With overwhelming bipartisan support, the Bush administration has embarked on a concerted campaign to undermine and perhaps even overthrow the government of Bashar al-Asad in Syria. The seriousness of Washington’s concerns over Syria was illustrated by the December 12 signing into law by President George W. Bush of the “Syrian Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act of 2003,” which calls for strict sanctions against the Damascus regime. There were only four dissenting votes in the 100member Senate and the same number in the 435-member House of Representatives. The administration had blocked efforts by Congress to pass such legislation in previous years. The willingness to sign the bill into law late last year is indicative of the administration’s aggressive new stance against Syria.
The bill grants the president authority to prohibit all U.S. exports (except food and medicine) to Syria, to prohibit U.S. businesses from investing or operating in Syria, to severely restrict the movement of Syrian diplomats, to forbid Syrian air carriers to land in or overfly the United States, to reduce diplomatic contacts, and to block transactions in any Syrian government property subject to U.S. jurisdiction.1
Both Republican and Democratic leaders in Congress agreed to not allow any witnesses opposing the bill to testify at the committee hearings on the bill, despite the fact that it constitutes a major shift away from previous U.S. policy, which stressed engagement with the nationalist government in Damascus. To limit any potential exposure that Americans might have to the Syrian perspective, the bill contains a provision restricting the movement of Syrian diplomats beyond a 25-mile radius of Washington, DC, or the U.N. headquarters in New York.
Given the already somewhat limited trade between the United States and Syria, as well as Syria’s growing commercial ties with Western European countries, the impact of these sanctions on Syria will be minimal. Of far greater significance is the way the bill and other statements out of Washington reveal that, despite some growing dissent over the U.S. occupation of Iraq, the neoconservative unilateralist world view now dominates the Middle East policies of both Republicans and Democrats.
There are many reasonable criticisms that can be directed at the Asad regime and its policies. However, the anti-Syrian statements from the Bush administration and Congress as well as the legislation itself is so filled with hyperbole and double standards that few independent observers of the Middle East find much credibility in U.S. concerns. The real purpose of this anti-Syrian offensive may be, at a minimum, to demonize a government whose main offense appears to be its refusal to support the Bush administration’s foreign policy agenda in the Middle East. At worst, it may be the precursor of a U.S. invasion of Syria.
A 1999 report by the right-wing Middle East Forum calling for U.S. military action against Syria was signed by a number of conservative activists who have since moved into major policy positions in the Bush administration, including Elliot Abrams, President Bush’s chief Middle East deputy on the National Security Council; Douglas Feith, undersecretary of defense for policy; Paula Dobrianksy, undersecretary of state for global affairs; and Michael Rubin, a prominent Middle East policy consultant for the Defense Department.2
In October, Vice President Dick Cheney appointed David Wurmser, another signer of the paper and a major advocate of a joint American-Israeli effort to undermine the Syrian government, to his national security staff. A former adviser to previous Likud governments in Israel, Wurmser was the chief author of a white paper for then-Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu entitled “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm,” in which he advocated scuttling the Oslo agreement and toppling the Iraqi, Palestinian and Syrian governments. Wurmser’s goal is to eliminate nationalist regimes opposed to Israeli and American dominance in the region and replace them with “tribal, familial and clan unions under limited governments.”3
The primary grievances expressed by the Bush administration and congressional leaders, which were incorporated in the Syrian Accountability Act, are in regard to the regime’s alleged support for international terrorism, its ongoing military presence in Lebanon, its hostility towards Israel, the alleged military threat from its weapons of mass destruction, its alleged support for the Iraqi regime of Saddam Hussein and those Iraqis resisting the U.S. occupation, and its status as a non-permanent member of the U.N. Security Council.
SUPPORT FOR TERRORISM
According to the State Department’s most recent annual Report on Global Terrorism, “the Syrian government has not been implicated directly in an act of terrorism since 1986,” though it notes that Syria does provide “safe haven and support to several terrorist groups.”4 With the exception of Cuba – which is apparently kept on the list for purely political reasons – all the other countries designated as state sponsors of terrorism (North Korea, Iran, Sudan and Libya) are either currently or were in the very recent past involved in direct support and sponsorship of terrorist activities.
Countries designated as state sponsors of terrorism are ineligible to receive foreign aid from the U.S. government or certain kinds of technology from U.S. companies, along with other restrictions. It is noteworthy that, during the Syrian-Israeli peace talks in the 1990s, the Clinton administration offered to remove Syria from its list of states sponsoring terrorism if it agreed to terms offered by Israel. During that period, State Department officials admitted that keeping Syria on this list was not a result of direct Syrian support for international terrorism but a means of exerting political leverage against the regime.5
According to the same report,
The Syrian government has repeatedly assured the United States that it will take every possible measure to protect U.S. citizens and facilities from terrorists in Syria. During the past five years, there have been no acts of terrorism against U.S. citizens in Syria. The government of Syria has cooperated significantly with the United States and other foreign governments against al-Qaeda, the Taliban and other terrorist organizations and individuals. It also has discouraged any signs of public support for al-Qaeda, including in the media and at mosques.6
In 2002, Syria became a party to the 1988 Protocol for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts of Violence at Airports Serving International Civil Aviation, making it party to five of the twelve international conventions and protocols relating to terrorism. Furthermore, Syria has passed on to U.S. officials hundreds of files of crucial data regarding al-Qaeda and other radical Islamic groups in the Middle East and Europe, including information on the activities of radical cells and intelligence about possible future terrorist operations. CIA sources have acknowledged that “the quality and quantity of information for Syria exceeded the agency’s expectations” but that Syria “got little in return for it.”7
In imposing sanctions on Syria, Congress and the White House have risked a reduction or even suspension of such important cooperation in the struggle against international terrorism. This is the same White House and Congress that have continued to support close military and economic ties to the government of Saudi Arabia despite its refusal to provide similar cooperation.
