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Why US Wants Assad Out.

Writing in Gulf News of April 1, Syrian academic Dr. Marwan Al-Kabalan said: "Recent developments in US-Syrian relations indicate that Washington is preparing the ground for an Iraq-style adventure. The hawks of the Bush administration are pushing the argument that as long as the Baath Party remains in power, a voluntary change will not take place in Syria. Besides, Syria's President...Assad may have unwisely positioned himself as anti-Bush in the region. Today, the view in Washington is that Bashar stands against everything that the US administration stands for".

Assad's regime has recently been described as an outpost of tyranny and an obstacle towards democratic change in the Middle East. Yet, a military solution is not on the cards at the moment. This has less to do with Syria and more with Washington's ability to handle an additional front in view of the continuing insurgency in Iraq.

"One should remember, however, that the Iraq campaign lasted for over a decade, a time that allowed Washington to prepare all the pretexts to topple Saddam Hussain", Kabalan noted, adding: "Many in Damascus believe that the Bush administration will not take that much time to embrace the notion of a change in regime. This might not be Washington's official policy yet, but all signs suggest preparations are being made to adopt it somewhere down the road".

The list of charges against the Baathist regime of Damascus has already been made. Syria stands accused of hiding weapons of mass destruction (WMD), harbouring terrorists and oppressing its own and the Lebanese people. A more important reason for Washington to go for a change in regime was provided by the UN fact-finding report on the Feb. 14 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri.

By focusing on a section on the history of the crisis and the deterioration in relations between Syria and Hariri before the assassination, Washington got the most damning part of the report against Syria and is using it effectively. The Bush administration has already reached the stage of finding a possible alternative to the regime in Damascus.

The Washington Post reported last month that a meeting hosted by the US State Department brought together senior officials from the Vice-President's office, the National Security Council and the Pentagon and about a dozen prominent Syrian exiles.

The Syria Reform Party (SRP), a small organisation formed in Washington in November 2001, is leading the campaign. It was established by a group of Syrian exiles who are known more for being businessmen than politicians. Leaders of the party have no mass support, neither in Syria nor among the Syrian diaspora. Yet, they have become increasingly visible during the last few months, spearheading a pro-democracy message framed in the context of a Syrian democracy.

The SRP activists appeal to the Bush administration by using its rhetoric on democracy, human rights and reform. Dr. Kabalan described them as follows: "They are simply trying to ride into power with Washington's help by presenting themselves as a viable alternative to the Syrian regime. In many ways, the SRP is following in the footsteps of Ahmad Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress (INC). Its leaders are seeking the support of the Pentagon and Israel's friends in Washington. They have already succeeded in winning the backing of some members of the Bush administration".

At a briefing on Iraq at the American Enterprise Institute, the influential neo-conservative (neo-con) foreign policy hawk Richard Perle lent SRP activists support. He said the US should actively back the political opposition to the "Syrian dictator".

The Syrian opposition has also got the support of another influential US think-tank. A May 2000 report prepared for the Middle East Forum, titled Ending Syria's Occupation of Lebanon: The US Role, was signed by a number of people who were then out of office but are now prominent officials in the Bush administration.

Richard Perle, was a key neo-con behind plans to invade Iraq. That report against the Assad regime says the "use of force needs to be considered against Syria if it will not end its more than quarter-century-old occupation of Lebanon". Signatories to the report included, in addition to Perle, Paula Dobriansky, a neo-con undersecretary of state for global affairs; Elliott Abrams, another key neo-con who is senior director for Middle East at the National Security Council; Rep Eliot Engel, a Democrat of New York; Michael Rubin, a neo-con adviser on Iraq and Iran at the Pentagon; and David Wurmser, a neo-con aide at the State Department.

Over the past two years, the White House ignored this group of Syrian exiles, hoping it could do business with Bashar Al-Assad. Today, Dr. Kabalan said, "there is a shift in policy and Washington has pulled this card in the face of the Syrian government".

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said the US was talking to "as many people as we possibly can about the situation in Syria, as well as in Lebanon, to ensure that Washington is prepared in the event of yet another abrupt political upheaval".

Dr. Kabalan, a lecturer in media and international relations at the Faculty of Political Science and Media of Damascus University, concluded with this question: "does Washington expect a political upheaval in Syria or is it working to create one?"

Back To The Iraq Factor: The US is advising the new government of Ja'fari to enlist some of those experienced Iraqi intelligence operatives who, under Saddam's regime, used to be specialised in regional affairs, with emphasis on the countries neighbouring Iraq. The problem: the officers' training comes from working at the fear-inspiring agencies once run by Saddam's Baath Party.

Factions involved in the painstaking process of building the democratic government are voicing their reluctance to let former members of the Baath Party into the fledgling intelligence and security services. Kenneth Katzman, a Middle East expert with the US Congressional Research Service, which provides analysis to American lawmakers, was requently quoted as saying: "There is a fear among some Iraqis that I talk to that ex-Baathists are burrowing into these organizations with the express purpose of waiting for the opportune moment, such as when the US leaves, to use these security organizations to make a big move".

Katzman said he believed the fears were well founded. After forming a new intelligence service last year, outgoing interim prime minister Allawi decided to recall some of Saddam's former intelligence operatives, including individuals working in Iran, Syria and Russia, to help staff the new service. Katzman quoted American intelligence veterans as saying the US supported the move, seen as an effort to bring trained people into the government and give them jobs.

The CIA is said to have been involved in helping establish the intelligence agency by assisting with basic building blocks such as how to assemble information in databases and keep the material secure. For months, however, larger issues have loomed. Shiite and Kurdish groups, persecuted during Saddam's regime but now gaining power, have been anxious about efforts to include former Baathists in government positions - one of the trickiest political questions facing the loose coalition forming the new government.

The Baathist-run intelligence agencies were blamed for some of the former regime's worst brutality. Yet anyone who wanted any government job had to be a member of the Baath Party, making it hard now to sort out true-believers from those who were trying to earn a living. US officials, on the alert for a sudden - or even gradual - purge, are watching closely for any number of changes in the intelligence service, including whether ex-Baathists or Iraqis deemed too close to the US are put out of work.
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Publication:APS Diplomat Fate of the Arabian Peninsula
Date:May 2, 2005
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