death in 2000, when the Ba’ath installed Hafez’s son Bashar as president. Bashar is perhaps a puppet of the Ba’athist “old guard” committed to perpetuating his father’s policies of a command economy, martial law, secularism, and formal opposition to the United States and Israel.

But while analysts generally agree that it was comparatively less brutal than Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship, the Syrian Ba’ath nevertheless has used force to stay in power. A serious threat to Ba’athist authority in Syria is the banned Muslim Brotherhood, a conservative Sunni party. The Ba’ath ruthlessly crushed a Sunni uprising in Aleppo and Hamah in the early 1980s. Membership in the Muslim Brotherhood is now a capital crime. Human rights activists and both religious and secular dissidents are regularly imprisoned.

The Syrian Ba’ath claims it is making a series of political reforms, but how far reaching they are-and how much they result from foreign “pressure”-is debatable. Besides rehashing Pan-Arabist rhetoric, Ba’ath leaders nominated Assad for another term as president at the 10th Party Congress in June. The Congress’ original achievement was legalizing some small “socialist” parties opposed to religion and regional autonomy. By giving concessions to a chosen few, the Ba’ath is co-opting potential enemies-tactics valued by any dictatorship wanting to survive.

The Assad regime has had pragmatic relations with the United States. Syria is a poor nation surrounded by hostile states with diplomatic styles not as nuanced as Washington’s. The Ba’athists deal with Turkey to the north over water rights and Kurdish rebels living in Syria. Talks on the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, though, are stalled. Israeli warplanes bombed a purported Islamic Jihad training camp in Syria two years ago. Numerous sources indicate that there has been, in the words of RAND Corporation analyst Steven Simon, “bilateral cooperation” between Syria and the United States in the War on Terror; perhaps the Syrians hope Washington will influence its Israeli and Turkish allies.

The key to understanding Syrian-U.S. relations is the U.S. Mid-East agenda, which is about access to Persian Gulf and Iraqi oil fields. For obvious reasons, American officials speak in more idealistic terms, which is why they stress that Syrian interference in Lebanon impeded regional stability. But this conflicts with something neither the jingoistic neoconservatives nor anyone else in governing circles care to publicly admit: the United States used to endorse Syrian aggression in Lebanon.

Some 40,000 Syrian soldiers invaded the Bekaa Valley in 1976 and remained as occupiers until 1991, after the civil war ended. In the interim, Damascus cultivated sectarianism to guarantee its predominance in Lebanon. Shifting alliances with the right-wing Phalange militia and the Israeli occupiers of South Lebanon, and betrayal of Palestinian factions showed how little pan-Arab ideology really mattered to the Ba’ath in establishing the “Pax Syriana.”

While U.S. participation in a “multi-national” peace-keeping force in Lebanon in the early 1980s is remembered, not so is American support for the Pax Syriana. In 1989, members of Lebanon’s parliament negotiated a “cease-fire” known as the National Reconciliation Accord at T_’if in Saudi Arabia. The pact did not set a clear timetable for Syrian withdrawal and gave Syrian military commanders discretion over “redeployment.” Nevertheless, it was hailed by the government of George Herbert Walker Bush.

The Clinton administration openly ignored the continued Syrian military presence in Lebanon after the civil war. Responding to questions during a congressional hearing in June, 1997, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David C. Welch was evasive. While stating that “Lebanon should be free of all foreign forces,” Welch cautioned that it was in “the Government of Lebanon’s” opinion that Syrian forces remain “for now, for the purposes ofinternal stability.” While admitting that the Syrian withdrawal was not taking place on schedule, Welch stated, “I am not here to judge agreements between Syria and Lebanon.” He added that:

some aspects of the [T_’if] Accord are unfulfilledredeployment from Lebanon to Syria has not yet been completed; nor has it been negotiated [I]n terms of our judgment as to whether this thing will be implemented is that there are parts of it that have yet to be done. So it is a less than complete result.

Today Welch is Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, and is the superior of Elizabeth Cheney, Vice-President Richard Cheney’s daughter. Ms. Cheney runs the Administration’s “democracy promotion” effort in the Middle East.

George W. Bush was evasive during his first presidential administration about the Syrian presence in Lebanon. In March 2001, Secretary of State Colin Powell briefed the House International Relations Committee on the new Bush administration’s diplomatic activities. When asked by Representative Eliot Engel, sponsor of the 2003 Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act (SAA), if a Syrian troop pull-out would benefit Lebanon, Powell said he “would like to see it [happen] tomorrow, but it is not going to happen tomorrow.” As no one on the committee asked him to elaborate, the matter was dropped.