According to one of the findings in the Accountability Act,
Terrorist groups, including Hezbollah, Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command maintain offices, training camps, and other facilities on Syrian territory, and operate in areas of Lebanon occupied by the Syrian armed forces and receive supplies from Iran through Syria.8
However, Syria’s role in promoting international terrorism is not as extensive as this finding makes it appear. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) is a Marxist-Leninist group that peaked in its popular support and terrorist activities in the 1970s and has been in decline ever since. The PFLP is now a legal political party within areas controlled by the Palestine Authority. Their limited military activities in recent years (which have been targeted primarily, though not exclusively, against Israeli police and military) have been launched from within the West Bank and Gaza Strip in areas controlled by Israeli occupation forces or the Palestine Authority. No PFLP military operations appear to have come from Syria.
The terrorist activities by the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine General Command (PFLP-GC) have also declined markedly since their apex in the 1970s. There have been some minor incidents attributed to the PFLP-GC in recent years, such as two attacks on Israeli settlements, one in the occupied Golan Heights in 2001 and the other in the occupied Gaza Strip in 2003. There is little evidence that Syria had any direct connection with these attacks. There have also been some incidents along the Lebanese border that some reports link to the PFLPGC, though these have not been confirmed. Rather, these appear to have originated in southern Lebanon in areas that are outside of direct Syrian military control.
Hamas and Islamic Jihad, the only two groups mentioned in the resolution that actually engage in major ongoing terrorist activities, are based in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in areas controlled by Israeli occupation forces or the Palestine Authority (PA). It appears that all of their attacks have originated within the areas under PA or Israeli control and none from areas of Syrian control. Hamas and Islamic Jihad have had political offices in Damascus, as they do in the capitals of a number of Arab countries. Recent reports indicate that the Syrians have cut off electricity and water to their offices to pressure them to leave but have not yet physically expelled them as demanded by the United States.9 Most outside support for Hamas has come from individuals and organizations based in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Gulf. Islamic Jihad has received most of its outside support from Iran. The Damascus regime has brutally suppressed Syrian Islamists who espouse ideological views similar to those of these two extremist Palestinian groups.
The alleged Islamic Jihad “training base” located in the Palestinian refugee camp of Ein Saheb near Damascus that was bombed by Israel in early October 2003 appears to have actually been an abandoned PFLP-GC facility. The Bush administration defended the attack by claiming there were active military facilities at the site, though they could only show evidence of some antiaircraft batteries, which are usually considered defensive weapons rather than instruments of terrorism.10 Given that Islamic Jihad’s mode of operations consists largely of strapping explosive devices to the bodies of suicide bombers who walk into public areas with high concentrations of civilians, it is unclear why they would need a “training base” in a foreign country anyway, particularly given the difficulty in sneaking in and out of border regions controlled by Israel.
The Bush administration’s endorsement of Israel’s October 2003 bombing raid in Syria – the first time either country has attacked the other on its own soil since the end of the 1973 Arab-Israeli War – was unprecedented. President Bush went so far as to tell Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, the architect of Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon and bloody seizure of Beirut, that “Israel must not feel constrained defending the homeland,”11 effectively giving Israel license to launch similar attacks in the future.
Though many accounts of Syria’s links to international terrorism are exaggerated, this does not mean that they are nonexistent. State Department reports of some limited Syrian logistical support for these groups may indeed be accurate.12 However, there is little to back the Syrian Accountability Act’s claim that Syria – at least at any time in the last fifteen years or so – “has repeatedly provided support for acts of international terrorism.”13 Syria is at most a very minor player in this regard.
The only group mentioned in the Syrian Accountability Act that has actually received significant Syrian support for its operations is the extremist Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah, though most of the organization’s backing has come from Iran, and even that has declined markedly since the early 1980s.
During the 1982-84 U.S. military intervention in Lebanon, cells that later coalesced into Hezbollah engaged in a series of kidnappings and assassinations of Americans as well as bombings of the U.S. embassy and a Marine barracks, among other operations. However, Hezbollah has since become a legally recognized political party that serves in the Lebanese parliament. During the past decade, its armed components have largely restricted their use of violence to Israeli occupation forces in southern Lebanon and in disputed border regions, not against civilians. Since attacks against foreign occupation forces are considered legitimate under international law, it is unclear why Congress and the Bush administration still consider Hezbollah to be a “terrorist group.” A detailed report by the International Crisis Group in July 2003 described the Hezbollah of today as “maintaining the rhetoric and armed capability of a militant organization but few of its concrete manifestations.”14
Most ominously, the Syrian Accountability Act states that “Syria should bear responsibility for attacks committed by Hezbollah and other terrorist groups with offices, training camps, or other facilities in Syria, or bases in areas of Lebanon occupied by Syria.”15 By going on record that Syria is responsible for any and all terrorist attacks by an armed wing of any political organization that even has an office in Syria or Lebanon, Congress has effectively given license to the United States, Israel or any other country to attack Syria in the name of the “war on terrorism.” By placing responsibility on Syria rather than the terrorist groups themselves or on other countries in which these organizations have offices and in many cases are provided more substantive support, this clause appears to be more of an excuse to wage war on Syria than a serious attempt to curb the threat from international terrorism.
MILITARY IN LEBANON
In 1976, Syrian forces moved into Lebanon as the primary component of an international peacekeeping force authorized by the Arab League to try to end the civil war there. The United States quietly supported the Syrian intervention as a means of blocking the likely victory of the leftist Lebanese National Movement and its Palestinian allies.
Syrian forces have remained in Lebanon ever since – to the increasing resentment of the Lebanese population. While not technically an occupying army, Syria exerts an enormous amount of control over the Lebanese government, in a manner analogous to that of the Soviet Union over most Warsaw Pact countries in Eastern Europe during the Cold War. This has also led to growing U.S. opposition on both moral and geostrategic grounds.
The Syrian Accountability Act notes,
United Nations Security Council Resolution 520 (September 17, 1982) calls for “strict respect of the sovereignty, territorial integrity, unity and political independence of Lebanon under the sole and exclusive authority of the Government of Lebanon through the Lebanese Army throughout Lebanon.”16
A reading of the full text, however, reveals that this resolution was primarily directed not toward Syria but Israel, which had launched a major invasion of Lebanon three months earlier and at that point held nearly half of the country, including the capital, Beirut, under its military occupation. Indeed, Israel was the only outside power mentioned by name in the resolution. Though the Israelis pulled out of Beirut shortly thereafter and withdrew from most of central Lebanon by the following year, Israel kept its occupation forces in southern Lebanon until May 2000 in violation of this Security Council resolution and nine others – including resolution 425, passed when Israel first occupied Lebanese territory in 1978 – calling for their unconditional withdrawal.
At the time U.N. Security Council resolution 520 was passed, there were also Syrian troops in the country (Palestinian forces had been withdrawn shortly before). Since Syria had already abused its Arab League mandate by that time, one can certainly make the case that this resolution applied to Syria and that Syria is still in violation of this resolution.
It is interesting to note, however, that none of the supporters of the Syrian Accountability Act – the vast majority of whom were in office during at least some of the nearly 18 years that Israel was in violation of this resolution – ever called on Israel to abide by U.N. Security Council resolution 520, much less called for sanctions against Israel in order to enforce it. Indeed, virtually all of the backers of this resolution then in office voted in support of unconditional military and economic aid to the Israeli government during this period, despite the fact that Israel was in violation of this very same resolution.
It is also worth noting that there are currently over 90 U.N. Security Council resolutions being violated by countries other than Syria, the vast majority of which are by governments for which this same Congress and administration have allocated billions of dollars worth of unconditional military and economic aid.17 In short, virtually every member of Congress effectively supports the Bush administration’s contention that U.N. Security Council resolutions should only be acknowledged or enforced when directed toward governments the United States does not like, but U.N. Security Council resolutions should not be enforced or even acknowledged when directed toward America’s allies.
Successive U.S. administrations vetoed a series of U.N. Security Council resolutions calling on Israel to withdraw its occupation forces from Lebanon and blocked enforcement of those already passed. Despite this, the Syrian Accountability Act claims that “the full restoration of Lebanon’s sovereignty, political independence, and territorial integrity is in the national security interest of the United States.”18 Simply put, U.S. policy is that Lebanese sovereignty must be defended only if the occupying army is from a country the United States opposes, but is dispensable if the occupier is a U.S. ally.
The Syrian Accountability Act declares that Syria, in order to avoid sanctions, must completely withdraw its armed forces from Lebanon.19 While this is a very reasonable demand in itself, given that the vast majority of this resolution’s supporters in Congress and the administration had no objection to Israel’s 22-year occupation of Lebanese territory, it would be naive to think that most of the bill’s supporters actually care about Lebanese sovereignty. If the Lebanese people’s right to self-determination was actually of concern, they would have similarly demanded that Israel abide by U.N. Security Council resolution 520 and related resolutions – including Resolution 425 – calling for Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon prior to Israel’s eventual pullout in May 2000.
In a final irony, the star witness in the House International Relations Committee hearings in support of this bill regarding the Syrian role in Lebanon was Michel Aoun, the Lebanese general who served as the prime minister of a military government beginning in 1988. While in office, he unsuccessfully tried to block implementation of the Taif accords, which finally brought an end to that country’s bloody 15-year civil war. He was ousted by Lebanese troops with the help of Syrian forces in the fall of 1990. What none of the committee members bothered to point out during his testimony was that the United States quietly supported the Syrian assault against his regime since Aoun’s chief foreign backer during his time in power was none other than Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
RELATIONS WITH ISRAEL
From Israel’s inception and for nearly 40 years afterwards, Syria was among the most hardline Arab countries opposed to the Jewish state. For at least the past 15 years, however, Damascus has communicated its willingness to make peace with Israel in return for its Golan region, which Israel has occupied since the 1967 war. Except for a handful of remaining Druze villages, the Israelis expelled the Syrian population and have since built 31 Jewish settlements in the occupied Golan consisting of approximately 10,500 residents.20 These settlements are in violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention and a series of U.N. Security Council resolutions demanding that Israel withdraw from them and cease its colonization drive.21 Israel effectively annexed the territory in 1981 and has ignored U.N. Security Council resolution 497, which demands Israel rescind that action.
Syria has offered full diplomatic relations with Israel and strict security guarantees in return for a total Israeli withdrawal from occupied Syrian territory in accordance with U.N. Security Council resolutions 242 and 338, which successive U.S. administrations have insisted should be the basis for Arab-Israeli peace. However, the U.S.-backed Israeli government of Ariel Sharon has categorically rejected an Israeli withdrawal from occupied Syrian territory, even in return for full diplomatic relations and strict security guarantees. As recently as the end of 2003, Israeli Agricultural Minister Yisrael Katz reiterated his government’s position that “the Golan is an inseparable part of the state of Israel, and we have no intention to give up our hold.”22
Direct peace talks between Israel and Syria began in the 1990s. The last meetings took place in early 2000 under Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and came very close to achieving a full peace agreement. The only major difference separating the two sides at the close of the negotiations was over a few hundred meters of frontier, with Syria demanding that Israel withdraw completely to the demarcation line prior to the 1967 war and Israel insisting upon revising the old colonial boundary. The death of Syrian President Hafiz al-Asad soon thereafter and the succession of his son delayed resumption of the talks. In February 2001, the Israelis elected rightwing Likud leader Ariel Sharon as their new prime minister, who rejected Syria’s offer to resume peace talks where the discussions left off in 2000.
The Syrian Accountability Act demands, under penalty of sanctions, that “the Governments of Lebanon and Syria should enter into serious unconditional bilateral negotiations with the Government of Israel in order to realize a full and permanent peace.”23 By insisting that Syria enter new talks “unconditionally” rather than resume them from the two parties’ earlier negotiating positions – in which both sides made major concessions, came very close to success, and took a number of years to reach – Congress and the administration have effectively rejected the position of the more moderate Israeli government of former Prime Minister Barak and embraced the rejectionist position of Sharon.
As a result, it is unclear how demanding that Syria enter into such negotiations with an occupying power that categorically refuses to withdraw from its conquered land would “realize a full and permanent peace” unless the intent of Congress and the administration was to force complete Syrian capitulation in accepting Israel’s annexation of Syria’s Golan region. If so, it is an unrealistic demand, since (1) the U.N. Charter expressly forbids any nation from expanding its territory by force, (2) it would violate a series of U.N. Security Council resolutions, and (3) no Syrian government – even a hypothetical democratic one – could ever accept such a settlement.
It is noteworthy that Congress and the administration insist that Lebanon and Syria enter into bilateral negotiations with Israel instead of multilateral negotiations, as called for by U.N. Security Council Resolution 338, particularly given the interrelatedness of the concerns of these three nations.
Not long before President Bush signed the Accountability Act into law, President Asad announced Syria’s willingness to accede to U.S. and Israeli demands and resume talks with Israel unconditionally.24 There was no immediate public reply from Israel, and, as of this writing, the Israeli cabinet is badly divided on whether to accept such an offer.
In response to these initiatives, Israel announced on December 31 that it plans to double the number of Jewish settlers in the occupied Golan region of Syria. The $56million project, consisting of approximately 900 new homes, is expected to be completed within three years. According to Agriculture Minister Katz, who also chairs the government’s settlements committee, “The aim is to send an unequivocal message: the Golan is an integral part of Israel.”25
Given that the Syrian Accountability Act contains a provision prohibiting any U.S. assistance to Syria until the president “determines that substantial progress has been made . . . in negotiations aimed at achieving a peace agreement between Israel and Syria,”26 the failure of Israel to consider withdrawal from occupied Syrian territory, cease its illegal settlement activities or even resume negotiations, effectively gives Israel’s right-wing government the power to deny Syria access to any U.S. foreign aid.
RELATIONSHIP WITH HEZBOLLAH
Of particular concern for the Bush administration and Congress are the activities of Hezbollah, the radical Lebanese Shiite Muslim movement. Hezbollah sustains a broad network of institutions that have become embedded in Lebanese society over more than a decade27 and operates as a legal political party that has successfully run candidates for the Lebanese parliament. Syria’s principal Shiite ally in Lebanon has traditionally been the rival Amal faction, though Syria has also provided some support and logistical cooperation with Hezbollah, particularly during the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon. The Hezbollah militia successfully drove Israeli occupation troops from southern Lebanon in May 2000 after more than a decade of guerrilla warfare.
There have been only limited attacks by Hezbollah against Israeli forces since then, almost exclusively in a disputed border region between Lebanon and Syria known as the Shebaa Farms. Syria, perhaps opportunistically, now acknowledges that it is indeed part of Lebanon. The Syrian Accountability Act asserts that despite what it terms “Israel’s full compliance” with U.N. Security Council resolution 425, “Hezbollah continues to attack Israeli outposts at Shebaa Farms, under the pretense that Shebaa Farms is territory from which Israel was required to withdraw . . . .”28
Regardless of whether the Shebaa Farms legally belongs to Syria or Lebanon, it is certainly not legally part of Israel. The area was seized by Israeli armed forces during its 1967 invasion of Syria’s Golan region, and they have held the territory under military occupation ever since. In any case, there had been no attacks against Israeli forces for the better part of a year prior to the passage of the Syrian Accountability Act, and Hezbollah appears to have lost interest in pursuing the dispute militarily. Furthermore, while the United Nations has acknowledged Israeli withdrawal of ground troops from Lebanon, the secretary general’s most recent report on the situation in June 2003 denounced Israeli violations of Lebanese air space as “provocative” and “at variance with Israel’s otherwise full compliance with Security Council resolution 425.”29
There have been virtually no clashes near the Lebanese-Israeli border involving Hezbollah since the 2000 Israeli withdrawal, though this past July shells from Hezbollah antiaircraft fire against some of these Israeli planes’ illegal encroachment into Lebanese air space fell into Israeli territory, injuring three Israeli civilians.30 As a result, the Syrian Accountability Act asserts that the “Syrian-backed” Hezbollah attacks “civilian targets in Israel.”31
The Act also notes with concern that Hezbollah “maintains thousands of rockets along Israel’s northern border.”32 However, Israel has far more powerful, accurate and lethal military hardware on its side of the border. Israeli attacks in Lebanon over the years have resulted in thousands of civilian deaths, while Hezbollah attacks have killed less than two dozen civilians on the Israeli side, none for at least five years. The only increases in armaments on the Lebanese side in recent years appear to have been some additional antiaircraft batteries, which are defensive in nature.33 No part of northern Israel has ever been subjected to military occupation by Lebanese, though Israel illegally occupied parts of southern Lebanon between 1978 and 2000. Despite this, Congress and the Bush administration assert that it is this Lebanese militia inside Lebanon that is responsible for, in the words of the Syrian Accountability Act, “destabilizing the entire region.”34
THE MILITARY THREAT
Both the Bush administration, in a series of briefings, and Congress, in the Syrian Accountability Act, have expressed concern over Syria’s development and deployment of short and medium-range missiles, which the CIA estimates include hundreds of FROG rockets, Scuds, and SS21 SRBMs.35
Syria’s missile capability, however, is dwarfed by Israel’s vastly superior might: short-range Jericho I and medium-range Jericho II missiles, both of which use solid propellant and are nuclear-capable. Israel’s missiles are significantly more advanced technologically, are more accurate, have a wider range, and can carry a larger payload than the Syrian missiles.36 Meanwhile, Syria’s northern neighbor Turkey has at least 120 MGM-140 tactical missiles as well as cruise missiles.37 Egypt has intermediate-range Badr 2000 missiles as well as an array of short-range missiles, including the Harpoon, the Ottomat, the CSS-N-2 and the Project T.38
However, the Syrian Accountability Act demands that Syria alone, despite having far from the largest missile program in the region, “halt the development and deployment of medium and long-range surface-to-surface missiles.”39 Failure to unilaterally terminate its missile program, according to the Act, will result in sanctions.
Also noted in the Syrian Accountability Act and in administration briefings is Syria’s refusal to ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention or the Biological Weapons Convention.40 What Congress and the administration generally fail to note, however, is that Israel and Egypt, the world’s two largest recipients of U.S. military aid, are not parties to these two conventions either. In Congressional testimony on May 6, 2002, Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton claimed that Syria “is pursuing the development of biological weapons and is able to produce at least small amounts of biological warfare agents.”41 This testimony was cited verbatim in the findings of the Syrian Accountability Act.
However, the Defense Department has pointed out that while Syria has a biotechnical infrastructure capable of supporting limited agent development, it has not begun a major effort to produce biological agents or to put them into weapons. Syria would need significant foreign assistance in order to manufacture large amounts of biological weapons.42
It should also be noted that Bolton has very little credibility among the intelligence community, which was reportedly “fed up” with his assertions regarding Syria.43 (During this same testimony, Bolton claimed that Cuba also had a biological weapons program, which was roundly dismissed as fantasy.) That Congress would cite Bolton rather than more credible reports from other U.S. government agencies regarding Syria’s biological weapons capabilities is indicative of the continued willingness by both Republicans and Democrats – exhibited most prominently in the buildup to the U.S. invasion of Iraq – to blindly accept ideologically driven assertions from the Bush administration rather than independent strategic estimates.
The Syrian Accountability Act also declares that Syria “has a nuclear research and development program that is cause of concern.”44 It is not clear in the act or in statements by the administration why Syria’s civilian nuclear program is of such “concern.” Syria is a signatory of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and has “accepted the full-scope safeguards of the International Atomic Energy Agency to detect diversions of nuclear materials from peaceful activities to the production of nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices.”45 Furthermore, there is no evidence to suggest that Syria has any kind of nuclear weapons program.
There is, however, fairly solid evidence that Syria has a chemical weapons program and a stockpile of chemical weapons.46 The question is whether Syria’s chemical weapons constitute a threat to regional security. It is certainly not the first nor the largest weapons-of-mass-destruction (WMD) program in the area.
The first country in the Middle East to obtain and use chemical weapons was Egypt (which used phosgene and mustard gas in the mid-1960s during its intervention in Yemen). There is no indication Egypt has ever destroyed any of its chemical agents or weapons, and it is believed that the U.S.-backed Mubarak regime is continuing its chemical-weapons research and development program. Similarly, it is widely believed that Egypt began a program that produced weaponized biological agents as far back as the early 1960s. As of 1996, U.S. officials publicly acknowledged that Egypt had developed biological warfare agents, and there is no evidence that they have since been eliminated.47 Egypt is considered a major U.S. ally; Congress annually grants over $2 billion worth of military and economic assistance to the Mubarak government.
Israel is widely believed to have produced and stockpiled an extensive range of chemical weapons and is engaged in ongoing research and development of additional chemical weaponry. Israel is also believed to maintain a sophisticated biological weapons program that is widely thought to include anthrax and more advanced weaponized agents and other toxins. Israel also has a sizable nuclear weapons arsenal with sophisticated delivery systems.48
Syria is believed to have developed its chemical weapons program only after other countries in the region first developed their chemical, biological and nuclear programs, all of which still exist today. Despite the fact that Syria’s are the least developed of these three countries’ WMD programs, Congress and the administration insist that Syria’s is the most dangerous and that Syria must disarm itself unilaterally.
The Syrians have witnessed, over the past quarter century, successive U.S. administrations providing massive armaments to a hostile neighbor with a vastly superior military capability that has invaded, occupied and colonized part of its country and has a sizable arsenal of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons along with sophisticated missiles and other delivery systems. Now the United States demands that Syria unilaterally give up its chemical weapons and missiles, effectively denying Syria a deterrent.
Unlike the case of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, there are no U.N. Security Council resolutions demanding that Syria unilaterally destroy its WMDs, dismantle its WMD development programs or eliminate its missiles. The only U.N. Security Council resolution addressing WMD proliferation in this part of the Middle East is U.N. Security Council resolution 487, which calls on Israel to place its nuclear facilities under the trusteeship of the International Atomic Energy Agency. Israel remains to this day in violation of this resolution, without any apparent concern from Congress or the administration.
Syria has called for a WMD-free zone for the entire Middle East, similar to what already exists in Latin America and the South Pacific. In December, Syria introduced a U.N. Security Council resolution to this effect, which the United States is expected to veto. By imposing strict sanctions on Syria for failing to disarm unilaterally, the administration and Congress have roundly rejected the concept of a WMD-free zone or any kind of regional arms-control regime. Instead, the U.S. government is asserting that it has the authority to say which countries can have what weapons systems, thereby enforcing a kind of WMD apartheid. This will more likely promote, rather than discourage, the proliferation of such dangerous weapons.
Finally, there are claims from the administration and members of Congress, such as Democratic Congressman Eliot Engel of the House International Relations Committee, that “it would not surprise me if those weapons of mass destruction that we cannot find in Iraq wound up and are today in Syria.” This led one prominent Arab American to muse that “in Congress, not only one but two countries can be castigated for hoarding the same phantom weapons.”49 Few independent arms control experts believe such speculation, however. Given the flat desert plain along the Syrian-Iraqi border region, the mostly cloudless days, and the intense aerial and satellite surveillance by the United States, any major transfer of WMDs to Syria would have almost certainly been detected. The only evidence the administration and Congress have tried to present to support this thesis is the large number of vehicles heading from Iraq to Syria immediately prior to the war. This assertion ignores other possible explanations, such as the understandable desire of large numbers of Iraqis and others to leave the country before the bombs started to fall.
SUPPORT FOR IRAQ
Despite being ruled by the Baath party; Syria has historically been a major rival of Iraq’s Baath regime. Syria broke diplomatic relations with Baghdad in the 1970s and never renewed them. Damascus was the base of a number of exiled anti-Saddam Iraqi leaders and organizations. Syria was the only Arab country to back Iran during the Iran-Iraq War. It was one of the only non-monarchical Arab states to have backed the United States against Iraq during the first Gulf War, dispatching troops to support Operation Desert Shield. Iraq and Syria supported rival factions in Lebanon’s civil war. As a member of the U.N. Security Council, Syria voted in November 2002 in favor of the U.S. backed resolution 1441, which demanded full cooperation by the Baghdad government with U.N. inspectors and threatened severe consequences if it failed to do so. More recently, Syria voted in favor of U.S. backed resolution 1511 on post-war Iraq.
