National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  August 29, 2003

Bush efforts against Syria may aim to distract


Bush administration officials, in their ongoing search for enemies, have launched a series of accusations and threats against the government of Syria. In June, U.S. occupation forces based in Iraq launched an attack against Syrian border positions. As with its invasion of Iraq and support for Israel’s right-wing government, the Bush administration’s hostility toward the Syrian government has received the enthusiastic support of leading Congressional Democrats, most notably Sen. Barbara Boxer of California.

Syria, despite being ruled by the Baath Party, has historically been a major rival of Iraq’s Baath regime. Syria was the only Arab country to back Iran during the Iran-Iraq War during the 1980s. It was one of the only non-monarchical Arab states to have backed the United States against Iraq during the first Gulf War in 1991. Iraq and Syria backed rival factions in Lebanon’s civil war. As a member of the United Nations Security Council, Syria voted this past November in favor of the U.S.-backed resolution 1441 that demanded full cooperation by the Baghdad government with United Nations inspectors, with the threat of severe consequences if it failed to do so. However, Syria -- like most countries in the world -- strongly opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Syria’s long, porous border with Iraq has been the entry point of hundreds of volunteers from around the Arab world, many of whom are Iraqi exiles, who came to fight what they saw as the illegitimate conquest of an Arab country by a Western power. There is no evidence that the Syrian government has directly sent mercenaries or other soldiers into Iraq to fight U.S. forces. Allowing armed individuals to assist a neighboring state against an invading army is not proscribed under international law.

There is also no evidence that Saddam Hussein’s government moved any weapons of mass destruction or related technology and raw materials into Syria. With open deserts, mostly cloudless days, and detailed surveillance by satellites and aircraft, the movement of such material would likely have been detected. The U.N. Monitoring and Verification Commission, UNMOVIC, empowered by the United Nations Security Council to verify the destruction of Iraq’s WMD programs, disputes Bush administration claims that such materials have made their way out of the country.

Syria has never used -- nor has it ever threatened to use -- chemical weapons or other weapons of mass destruction. However, U.S. intelligence believes that Syria has developed a relatively extensive chemical weapons program, as have Israel, Egypt and some other Middle Eastern countries. Like Israel and Egypt, Syria has not signed the Chemical Weapons Convention and is therefore not required to rid itself of such weapons or delivery systems.

Syria has called for a Weapons of Mass Destruction-free zone for the entire Middle East. However, the Bush administration has rejected such a call and instead insists that Syria -- but not America’s Israeli and Egyptian allies -- disarm its chemical weapons arsenal unilaterally.

According to U.S. State Department officials, the Syrian government has not been directly involved in any acts of international terrorism since the mid-1980s. Damascus has been the home base of a number of small left-wing Palestinian exile groups, some of which engaged in terrorism in the 1970s and 1980s but have largely been moribund since then.

Syria has given some support since the early 1990s to Hizbollah, a radical Shi’ite political movement in Lebanon. Initially supported by Iran, Hizbollah was responsible for a series of terrorist attacks during the Lebanese civil war in the 1980s, including the 1982-84 U.S. military intervention, which included attacks on Americans. It has since become a legally recognized Lebanese political party and has representatives in the Lebanese parliament. Though Hizbollah during the past decade has largely restricted its use of violence to Israeli occupation forces in southern Lebanon and in disputed border regions -- which is considered legitimate under international law -- the Bush administration and Congress still label Hizbollah a terrorist organization.

There is much negative that can be said about the Syrian government: Though the level of repression has lessened substantially in recent years, Syria remains an authoritarian government that engages in widespread and systematic human rights violations. Damascus maintains a heavy military presence in Lebanon, exerting enormous political leverage over the Lebanese government, particularly regarding the country’s foreign affairs. Though Syria has pledged security guarantees and full diplomatic relations with Israel in return for the withdrawal of Israeli occupation forces from southwestern Syria, it continues spouting strident anti-Israel rhetoric.

However, the level of repression, militarization, support for extremist groups, and violations of international norms by Syria is far less than that of a number of other Middle Eastern governments, including some of America’s closest regional allies. Therefore, the recent attacks on Syria by the Bush administration and congressional leaders of both parties can perhaps most accurately be seen as simply an effort to divert attention from the tragic failures of U.S. Middle East policy elsewhere.

Stephen Zunes is an associate professor of politics and chair of the Peace & Justice Studies Program at the University of San Francisco. He serves as Middle East editor for the Foreign Policy in Focus Project ( Zunes is the author of Tinderbox: U.S. Middle East Policy and the Roots of Terrorism (Common Courage Press).

National Catholic Reporter, August 29, 2003

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