|High Stakes for US in Syria|
By Ramzy Baroud, Special to Gulf News
Although now largely governed by a military leadership, Egypt, the most populous and influential country in the Arab world, has, for now, escaped the US sphere of influence. It is also showing clear signs that it may fall into a foreboding trajectory involving Iran, Syria and other such ‘radicals’. This scenario has made the current turmoil in Syria highly significant for the US.
The protests that gripped Syria, starting January 26, presented the US with an inconvenient challenge — and also a potentially golden opportunity. The abruptness of Arab revolutions has pushed Washington into exercising a truly unprecedented level of two-facedness. From a US foreign policy perspective, what was good for Tunisia was not deemed good for Egypt. Then, what was good for both countries was not applicable to Yemen. Finally, when it was time for Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi and Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh to go, the departure of other close US allies remained out of the question.
Events in Syria have further complicated an already confusing scene. The US had previously spared no efforts to undermine Syria’s internal security and regional position. On April 18, the Washington Post disclosed the WikiLeaks cables detailing US funding of a London-based Syrian opposition umbrella group. US pressure on Syria had never actually ceased, despite the latter’s withdrawal from Lebanon in April 2005.
“The Syria Accountability and Liberation Act” — an early version of which was ratified by former President George W. Bush in 2003 — is still being fervently pushed in US Congress, mostly by ardent pro-Israeli members. The purpose of the act, as introduced to the 111th Congress (2009-10) is “to strengthen sanctions against the Government of Syria … [and] to establish a programme to support a transition to a democratically-elected government in Syria”.
Overt and clandestine efforts point to a US intention to undercut the regime in Damascus. These efforts are older than the US invasion of Iraq, as detailed by Richard Perle in a policy paper prepared for Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu in 1996. The paper recommended that “it is both natural and moral that Israel abandon the slogan ‘comprehensive peace’ and move to contain Syria, drawing attention to its weapons of mass destruction programme, and rejecting ‘land for peace’ deals on the Golan Heights“.
The neo-conservatives have been on hiatus since their Israel-centric recommendations greatly undermined the political, military and economic status of the US. But now the Arab popular awakening is enlivening all sorts of sinister possibilities. A stalemate in Libya presented an opening for the US and its allies. Syria could be an opportunity, although the stakes here are much higher.
US policy regarding Syria has been largely defined by soft coercion, aimed at eroding Syria’s strong alliance with Iran, its support of Hezbollah in Lebanon, and its hosting of various Palestinian resistance groups, including Hamas. But a complete regime change has not necessarily been a top US priority. Chaos in Syria, without a clear and stabilising alternative force, could significantly complicate the US mission in Iraq.
The shared border between Syria and Iraq has been a somewhat contentious issue between Syria and the US, although the US has also seemed increasingly satisfied with Damascus’ monitoring of the long-drawn-out border.
Making a Point
However, several lethal messages were sent to Syria — from both the US and Israel — to remind the government of who was really in control. The loudest of these reminders was the so-called Operation Orchard, an Israeli air strike on Syrian territories on September 6, 2007.
Defending the Israeli action, the US claimed the bombed site was a nuclear facility, an allegation that remains unconfirmed by independent sources. Another strike against Syria was launched late October 2008, this time by the US. The strike reportedly killed civilians. Its purpose, as emphasised by a US official, and quoted by The Times on October 29, 2008: “You have to clean up the global threat that is in your backyard”.
Damascus did very little by way of responding.
However, the unrest in Syria, which seems to be largely independent of US and Israeli influence, has caught Washington by surprise. The US wants to see a weaker Syria, but the prospect of a post-Al Assad regime that is not assembled in Washington could pose a greater challenge to US-Israeli policies.
Consequently, the US position regarding the turmoil in Syria is unclear. US officials seem to be expending more energy chastising Iran for alleged involvement in quelling Syria’s protests than in showing clear support for the protesters.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated that her country was “watching very closely what Iran is doing in the region,” according to Voice of America online (April 21). “We hear Iran praising the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa, except it doesn’t praise what happens inside Iran, and it doesn’t praise what is happening in Syria.”
Taking on Iran might not suffice as a long-term distraction from having to answer urgent questions regarding the US’ own position around Syria. After much reluctance, the US was forced to concede on Egypt, comforted perhaps by subtle assurances that the Camp David agreement with Israel would be honoured. But there are no guarantees regarding future scenarios in Syria.
What started as a genuine call for reforms and change in Syria could become much more complicated, leading to nightmarish scenarios and protracted conflict.
- Kerry’s softer stance on Syria scrutinized (boston.com)
- WH considering targeted sanctions against Syria (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- What’s Next in Syria: An Armed, Bloody Rebellion? (globalspin.blogs.time.com)
- Syria: The key piece in a regional Rubik’s cube (cnn.com)
- NATO doing all the fighting for the US – former Reagan administration official (rt.com)
- US treads warily in Syria, considers sanctions (sfgate.com)
- Diplomatic Damascus Drones (thinkingdice.wordpress.com)
- Why attack Libya and not Syria? (cnn.com)
- What Happens Next In Syria (businessinsider.com)
- Gunfire echoes around Syria’s besieged Deraa (calgaryherald.com)