By all accounts, the notorious “shift” in policy with Syria occurred in 2003. On April 30, J. Cofer Black, State Department Coordinator of Counterterrorism, gave a press conference on the just-released report, Annual Patterns of Global Terrorism 2002. A CIA veteran with Middle East, South Asia, and Latin America experience, Black made an intriguing comment:

We designate Syria as a state sponsor of terrorism despite some cooperation on al-Qaida. Syria continues to host and support terrorist groups, including Hezbollah, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad There are some good things. Syria quickly condemned the attacks of September 11th, and has provided valuable information on al-Qaida that has helped save American lives. Nonetheless, we want to make absolutely clear to Syria that nothing short of full cooperation against all terrorist groups is acceptable.

Then, on September 16, 2003, Under-Secretary of Arms Control and International Security John R. Bolton appeared before the International Relations Committee. The infamous neoconservative ideologue had a dire message about what were, in the words of committee chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, “Syria’s nefarious activities.”

Bolton announced that the Syrians backed Hizbollah and other anti-Western factions in Lebanon, and let foreign terrorists enter Iraq from Syria. Bolton stressed that Syria had a weapons of mass destruction program, which put it among the ”rogue states” led by Iran and North Korea. Citing unnamed “press reports,” Bolton admitted that his claims were tenuous. He summarized the administration’s position this way:

While there is currently no information indicating that the Syrian government has transferred WMD to terrorist organizations or would permit such groups to acquire them, Syria’s ties to numerous terrorist groups underlie the reason for our continued anxiety.

During the Senate debate this spring over Bolton’s appointment as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, The New York Times reported that his dealings with the CIA in mid-2003 over the WMD issue were acrimonious. Agency officials had reported to Congress that they found no basis for Bolton’s claims-except to say that Damascus would need “Russian expertiseshould it decide to pursue nuclear weapons.”

A train of “coercive” events had already been set in motion. In April, 2003, The Guardian reported on a U.S. “war plan” to be implemented against Syria after victory in Iraq. While supposedly rejecting the proposal, President Bush nevertheless considered invasion an option.

In October, 2003, Israel bombed the alleged Islamic Jihad camp near Damascus. While Syria protested its national sovereignty, Israel stated that the incident proved that Damascus continued to plot against it. The Bush administration publicly endorsed Israel’s right of self-defense.

Two months later, President Bush signed the SAA into law. The SAA’s intended goal is to force Damascus to withdraw from Lebanon, stop supporting “terrorist” groups, end its WMD program, halt oil imports from Iraq, and crack down on weapons-smuggling to Iraq. In May, 2004, President Bush placed some American exports to Syria under sanction for a year in keeping with conditions of the Act.

On September 2, 2004, the United Nations Security Council passed Security Council Resolution 1559, which had been introduced by the United States and France. Resolution 1559 mandated a complete Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon and the disarming of Hizbullah, a foe of both Israel and America. Regardless of responsibility, the Hariri bombing on February 14 of this year had the effect of hastening the Syrian withdrawal.

The same incident seems to have only quickened the pace of “coercive” actions. On May 5, 2005, President Bush extended economic sanctions against Syria indefinitely. Two days later, the Pentagon launched Operation Matador along the Syrian-Iraqi border allegedly to capture militants led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the justification being that Syrian border police are not stopping “insurgents” from entering Iraq; Damascus has long denied this charge. In September, the Bush administration did not invite President Assad and Lebanon’s pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud to attend a meeting of heads of state with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in New York on the occasion of the UN’s 60th anniversary.

Why did the U.S. position harden in 2003? There are several explanations. One is that it was a means to divert public attention away from the military failures and corruption scandals in Iraq. Another explanation is that the Bush administration’s neoconservative policy-makers have rejected constructive engagement in favor of regime change in Syria. Finally, some argue that the neocons want to attack Syria to protect Israeli strategic interests.

Someday, the truth may be known. In any event, Michael Hudson, director of the Center for Comparative Arab Studies at Georgetown University, attempted to address the issue as it has applied to Lebanon after the Syrian withdrawal this spring. Speaking at the American University of Beirut in May, Hudson alluded to the practice of constructive engagement. He observed that:

One of the demands thatRice is making on the Syrians is “It’s not enough that you got out of Lebanon. We want you to be proactively helpful in keeping the Lebanese from falling apart now that they’re on their own [Y]ou can influence them, but we’re watching you. If your aim is disarming Hizbullah, then that’s fine, but if you’re going to do the same old thing then it’s not.”

The U.S. government’s Syrian policy is duplicitous and conceals the true nature of the situation. A stream of threats about Syrian “misbehavior” continue to come from Washington, as do announcements of more “counterinsurgency operations” on the Syrian-Iraqi border. The latter activities, in fact, may result in what online journalist Justin Raimondo calls “a new Tonkin Gulf.” If we do not want such provocations to widen the war in Iraq, with all of their dreadful consequences, we must learn the truth and act on it. Hopefully, it will not be too late.

ANTHONY NEWKIRK may be reached at: