Joe Conason's Journal

The White House agitates -- falsely -- against Syria. Our allies keep cooler heads. But who will prevail?

Published April 15, 2003 5:53PM (EDT)

Being serious about Syria
With our war enthusiasts agitating the world into a fearful froth over Syria, now might be a good time for sober consideration of the Assad regime. Neoconservatives itch for "confrontation" with Iraq's western neighbor (from a safe personal distance, as usual). A fine example of this latest genre, written by Iran-contra character Michael Ledeen, can be found in the Spectator. After repeating the Rumsfeld alarms about Syria's involvement with Saddam and chemical weapons, Ledeen levels the ultimate accusation against Damascus: "They are an integral part of the terror network that produced 11 September."

The insinuation that Syria had some role in al-Qaida's attack on the United States is entirely false. To manipulate public opinion, the hawks are fabricating a case that ignores certain complicated and inconvenient facts. Certainly Syria remains a repressive Baathist dictatorship, where the previous regime committed terrible crimes such as the 1982 Hama massacre. What the neocon ideologues don't mention, however, is that since Sept. 11, Syria has provided invaluable aid to the United States in the war against al-Qaida -- and that repaying such assistance with confrontation risks undermining the real war on terror around the world.

Like the Baathists in Iraq, the Syrians have traditionally been political enemies of al-Qaida (although they support the Muslim extremists of Hizbollah and Hamas). Even before Sept. 11, the Syrian authorities cooperated in operations against al-Qaida, according to Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon, former counterterror directors at the National Security Council. In their 2002 book "The Age of Sacred Terror," Benjamin and Simon note that the Syrians uncovered an al-Qaida cell three years ago and "the operatives were quickly shipped to Jordan for trial. The country's secular rulers recognized that the group posed a long-term threat to their regime in Damascus, just as it did to the others in the region."

The Syrian government immediately denounced the Sept. 11 attack and identified many of the suspected al-Qaida operatives in Europe and the U.S. who were subsequently arrested.

According to the Washington Post, CIA agents arranged the "capture and transfer of an al-Qaida suspect to Syria," where he has no doubt been interrogated with the usual respect for legal niceties and human rights. The Syrians are holding suspect Mohammed Haydar Zammar despite protests from the German government, which was outraged by Zammar's "rendition" to Damascus because he holds dual German-Syrian citizenship.

Last September, while testifying against a congressional move to impose new sanctions on Syria, Assistant Secretary of State David Satterfield pointedly praised the Syrian government for its participation in the war against al-Qaida. He expressed the president's appreciation for Syria's help, which "has been substantial and has helped save American lives."

The paradox, of course, is that Syria is simultaneously considered a "state sponsor of terrorism" because of its activities on the West Bank and Gaza. The State Department's most recent assessment of Damascus is worth quoting at length:

"Syria's president, Bashar al-Asdad, as well as senior Syrian officials, publicly condemned the September 11 attacks. The Syrian Government also cooperated with the United States and with other foreign governments in investigating al-Qaida and some other terrorist groups and individuals.

"The Government of Syria has not been implicated directly in an act of terrorism since 1986, but it continued in 2001 to provide safe haven and logistics support to a number of terrorist groups ... Syria provided Hizballah, HAMAS, PFLP-GC, the PIJ, and other terrorist organizations refuge and basing privileges in Lebanon's Beka'a Valley, under Syrian control."

War, diplomacy and life aren't as comfortingly simple as the neocon crusaders like to think. Is Syria more repressive or more dangerous than such American allies as Pakistan, which also supports terrorist groups? Will making an "example" of Damascus promote or discourage cooperation against al-Qaida?

Fortunately, the "coalition of the willing" includes cooler heads. Yesterday Tony Blair and his foreign minister Jack Straw both stated publicly that Britain has no intention of waging war on Syria.
[11:06 a.m. PDT, April 15, 2003]

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