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Reflections on why the United States and Israel are threatening Syria

by Patrick Seale Tuesday, Apr. 22, 2003 at 8:54 AM

As if to underline this warning, the US bombed the Syrian Trade Center in Baghdad and closed the oil pipeline from Iraq to Syria. Syria’s valuable trade with Iraq ú which totaled about billion in the period 1998-2002 ú has been cut off. This is a serious blow to the Syrian economy since Iraq had in recent years become Syria’s main trading partner.

Reflections on why the United States and Israel are threatening Syria

With the war against Iraq barely over, and security in that unfortunate country by no means established, Syria has suddenly become the target of a violent campaign of psychological warfare and intimidation by both the United States and Israel. All the old, shop-soiled accusations have been dragged out, together with some new ones: that Syria is a “sponsor of terrorism;” that it is a “rogue state;” that it promotes extremist groups opposed to peace with Israel; that it has acquired chemical weapons; that its troops in Lebanon are an “army of occupation;” that it has allowed fugitives from Saddam Hussein’s regime to enter Syria; that it has sent men and weapons to resist US forces in Iraq; that Iraqi weapons of mass destruction have been hidden on Syrian territory; and much else besides.

Syria has denied all these charges. But so violent and repeated were the accusations by President George W. Bush and his senior colleagues, quickly followed by Israel’s Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, that it looked at first as if American forces in Iraq were about to march on Damascus! This danger has now passed, at least for the time being. Britain’s Tony Blair objected to military action against Syria, as did Spain’s Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar. They were joined by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and by much of the Arab world. Faced with such international opposition, the US softened its tone. “There is no war plan right now to attack someone else,” US Secretary of State Colin Powell declared this week, “either for the purpose of overthrowing their leadership or for the purpose of imposing democratic values.”

But if the immediate military threat has receded, political, diplomatic and economic pressures on Syria continue unabated. In Washington, Syria is depicted as the new enemy. Sponsored by pro-Israeli congressmen, the Syria Accountability Act, which provides for a wide range of sanctions against Damascus, is being revived and could well pass into US law. It would prohibit American investment in Syria and severely restrict the movements of Syrian diplomats in the United States. Both Washington and London have warned Syria that it must adjust its policies to conform to the “new reality” created by the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime.

As if to underline this warning, the US bombed the Syrian Trade Center in Baghdad and closed the oil pipeline from Iraq to Syria. Syria’s valuable trade with Iraq ú which totaled about billion in the period 1998-2002 ú has been cut off. This is a serious blow to the Syrian economy since Iraq had in recent years become Syria’s main trading partner.

What is the meaning of this anti-Syrian campaign? In my view, America’s biggest and most immediate fear is its forces in Iraq will face hit-and-run guerrilla attacks and suicide bombings such as eventually forced Israel out of Lebanon. Nothing would be more damaging to America’s imperial project in Iraq, and nothing would more quickly erode American domestic support for the war than a steady toll of casualties among its forces, even at a rate of two or three a week.

To survive and be effective, any anti-American resistance movement in Iraq would need a regular external supply of volunteers, weapons and funds, as well as safe haven for its militants, and perhaps for its political leadership, outside the country. Syria seemed the obvious potential source of such support. Its leader, President Bashar Assad, had vehemently opposed the war. On March 16, he had flown suddenly to Iran, Syria’s strategic ally, in what was seen as a bid to coordinate their efforts to counter American war plans and help the Iraqi resistance. Both countries have lent external support to Hizbullah in its long and bitter struggle to expel Israel from Lebanon.

With this precedent very much in mind, the US has thought it imperative to isolate Iraq from any external interference or intervention, especially from Syria. In the American view, any Iraqi resistance to US forces ú and to the even more vulnerable American civilian administrators and companies that are expected to follow soon ú has to be crushed before it can take root and grow. Hence the present campaign of anti-Syrian intimidation. The American message to Syria ú and also to Iran ú is: “Keep out, or face the consequences!”

