SYRIA - The Campaign Against Terror - Part 16.
Damascus is worried that it may be the next target. There are viable reasons for such concern. American lawmakers have never had a positive view of Syria and, despite Damascus' role in the 1991 Gulf war, this attitude has not changed; in fact it may have worsened in view of extensive lobbying efforts by Israel, where governments since 1996 have viewed Syria as an obstacle to regional peace on Israeli terms. The tough US attitude towards Syria has become more evident since late March 2003, as the campaign to oust Saddam was coming to a close, with repeated comments from US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld about the Syrian role in helping Iraqi forces (see following pages).
More recently, on April 8, John R. Bolton, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, and an influential neo-conservative voice, said: "We are hopeful that a number of regimes will draw the appropriate lesson from Iraq that the pursuit of weapons of mass destruction is not in their national interest. This is a wonderful opportunity for Syria to forswear the pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and, as with other governments in the region, to see if there are not new possibilities in the Middle East peace process" (see this week's News Service).
The Syrian leadership has understood since the US began targeting states for regime change that if Saddam were removed from the Iraqi scene along with the Baath Party super-structure, the next most inviting target in the region for the campaign against terror would be the regime of President Bashar Al Assad. Keeping that in mind, it has kept a low profile since 9/11 and co-operated with the US. Washington has stated that Syria has been co-operating in the war on terrorism. It has also stated that Syria has clamped down on the Al Qaida group, and provided the US with intelligence information.
The Syrian Baathist regime is being very cautious in its moves in order to avoid becoming a target for regime change. It has stepped up diplomatic manoeuvres to create linkages that would help dissuade the US from applying political or military pressure. In these manoeuvres, Turkey is steadily becoming a key factor - with the future of the Kurds of northern Iraq being one of the focal points (see following articles).
Syria Next In The Firing Line? Senior American officials have been talking tough ever since it became clear that the regime in Baghdad was going to collapse without much of a fight. The man behind the Bush administration's decision to target Iraq, Deputy Defence Secretary Paul Wolfowitz (a leading member of the neo-conservative clique) told NBC TV on April 9: "The Syrians 'are doing some things they shouldn't be doing, and the sooner they stop, the better it will be for them", While the US is now focused on Iraq, he added, "I think the Syrians need to know, though, that what they do now, they will be held accountable for... There has got to be change in Syria".
Tougher comments came earlier from Secretary of Defence Rumsfeld. After US forces started feeling pressure from guerrilla style attacks by Saddam loyalists in late March, Rumsfeld in a statement warned Damascus that it would be held "accountable" for shipment of military supplies transiting Syrian territory to reach Iraq. Rumsfeld singled out "night vision goggles" in his warning and added: "These deliveries pose a direct threat to the lives of coalition forces".
Then, on April 3, during a Pentagon briefing, Rumsfeld reiterated: "We have seen that Syria is continuing to conduct itself the way it was prior to the time I said what I said". The comments about the transfer of weapons brought out reports of an arms pipeline between foreign exporters and Iraq via Syria. The Israeli daily Haaretz said on April 8 that one large arms deal Syria "recently made on behalf of the regime in Baghdad - provoking rage in Washington - involved the acquisition from Russia of 500 laser-guided anti-tank missiles".
The daily added that these sanctions-busting deals began back in 2001, initially focusing on East European states that manufacture Russian weapons systems such as tanks, artillery cannons, and engines for tanks and MiG fighter jets. The first deals concentrated on equipment to refurbish old tanks and aircraft in Iraq; but the latest large Syrian deal on behalf of Iraq involved the purchase, from Russia, of the Russian military industry's newest anti-tank missile, known as the Kornet, which NATO calls the AT-14. It is laser-guided and has a range of some 5.5 km.
Shipments of weapons were made with the involvement of French and German suppliers as well, various media reports have indicated. One of the first deals involved Germany where the Syrian traders purchased some 60 tank transporters. The method of operation, the Haaretz report noted, involved the purchase of weapons or equipment by a Syrian businessman with the Mediterranean port of Lattakia as the point of destination. The equipment was then offloaded, trucked to the Syrian-Iraqi border and sent directly to Iraq.
The US intention was initially to deal with the issue quietly in view of general opposition to its military campaign in Iraq, because Washington wanted Syria to stay silent rather than publicly reiterate its disapproved of the war, and because Damascus had been co-operative in other aspects of the campaign against terror. But the alleged new arms deals and transfers irritated Rumsfeld, as did the Syrian government's acquiescence in permitting guerrilla fighters from other countries to transit Syria on their way to Iraq for a jihad against the US.
