[from the November 3, 2003 issue]
Shortly after 9/11, the government received an extraordinary gift of hundreds of files on Al Qaeda, crucial data on the activities of radical Islamist cells throughout the Middle East and Europe and intelligence about future terrorist plans. These dossiers did not come from Israel or Saudi Arabia, whose kingdom appeared more concerned at the time with securing safe passage for members of the bin Laden family living in the United States, but--as Seymour Hersh revealed in the July 28 New Yorker--from Syria. One CIA analyst told Hersh, "the quality and quantity of information from Syria exceeded the agency's expectations." Yet, the analyst added, the Syrians "got little in return for it."
What they got instead was an unrelenting Washington-sponsored campaign of vilification. It began last year, when the "Axis of Evil" was expanded to include Syria, largely because Syria--a member of the 1991 coalition against Saddam Hussein--refused to support a pre-emptive war against Iraq. And it has culminated in the Syria Accountability Act, approved 33 to 2 by a House committee on October 8. If the bill passes, Syria will not be able to receive "dual use" goods unless it cuts all ties with Hamas and Islamic Jihad (neither of which is linked to Al Qaeda) and cracks down on Hezbollah (a guerrilla movement that enjoys wide popular support among Lebanese Shiites); withdraws its troops from Lebanon; and proves that it is not developing weapons of mass destruction. What's more, the President would be directed to choose from a menu of six additional sanctions, including a freeze on Syrian assets in the United States and a ban on US exports, except food and medicine.
The committee's vote came on the heels of Bush's endorsement of an Israeli airstrike on a Palestinian training camp outside Damascus, Israel's first assault on Syrian territory since 1974. Never mind that the apparently moribund camp belonged to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, not to Islamic Jihad, which claimed responsibility for the October 4 suicide attack in Haifa; or that Israel's attack threatened to widen the already explosive Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In Bush's words, "Israel must not feel constrained in terms of defense of the homeland."
The Syria Accountability Act is all but certain to destroy the fledgling cooperation between US and Syrian intelligence agencies, which have a common interest in combating Islamic extremism. To sabotage such a relationship would seem downright perverse, when America is in desperate need of Arab allies in the "war on terrorism." But a perversion of priorities is something we have come to expect from the Bush Administration, and from the influential neoconservative clique--many of them closely allied with the Israeli right--shaping policy in the Pentagon.
In an eerie replay of the buildup to the war on Iraq, the demonization of Syria has swelled to a chorus in Washington, whose members include not only Republicans but pro-Israel Democrats like Tom Lantos, the senior Democrat on the House committee that passed the act. The leading Democratic presidential candidates backed Bush's support for Israel's bombing in Syria. Only months ago we were told that the "road to peace in Jerusalem runs through Baghdad." As resistance to the US occupation of Iraq grows and the road map continues to crumble, the neocons are having a much harder time making that argument, so we are now being told that the twisted road to peace runs through Damascus.
Syria, to be sure, is hardly an appealing regime. A police state run by a tiny Baathist clique, it deprives its own citizens of the most basic liberties, maintains thousands of troops in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley in violation of UN Resolution 520 and continues to meddle in Lebanon's internal affairs. It has also supported Hezbollah's "resistance" operations against Israeli positions in the disputed Shebaa Farms, finding it a useful proxy force with which to pressure Israel to return the Golan Heights, illegally occupied since 1967. Yet Syria has also played an important role in stabilizing Lebanon since the civil war--a role quietly appreciated by Washington--and in encouraging Hezbollah's transformation from a radical militia to a pragmatic political party. Despite occasional flare-ups, violent incidents on the Lebanese-Israeli border have been rare since Israel's withdrawal in 2000.
The Accountability Act simply ignores this, in a flagrant display of the double standards of US Middle East policy.
How, in good faith, can we call for sanctions against Syria for its occupation of Lebanon while coddling Israel, whose incomparably more violent and brutal occupation remains the chief source of troubles in the Mideast--the principal reason we are not viewed as honest brokers? Moreover, while claiming to promote democracy in Syria, the act is more likely to strengthen the hand of the sclerotic Baathist old guard, which can now invoke the threat of an American war to suppress dissent, and hobble President Bashar Assad's (admittedly inadequate) efforts to pursue reform. The intellectuals who participated in Syria's short-lived "Damascus Spring" two years ago will be further silenced by the act for fear of being associated with a policy that might have been devised in Tel Aviv.
In a sense, it was. To properly understand the Syria Accountability Act, one has to go back to a 1996 document, "A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm," drafted by a team of advisers to Benjamin Netanyahu in his run for prime minister of Israel. The authors included current Bush advisers Richard Perle and Douglas Feith. "Syria challenges Israel on Lebanese soil," they wrote, calling for "striking Syrian military targets in Lebanon, and should that prove insufficient, striking at select targets in Syria proper." No wonder Perle was delighted by the Israeli strike. "It will help the peace process," he told the Washington Post, adding later that the United States itself might have to attack Syria.
But what Perle means by "helping the peace process" is not resolving the conflict by bringing about a viable, sovereign Palestinian state but rather--as underscored in "A Clean Break"--"transcending the Arab-Israeli conflict" altogether by forcing the Arabs to accept most, if not all, of Israel's territorial conquests and its nuclear hegemony in the region. This one-sided approach has succeeded only in fueling resentment against America, as demonstrated most recently by the October 15 bombing of a US convoy in Gaza that killed three Americans. The attack, which was denounced by Palestinian leaders, came just hours after the US veto of a Security Council resolution condemning Israel's new "security" wall, which gobbles up large swaths of land in the West Bank.
No one doubts that citizens of Syria and Lebanon would benefit from the demise of the Baathist dictatorship. But making an enemy of Syria will neither lead to the flowering of Syrian democracy nor bring an end to terror in Israeli cities. If any state is a breeding ground for terrorists today, it is Iraq, thanks to America's reckless war. The absence of stable governance in Mesopotamia poses far more of a threat to regional security than the presence of an Islamic Jihad office in Damascus. To be sure, states must be held accountable for fostering terrorism. What we need now, however, is not a Syria Accountability Act but an America Accountability Act.