Books on Syria
Update No: 047 - (28/09/07)
What Is Being Cooked Up for Syria?
In the past few years, Syria has witnessed a great deal of unusual activity.
From the series of political assassinations in Lebanon starting with the murder
of Rafiq al-Hariri in February 2005, leading to the withdrawal from that
country, and the war launched by Israel against Hezbollah in July 2006 - to
mention a few - Syria has been struggling to define its role in the Middle East.
In September a combination of events including another political murder in
Beirut and an Israeli air raid on Syrian territory over the Dayr Al-Zur area
(northeast of Syria), and the Golan appear to have been efforts to stir even
more chaos and confusion into an area that is already saturated with both. The
Israeli raids brought in a new actor, no less than one of the original members
of the Axis of Evil 'club of three', North Korea. After days of speculation over
the nature of the raids, whereby Israeli air force jets violated Syrian airspace
and fired missiles at targets on the ground - it is suggested to destroy North
Korean supplied armaments, believed to perhaps have nuclear payload capability,
(to put it at its most dire).
Damascus and Pyongyang have vehemently denied the reports of nuclear
cooperation, but the US neoconservative establishment has taken the speculation
of Syrian-North Korean cooperation brought to light by the Israeli raid on
September 6th as sufficient evidence that the two countries 'might be'
cooperating on a nuclear weapons program, as purported by former US ambassador
to the UN, John Bolton in an article published in the Wall Street Journal. It
seems however, that Syria like several other countries, including Pakistan, has
long been a customer of North Korea for armaments, including rockets. The export
of weaponry has been North Korea's one important earner of foreign currency for
Evidence of such collaboration was also alleged on the basis of a meeting
between Syria and North Korea in Pyongyang on September 21. More moderate
sources are suggesting that any North Korean military equipment targeted by
Israel in its raid, was more likely to be intended for chemical or conventional
HE warheads, something Syria has no doubt already got in their armoury.
The Dogs that Didn't Bark
There can be no doubt that the Cheney Bolton neocon hawks, will play the worst
case scenario to its full potential. What a triumph for them if in one shot they
could hit two birds - putting Syria in the top rank of enemies, by badging them
as nuclear rogues, at the same time as scuttling the North Korean peace talks,
due to resume about now. But the big question remains why did neither the
Israeli nor the Syrian government, even the US, not make top level statements
about this serious incident? Unusually the leakers in all three camps were
inactive at the same time, which implies that they don't, or didn't then know.
That of course allowed the John Bolton corner its chance to 'talk nuclear'.
There could be several reasons for this incident and the deafening silence that
followed, but no firm evidence as between whether it was a mistake by Israel,
bombing conventional military munitions, in the light of inaccurate
intelligence; to another parameter of speculation, that it followed an ultimatum
which neither party saw it as in their interests to publicise, (for example,
Dayr is Syria's primary oil province and perhaps it was that being threatened).
Kimchi in Syria?
The North Korean connection seems to fit well with a metaphorical arrangement,
whereby North Korea, which has been cooperating with international efforts to
stop its nuclear weapons development, formally hands its 'axis of evil' mantle
to Syria, raising its stature as an enemy of the West. The direct 'axis of evil'
association would facilitate the US take a more direct approach to dealing with
Syria militarily. The United States itself need not be involved, for as some
Arab observers have noted, the escalating campaign against Syria might suggest
that Israel is getting ready to instigate a more significant military strike
against Syria itself, in conjunction with contemporaneous strokes against
Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, and Hamas in Gaza - which has already been
reduced to a state of siege. The recent Israeli declaration that Gaza is an
'enemy entity' is just a few words short of a full declaration of war, and that
might not exclude other warlike measures to be adopted against troublesome
neighbors, such as Syria or Lebanon. In so doing, Israel would aim against
Syrian and Hezbollah arsenals and, most especially, to test Syria's new Russian
made air defense system. Israel could evaluate opportunities for a more
extensive strike against Syria - effectively complicating the Golan dispute
further in order to increase its bargaining room at any possible future Middle
East peace talks. A carefully gauged strike would also put the Syro-Iranian
defense pact on the back foot, provoking Iran to perhaps engage in war, to
defend its allies in Lebanon and Syria; making it easier in a cloud of
middle-east conflict for the United States to attack Iran.