The United States is only just beginning to grasp the magnitude of the task it has assumed in Iraq. It has, quite literally, devastated the country, wiping out decades of modernization and development. Following the Iraq-Iran war of the 1980s and the 1991 Gulf War, Iraq was crippled by 12 years of punitive American-driven sanctions which brought the country to its knees. Then came the war. Three to four weeks of intense bombardment and ruthless armored thrusts have killed and wounded tens of thousands of Iraqi troops and thousands of civilians, and brought down much of the country’s military and civilian infrastructure in all major cities. Looting and pillaging by a famished population, permitted and even encouraged by American forces, then tore the heart out of what remained of the Iraqi state.

Hospitals, universities, libraries, the national museum with its priceless archaeological collection, the national archives, all the major ministries (except for the Oil Ministry, well guarded by American troops), power plants and telephone exchanges, roads and bridges, public buildings of all sorts have been bombed, ransacked, set on fire or reduced to rubble.

“I saw for myself,” said an Iraqi academic in Baghdad, professor Shakir Aziz, “how the US troops goaded Iraqis to loot and burn the University of Technology.

 What crazed geopolitical ambitions, what culture of hatred of all things Arab and Muslim, what greed for oil and for rich reconstruction contracts, has fuelled this American orgy of destruction? No one will weep for Saddam Hussein and his brutal regime, but was this unprovoked, illegal and devastating war the only way to effect change in Iraq?

Much of the world thinks not. The Iraqis themselves will now hold the US to account. Winning the peace in Iraq is likely to be much more difficult than winning the war.

Iraqis want and need immediate relief: clean water, electric power, medical treatment, above all security for citizens and their possessions and the establishment of the rule of law. Iraqis want to be ruled by honest and patriotic Iraqis and not by an American general or American-sponsored Iraqis who have grown rich in exile.

By seizing Iraq, the neoconservative hawks and Zionist extremists who dominate the Bush administration want to redraw the strategic map of the Middle East. They want to “remake” Iraq as a weak, pro-American, “democratic,” free enterprise, federal state that will provide rich pickings for American firms, but will never again be able to challenge American and Israeli interests. This is social and political engineering on a grandiose scale. By all accounts, American problems in Iraq are only just beginning.

Israel hopes to benefit hugely from America’s war against Iraq. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has long had ambitious ideas about restructuring the region to Israel’s advantage. He is the foremost champion of a “Greater Israel” and of Israel’s supremacy over the Levant, indeed over the entire Middle East. By destroying Iraq, the United States has eliminated Israel’s last Arab opponent of any strategic weight. The hunt for and destruction of Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction serves to protect Israel’s regional monopoly of such weapons. Now Israel is inciting the US to take on Syria and Iran as well.

Israel is delighted to see American forces in control in Iraq for the foreseeable future, as their mere presence puts intense pressure on Syria and Iran. Israel hopes it will break the Syrian-Iranian axis and reduce the support these two countries give to Hizbullah in Lebanon and to Palestinian resistance groups such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad. More specifically, Israel wants to weaken Syria, forcing it to disarm Hizbullah and then leave Lebanon. No doubt Sharon still dreams of bringing Lebanon into Israel’s orbit, which was a major aim of his 1982 invasion. Further down the road, Israel would like to compel Syria to give up its claim to the Golan, seized by Israel in the 1967 war. Closer to home, Israel wants to strip the Palestinians of all external Arab support, and thereby force them to accept a truncated, fragmented, defenseless entity on Israel’s harsh terms.

It is important to grasp that Sharon and the hard men around him, backed by their powerful friends in the Bush administration, have long since rejected any solution of the Arab-Israeli conflict based on “land-for-peace” and mutual reconciliation. They believe in force, conquest and domination. Their hope is that Israel’s mini-empire will flourish under the umbrella of America’s global empire.

It remains to be seen how the Arab world reacts to the greatest threat to its independence in modern history.

Patrick Seale, a veteran Middle East analyst, wrote this commentary for The Daily Star

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