Despite this, Congress and the Bush administration have accused Syria of backing Saddam’s regime and its post-invasion remnants. Last spring, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld stated that he had information that “shipments of military supplies have been crossing the border from Syria into Iraq, including night vision goggles . . . . These deliveries pose a direct threat to the lives of coalition forces. We consider such trafficking as hostile acts and will hold the Syrian government accountable for such shipments.”50 Two weeks later, he charged that “busloads” of Syrian fighters had entered Iraq with “hundreds of thousands of dollars and leaflets offering rewards for dead American soldiers.”51 Despite the inclusion of these claims by Rumsfeld in the Syrian Accountability Act in the fall, there has been absolutely no independent confirmation of either of these charges.
Commanders of U.S. forces on the ground responsible for monitoring the Syrian-Iraqi border have said that there is no evidence that significant numbers of foreign fighters are crossing into Iraq. Utilizing both human intelligence sources and radar surveillance, commanders from the 101st Airborne Division who are responsible for monitoring the northern part of the borders reported that concerns about illegal infiltration appear to be unfounded. Similar reports have come from the Third Armored Calvary Regiment in charge of the southern part of the frontier.52 The 101st Airborne Division commander, Major General David Petraeus, stated in November that since May his men had captured only around 20 foreign fighters trying to slip into Iraq from Syria, Turkey and Iran combined. The New York Times noted that “During a period in which border patrols have been intensified and new technology is being used, that number suggests only modest foreign incursions into Iraq, in contrast to estimates by the Bush administration.”53 General Petraeus noted that his soldiers had deployed new technology along the border capable of detecting anyone or anything trying to move across it. As a result, he said, “If you don’t see anything moving, then you know you’ve got control.”54
Senator Robert Byrd (D-WV), reviewing evidence presented to him and his Senate colleagues, observed, “I have not seen any evidence that would lead me to believe it is the government of Syria that is responsible for the attacks against our troops in Iraq.” 55
It seems rather extraordinary that Congress would make statements by Donald Rumsfeld part of its findings on this resolution, given the defense secretary’s recent history of misinformation on issues related to Iraq. The same week Rumsfeld was claiming Syrian military support for Saddam’s regime, he confidently stated, in reference to Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction, “We know where they are. They are in the area around Tikrit and Baghdad and east, west, north and south somewhat.”56 The previous week, he claimed that American intelligence reports indicate that Iraqi forces “have chemical and biological weapons, and that they have dispersed them, and that they are weaponized, and that, in one case at least, the command and control arrangements have been established.”57 Both of these claims have since been shown to be utterly false.
Similarly, that previous fall, Rumsfeld claimed, “Two sons-in-law of Saddam Hussein defected, went into Jordan, and the word came out and they told where these inspectors could go look, they went and looked, and they found weapons of mass destruction.”58 This is also untrue. When the two men defected to Jordan in 1995 they told UNSCOM inspectors, among other things, that all the biological, chemical and nuclear weapons were destroyed.59 The information they provided UNSCOM was obviously useful, but it did not lead inspectors to find any weapons, as Rumsfeld claimed, since they no longer existed.
That Congress would include as part of its formal findings in the Syrian Accountability Act statements by a man who had repeatedly misled them on related issues is indicative of how desperate Congress was to justify its anti-Syrian legislation.
The bill demands that Syria should “immediately and unconditionally stop facilitating transit from Syria to Iraq of individuals, military equipment, all lethal items,” as well as “cease its support for ‘volunteers’ and terrorists who are traveling from and through Syria into Iraq to launch attacks” and “undertake concrete, verifiable steps to deter such behavior and control the use of territory under Syrian control.”60 Unfortunately for Syria, it will be extraordinarily difficult to comply with these provisions, given the lack of evidence behind the claims that Syria is supporting or facilitating such efforts in the first place. Having substantially reduced its troop strength in recent years due to budget constraints, facing hostile neighbors to its southwest and north, and lacking the technology available to U.S. occupation forces patrolling the border on the Iraqi side, the Syrian regime can hardly be expected to apprehend anyone crossing its lengthy under-populated border, even if it were inclined to do so.
The problem that the Bush administration and Congress seem to have with Syria is not that it has ever actually supported Saddam Hussein’s regime and its remnants, but that Syria – like most nations in the world – simply opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq and continues to oppose the U.S. occupation.
SECURITY COUNCIL SEAT
In 2001, Syria was elected by the bloc of Arab states to be their representative as a non-permanent member of the U.N. Security Council for the two-year term ending at the close of 2003. Syria served as president of the Security Council as part of the regular rotation during June 2002 and August 2003. According to the Syrian Accountability Act,
As a violator of several key United Nations Security Council resolutions and as a nation that pursues policies which undermine international peace and security, Syria should not have been permitted to join the United Nations Security Council or serve as the Security Council’s President, and should be removed from the Security Council.61
It is revealing that the U.S. government raised no objection when the Suharto regime of Indonesia served as a nonpermanent member of the U.N. Security Council in 1995-96. At that time, Indonesia was engaged in an illegal military occupation of the island nation of East Timor in direct violation of a series of U.N. Security Council resolutions demanding its immediate withdrawal and recognition of the right of the people of East Timor to self-determination.62 In the course of Indonesia’s 24-year occupation, more than 200,000 people – one-third of the country’s population – died as a result of Indonesian massacres, forced relocation campaigns and related atrocities.
Similarly, there were no U.S. objections when Morocco served as a nonpermanent member of the U.N. Security Council in 1992-93. At that time and to this day, Morocco has been engaged in an illegal occupation of the nation of Western Sahara, placing the kingdom in direct violation of a series of U.N. Security Council resolutions demanding its immediate withdrawal and recognition of the right of the people of Western Sahara to self-determination.63 Morocco has even refused to move forward with a U.N.-sponsored resolution on the fate of the territory despite a series of U.N. Security Council resolutions calling for its cooperation.