The second scenario has been already partly accomplished. The attack against
Dayr al-Zur was evidently an instigation to embarrass the Syrian leadership,
demonstrating its impotence to the Syrian population and the Arab world in
general, which might explain why Syria didn't publicise it. Syria knows that to
respond militarily to an Israeli attack, is not a desirable option. Israel's
reputation as invincible was badly bruised in the 2006 war against Hezbollah,
but there is a big difference between street-fighting guerillas, and airstrikes
against concentrations of armaments on the ground. In that respect Israel may
have believed that they needed to reassert an aura of might in the region.
Nevertheless, the Israeli raid may also be politically interpreted as a call for
Syria to be more flexible in negotiating the Golan, should the US really succeed
in organizing a Middle East peace conference, based on the Saudi peace plan that
has been proffered in various forms, since the Arab League conference last
March, in the next few months. Given the importance of the Golan to the Ba'ath
regime and the cause's legitimating implications, there is little to suggest
that Syria would participate in any Middle East peace conference without
assurances that the Golan would be on the agenda, and eventually be returned. As
for the rumored peace conference, "Syria will decide on whether to
participate after it receives an invitation," said the minister of
information, Mohsen Bilal. He noted that the conference should aim to secure an
independent Palestinian state, the right of return of Palestinian refugees, and
the Golan's return to Syria in its entirety.
Syria also fears that the peace conference would not be very substantial,
tending more toward public relations for the United States as it looks for ways
to improve its image in the Middle East than achieving meaningful solutions.
Moreover, with Bush entering his last year as president, Syria may well be
waiting for a new power broker with whom to discuss peace, meaning it is willing
to wait until after the 2008 presidential elections to participate in any peace
talks. There is the risk, nonetheless, that the expected peace conference, would
also help bring together Israel with Washington's Arab allies (will Saudi Arabia
attend?), further isolating Syria - and Iran.
The Lebanon Channel
And then there is the matter of Lebanon, which is - supposed to be doing this at
any rate - getting ready to elect a new president to replace the pro-Syrian
Emile Lahoud. No doubt the Bush administration would prefer to see someone from
the March 14 Coalition (which holds a shaky majority in an even shakier
parliament) rather than a member of the opposition such as Michel Aoun (all
presidents in Lebanon, as part of the confessional distribution of power
established by the constitution, have to be Christian), who would continue to
have good relations with Syria and strengthen Hezbollah, stalling any
disarmament demanded by UN resolution 1701. (Not that anyone has any idea how to
implement that resolution other than through Syria).
The murder of the Christian Phalangist member of parliament, Antoine Ghanem, on
September 19 in the backdrop of the presidential election adds an additional
variable. The latest political assassination, which many (as usual), have blamed
on Syria - even though none of the previous political assassinations in Lebanon
over the past two years have been solved - has prompted some to demand a
re-configuration of the role of the UN peacekeeping contingent UNIFIL, such that
it be deployed in Beirut as well - even as this would actually raise, rather
than quell tensions!
The achievement of a national agreement based on the resumption of talks for a
national unity government, would be beneficial, said Talal Salman, the editor of
the noted Beirut daily, as-Safir. However, the March 14 coalition prefers to
risk the eruption of more chaos, as it advocated more international
intervention, insisting that Syria and its Lebanese allies, such as Hezbollah,
are behind Ghanem and all the other murders, even as Syria started to re-open to
some western countries, including France. Meanwhile, in an apparent attempt to
contrast the pavlovian accusations against Syria, every time a majority
coalition politician is murdered, the legal advisor to UN secretary general Ban
Ki-moon, Nicholas Michel, told the Lebanese newspaper al-Akhbar that unreliable
witnesses, apparently paid to provide evidence against Damascus, have come forth
- only to disappear again in the past two years, after testifying against the
The UN now intends to prosecute such witnesses after one of the star witnesses
Muhammad Al-Saddiq, granted protection in France, has been found to be a liar.
The French newspaper Le Figaro also said that the UN special investigator into
the Hariri murder, Serge Brammertz, would present a formal accusation against
Saad Hariri, son of Rafiq, who is believed to have 'bought' some witnesses.
Meanwhile, the same Saad Hariri, head of the March 14 coalition parliamentary
majority and the Hezbollah-led opposition have failed to reach an agreement over
the nomination of the future president, postponing it until mid-October. The
opposition wanted to nominate Michel Aoun, but 'March 14' has rejected it,
insisting that the new president be a reflection of the parliamentary majority.
In this context, Syria will continue to be under pressure in Lebanon, as the
United States and Israel continue to maintain pressure on Syria and Iran,