According to observers, in light of this situation, Rumsfeld's comments were to be expected. He and other US officials have also accused Baghdad of giving asylum to a number of Iraqi Baathists who fled before or during the war; this list is said to include Saddam's family, including his son Qusay; some rumours suggest Saddam himself is in Syria. On April 10, Rumsfeld said: "Senior regime people are moving out of Iraq into Syria, and Syria is continuing to send things into Iraq".
After 9/11 Syria is one of the Arab countries to have come more into the American spotlight than the others. In 2002, US President Bush had included Syria (along with Libya) in his wider definition of the "axis of evil" - originally comprising only Iraq, Iran and North Korea.
In addition, the observers note, Syria was expected eventually to be at the heart of a post-Saddam confrontation with the US as the only Arab country openly resisting Israel in the region. The fact that most of the groups that reject the Middle East peace process - namely Hamas, Hizbollah, Islamic Jihad, etc. - have offices, including head offices in some cases, on Syrian territory has long been noted by both Israel and hardline policy makers in the US.
If the US decides to tackle Syria militarily, pressure can be applied very quickly and with greater intensity than against Iraq because it shares borders with both Turkey and Israel, while its Mediterranean coastline is accessible to the American, Turkish and Israeli naval fleets. And to make matters worse, by then a pro-US regime in Iraq and a greater degree of stability in the country could free up additional US forces to put pressure on the Iraqi border as well.
Another key aspect would be Lebanon, the observers point out, noting that the US had by mid-2002 re-established contact with Michel Aoun, the former Lebanese Army Chief who was expelled by Syrian forces from Lebanon in September-October 1990, as part of a deal under which Damascus gave its support to the US during in the 1990/91Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm against Iraq.
That deal was struck in September 1990 between President Bashar Al Assad's father Hafez Al Assad and President Bush's father George W. Bush Sr. But the arrangement no longer applies post-Sept. 11 because the current Bush administration is not looking for coalition partners. Having been attacked on its own territory, the US is prepared to conduct a war by itself, if necessary, against all those who are not against terrorism according to the American definition. The irony is that Washington may now use Aoun, whom it allowed the late president Assad to expel from Beirut, to target the Syrian regime led by his son.
From the Syrian perspective, the observers point out that the options available are limited. Militarily it is in no position to take on a US-Turkey-Israel axis. And Damascus does not want to see instability threatening Lebanon and nor does it want to be targeted by the US. But it cannot fall in line with the American definition of terror - which appears to be focused on actions by people regarded as freedom fighters by the Arab states - especially when President Bush refers to Israeli Premier Ariel Sharon as a "man of peace".
Damascus has been defiant in its response to hints from the US that it could be next in the firing line. In late March, warning that Syria could be the next target, Assad called on Arab regimes to oppose the US-led war. He told the Beirut-based As Safir daily in an interview that "we will not wait until we become the next target", hinting that Syria may act first if it feels that it is being put in the place of the Iraqi Baathist regime.
"The logical thing," Bashar told the pro-Syrian daily published in Lebanon, "is to implement the Arab Defence Agreement". According to this agreement, if an Arab country is invaded, the rest of the Arab countries should defend it". When asked if Syria feels threatened by the Iraq war, Bashar replied, "As long as Israel exists, the threat exists."
At about the same time, the US is said to have severed the oil pipeline from Iraq to a Syrian terminal on the Mediterranean. That pipeline allowed Iraq to illegally export oil outside the UN oil-for-food program. Syria in the meantime had reportedly increased preparations of its military amid the war in Iraq, anticipating the possibility of a US attack. Assad is said to have ordered accelerated production of the medium-range Scud C and D missiles, which have a range of 550 and 700 kms, respectively.
The risk is that Syria may be dragged into a confrontation it does not want by the shifting geo-political dynamics in the countries around it. Without any realistic military options available, the observers believe Damascus will put the emphasis on diplomacy and on policy moves - both in the Syrian and Lebanese contexts - aimed at projecting a move towards a more liberalised political and economic environment. The recent redeployments of Syrian troops out of Beirut can be seen in that context.
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|Publication:||APS Diplomat Strategic Balance in the Middle East|
|Date:||Apr 14, 2003|
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