It appears, then, that the position of Congress and the administration is that if a regime is allied to the United States, it is permissible for it to serve as a non-permanent member of the U.N. Security Council, even if that government is “a violator of several key United Nations Security Council resolutions” and “pursues policies which undermine international peace and security.” However, in the case of Syria – even though its violations of U.N. Security Council resolutions and its threats to international peace and security are significantly less substantial than those of Morocco or Indonesia – Congress and the administration have gone on record demanding that the Damascus government be removed from that body.
The Syrian Accountability Act could serve as a precursor to U.S. military action against Syria. It spells out, in more detail than the administration ever did regarding Iraq, reasons for a U.S. invasion. By declaring that “Syria’s acquisition of weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missile programs threaten . . . the national-security interests of the United States,”64 Congress would find it difficult to then deny any request by the president to authorize military action. Opponents could be depicted as putting America’s national security interests at risk. Similarly, in declaring that “Syria will be held accountable for any harm to Coalition armed forces or to any United States citizen in Iraq if the government of Syria is found to be responsible due to its facilitation of terrorist activities and its shipments of military supplies to Iraq,”65 Congress has given the Bush administration an opportunity – whether based on evidence or otherwise – to blame its military setbacks in Iraq on alleged support from Damascus and thereby to launch military action against Syria.
Senator Byrd expressed concern that the vote “could later be used to build a case for a military intervention against Syria.”66 With the bill explicitly referring to “hostile actions” by Syria against U.S. forces, the West Virginia Democrat observed that “such insinuations can only build the case for military action against Syria, which, unfortunately, is a very real possibility because of the dangerous doctrine of pre-emption created by the Bush administration.” 67
It is noteworthy that the Middle East Forum report endorsed by key foreign policy figures in the Bush administration advocated sanctions such as those in the Syrian Accountability Act as a first step toward eventual military action, assuming the likely Syrian refusal to acquiesce to these American demands.68 At the same time, given the nature of the Syrian regime, it has been difficult for any major American political figure to openly disagree with Bush administration policy. The handful of scholars, retired diplomats, Arab-American leaders and others who have challenged this growing anti-Syria policy as hypocritical and based on exaggerated claims have been slandered as supporters of the Syrian regime, even though few fail to acknowledge the very real abuses of the government in Damascus.69
Due to the nefarious policies of the Syrian government, a case could be made that strict sanctions such as those enacted in this legislation might be appropriate under certain conditions. However, it is hard to find any charges against Syria – incorporated in the Syrian Accountability Act or otherwise brought forward by Congress and the administration – that are both demonstrably true and of which a number of U.S. allies are not also guilty. In short, this upsurge in anti-Syrian actions is not a reflection of popular concern for the Lebanese people, for non-proliferation, for preventing terrorism or for defending the United Nations.
In addition, both politically and economically, Syria has undergone substantial liberalization in key areas over the past decade or so. The extent of repression and government control has lessened significantly from its peak in the 1970s and is not as pervasive as in a number of other Middle Eastern countries, including close U.S. allies like Saudi Arabia. Similarly, the size and power of Syria’s military has been reduced dramatically from its peak in the 1980s, as a result of the dissolution of its Soviet patron. Syrian links to international terrorism have also declined markedly, as has its hostility towards Israel.
Feeling threatened by Israel to the southwest, Turkey to the north, and U.S. forces in Iraq to the east, Syria appears to want stability and security more than anything else. The government faces a dilemma: desiring to resolve its differences with Washington by diplomatic means, without seeming to kowtow to the unreasonable double standards of a Western power.
So, why this heightened U.S. hostility toward the Damascus regime? What has changed is that in today’s unipolar environment, rather than supporting comprehensive and law-based means of promoting regional peace and security, both major political parties believe that the United States has the right to impose unilateral demands targeted at specific countries based solely on ideological criteria. There is a new bipartisan consensus in Washington in favor of a hegemonic world order led by the Bush administration. Even if the Democrats win back the House of Representatives, the Senate and the White House in November 2004, the nearly unanimous support for the Syrian Accountability Act demonstrates that they are equally committed to pursuing a neoconservative agenda in the Middle East, including punitive actions toward particular nations for certain policies while providing military, economic and diplomatic support for allied nations that engage in similar policies. Both Republicans and Democrats alike are on record trusting unsubstantiated claims by neoconservative ideologues who have lied repeatedly about so-called “rogue states” in order to justify increased U.S. militarism and foreign wars. Both Republicans and Democrats alike are on record rejecting multilateral arms-control treaties in favor of forcing unilateral disarmament by some governments while supporting the shipment of billions of dollars worth of sophisticated weaponry to neighboring states. Both Republicans and Democrats alike are manipulating popular concern regarding international terrorism to justify policies that actually weaken the U.S. ability to counter this very real threat.
As a result, it would be a mistake to simply attribute this growing anti-Syrian climate in Washington to the so-called “pro-Israel lobby.” The vast majority of Congressional representatives who supported the Syrian Accountability Act are from safe districts and would not have suffered politically from opposing it.
Instead, it is a reflection of something much bigger and more ominous: the bipartisan adoption of what is essentially an imperial world view. The rhetoric emanating from Capitol Hill and the one-sidedness of the vote on the sanctions bill seem to indicate that both the Republicans and the Democrats now accept this vision of U.S. foreign policy.
1 108th Congress, first session, “Syrian Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act of 2003” (henceforth, “Syrian Accountability Act”), Sec. 5, (a) (2).
2 Jim Lobe, “New Syria Legislation Shows Neocons Still in Charge,” Foreign Policy in Focus, October 14, 2003.
3 Cited in Jim Lobe, “New Cheney Foreign Policy Adviser Set Sights on Syria,” Foreign Policy in Focus, October 14, 2003.
4 Department of State, “Overview of State Sponsored Terrorism,” Patterns of Global Terrorism, 2002, (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 2003).
5 Background Briefing, Department of State, April 1994.
7 Seymour Hersh, New Yorker, July 28, 2003.
8 “Syrian Accountability Act,” Sec. 2, Paragraph (5).
9 Warren Strobel and John Walcott, “Bush’s Advisers Debating Military Force against Syria,” Seattle Times, January 10, 2004.
10 Ravi Nessman, “Israeli and U.S. Officials Claim Camp in Syria Was Active,” Seattle Times, October 11, 2003.
11 Cited in Jim Lobe, “Bush Stance on Syria Hit Shows Neo-Cons Still Hold Sway,” Inter Press Service, October 8, 2003.
12 Department of State, op. cit.
13 “Syrian Accountability Act,” Sec. 2, Paragraph (3).
14 International Crisis Group, “Hezbollah: Rebels Without a Cause?” Middle East Briefing, Amman/Brussels, July 30, 2003, p. 1.
15 “Syrian Accountability Act,” Sec. 4, Paragraph (1).
16 “Syrian Accountability Act,” Sec. 2, Paragraph (6).
17 Stephen Zunes, “Violations of U.N. Security Council Resolution by Countries Other than Iraq,” Foreign Policy in Focus, October 2, 2002.
18 “Syrian Accountability Act,” Sec. 4, Paragraph (4).
19 “Syrian Accountability Act,” Sec. 5.
20 BBC Radio News, January 1, 2004.
21 U.N. Security Council Resolutions 446 (1979), 452 (1979), 465 (1980) and 471 (1980).
22 Craig Smith, “Israel Plans 25% Expansion of its Settlements in Golan,” The New York Times, January 1, 2004, Sec. A, p. 4.
23 “Syrian Accountability Act,” Sec. 3, Paragraph (6).
24 Ben Lynfield, “Amid New Peace Bids, Israel Stays Tough,” Christian Science Monitor, January 2, 2004.
25 BBC Radio News, op. cit.
26 “Syrian Accountability Act,” Sec. 5, Paragraph (2), subsection (2).
27 See Augustus Richard Norton, “Hezbollah of Lebanon: Extremist Ideals vs. Mundane Politics,” Council on Foreign Relations, New York, 1999.
28 “Syrian Accountability Act,” Sec. 2, Paragraph (12).
29 “Report of the Secretary-General on the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon” (for the period January 15, 2003 to July 31, 2003).
30 Haaretz, July 22, 2003.
31 “Syrian Accountability Act,” Sec. 2, Paragraph (12).
32 “Syrian Accountability Act,” Sec. 2, Paragraph (14).
33 International Crisis Group, op. cit.
34 “Syrian Accountability Act,” Sec. 2, Paragraph (14).
35 “Syrian Accountability Act,” Sec. 2, Paragraph (18).
36 Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, “Deadly Arsenals: Tracking Weapons of Mass Destruction,” June 2002.
37 Duncan Lennox, ed. “Offensive Weapons–Turkey,” Jane’s Strategic Weapons Systems, #24, May 1997.
38 Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, op. cit.
39 “Syrian Accountability Act,” Sec. 3, Paragraph (5).
40 “Syrian Accountability Act,” Sec. 2, Paragraph (24).
41 Cited in “Syrian Accountability Act,” Sec. 2, Paragraph (21).
42 Department of Defense, Proliferation Threat and Response, 2001, p. 45.
43 Hussein Ibish, “Voting on an Ominous Future for Syria,” The Daily Star, June 26, 2003.
44 “Syrian Accountability Act,” Sec. 2, Paragraph (19).
45 “Syrian Accountability Act,” Sec. 2, Paragraph (23).
46 Andrew Cordesman, “Weapons of Mass Destruction in the Middle East,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, April 15, 2003, p. 55.
47 Ibid., pp. 35-36.
48 Ibid., pp. 43-45.
49 Ibish, op. cit.
50 Donald Rumsfeld, March 28, 2003, cited in “Syrian Accountability Act,” Sec. 2, Paragraph (28).
51 Donald Rumsfeld, April 13, 2004, cited in “Syrian Accountability Act,” Sec. 2, Paragraph (32).
52 Vernon Loeb, “Commanders Doubt Syria is Entry Point: Officers See No Sign of Foreign Fighters,” The Washington Post, October 29, 2003, p. A19.
53 Joel Brinkley, “Few Signs of Infiltration by Foreign Fighter in Iraq,” The New York Times, November 19, 2003.
55 Agence France Presse, “Senator Byrd: U.S. Syria Bill Could Lead to an Invasion,” November 12, 2003.
56 Donald Rumsfeld, ABC This Week, March 30, 2003.
57 Donald Rumsfeld, CBS Face the Nation, March 23, 2003.
58 Donald Rumsfeld, November 14, 2002, Live Interview with Infinity CBS Radio.
59 John Barry, “The Defector’s Secrets,” Newsweek, March 3, 2003.
60 “Syrian Accountability Act,” Sec. 3, Paragraph (2).
61 “Syrian Accountability Act,” Sec. 3, Paragraph (8).
62 U.N. Security Council resolutions 384 (1975) and 389 (1976).
63 U.N. Security Council resolutions 377, 379 and 380 (1975).
64 “Syrian Accountability Act,” Sec. 4, Paragraph (7).
65 “Syrian Accountability Act,” Sec. 4, Paragraph (8).
66 Agence France Presse, op. cit.
68 Jim Lobe, “New Syria Legislation Shows Neocons Still in Charge, Foreign Policy in Focus,” October 14, 2003.
69 For example, I was accused on Fox News of being a supporter of the Syrian regime for opposing a U.S. invasion of that country and, more seriously, of receiving funds from Hezbollah for commenting that I had seen no evidence that they had been involved in any acts of terrorism over the past decade. In reality, I have categorically opposed all forms of terrorism, been a critic of hardline Islamists in Lebanon and elsewhere, and have challenged Syrian policies – particularly on human-rights issues – in both public forums and in private meetings with Syrian officials.