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Books on Syria

Update No: 051 - (01/05/08)

A Neocon Swansong
In April the White House accused North Korea of helping Syria build a nuclear facility, presumably for offensive capability. The facility at Deir el-Zor was destroyed by Israeli jets last September 6, raising speculations of a Syria - North Korea collaboration. The United States, which had video footage of the facility, said to show images of the attack against the facility itself and visual evidence of North Korea's involvement in the construction of a nuclear reactor. Until the end of April, the video footage had not been released and as also noted in this month's North Korea update, the timing for release of the footage may be partly related to the Cheney clique's efforts to put pressure on and undermine the nuclear negotiations with Pyongyang, while also helping to build the case for military action against Syria and, by extension, Iran. US vice-president Dick Cheney, who visited various Middle Eastern capitals last March, made it a point to accuse and discredit Iran and Syria as the primary sources for mischief in the Middle East. They promote and fund Hezbollah and Hamas as well as Sunni extremist groups and Shiite communities in Iraq, even as Iran continues to pursue its own nuclear program. 

The IAEA said it would launch an inquiry into the allegations and have queried why were they not alerted much sooner, so they could have investigated before all the evidence was destroyed by an Israeli air attack? Syria has vehemently denied the accusations, describing these as 'ridiculous'. Asad rhetorically asked "would it be at all logical to leave a nuclear site without anti-aircraft artillery protection, under the eye of satellites, in the desert and in full view". Even as Syrians have reacted with amusement, they are no doubt concerned that the US administration could use the allegations to build a case against Syria in the same way they built one against Iraq, which was infamously accused of stockpiling weapons of mass destruction in the months preceding the war launched in 2003. Moreover, as discredited as the charges against Iraq have been, the nuclear reactor 'card' is the latest in a series of propaganda accusations against Syria that emerged in the very first weeks after the initial American "successes" in Iraq in 2003, whereby it was alleged that Syria was giving refuge to the missing Saddam Hussein, other Iraqi leaders, his weapons of mass destruction, and the enduring one of allowing 'foreign fighters' to enter Iraq, adding strife and of laundering money for the Ba'athist regime. 

It is in this context that the allegations of an alliance with North Korea should be considered. It is rather convenient that North Korea is one of the original members of the neo-conservative coined 'Axis of Evil' club - one in which Syria was never formally initiated, even though Washington has done everything to portray it as the de-facto substitute for Iraq in the 'Axis. Interestingly, Israel gave the 10-minute video of the suspected nuclear facility to the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA); nevertheless, the allegations rest on the fact that the culpable building resembles the North Korean reactor in Yongbyon, demonstrating that Syria had been working on a plutonium capable reactor. The CIA also said that they had information from 2001 indicating "cooperation between North Korean nuclear entities and high-level Syrian officials". The photos of two smiling men, one said to be a North Korean scientist (subsequently claimed by others to be not a nuclear scientist but a (named) diplomat, and another man claimed to be Syrian, were presented as the "smoking gun"(of Colin Powell and Niger yellowcake fame) "proving" that "cooperation between North Korean nuclear-related personalities and entities and high-level Syrian officials began probably as early as 1997." The US acknowledged Israel's right to deal with the reactor as it saw fit, because it represented 'an existential threat'; it did not recognize, however, Syria's own rights as a sovereign nation.

Joseph Cirincione, who until recently was an expert on nuclear disarmament at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and is now the director of the Ploughshares fund, has suggested that the Deir el-Zor building that Israeli jets blew up last September was an army depot covering an underground base where the Syrian army stores long and medium-range missiles, SCUDS, which it sources from Iran and/or North Korea. Cirincione claims that the attack by the Israeli air force coincided with the arrival of a stock of parts for Syria's 200 Scud B and 60 Scud C weapons. Cirincione has noted that while Syria has conducted nuclear research in the past, with aid coming from a variety of sources in the period of Ba'athist rule, including western ones, it has not advanced beyond a basic program to produce some isotopes or neutrons. The program has no capacity to produce nuclear weapons. 

Leaving aside other details of the Syrian-North Korean nuclear cooperation, the actual motivations for what is in fact a manufactured distraction are more likely to be found in a series of diplomatic maneuvers by Syria to emerge from isolation, while upholding its case for Israel to relinquish control of the Golan Heights. The timing of the nuclear accusations against Syria coincide with former president Jimmy Carter's visit of the Middle East, talks between Turkish prime minister Erdogan and president Asad over an apparent Israeli offer to relinquish the Golan in exchange for peace and the resumption of Franco-Syrian talks (Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem met his French counterpart, Bernard Kouchner, in Kuwait). The intrusion of a nuclear factor in the renewed series of diplomatic initiatives would only serve to discourage any serious effort to revisit prospects for a recuperation of Syrian relations with the West, or for a resolution of Syria's dispute with Israel. Despite opposition from the Israeli government and of the US administration, Carter met the political leader of Hamas, Khaled Meshaal as well as president al-Asad. 

Neo-Conservatives Cannot Afford Peace
In so doing, and with the credibility of being the one western leader to broker a lasting peace between an Arab state (Egypt) and Israel in 1979 when he was president, Carter is the only western authority to have met Israeli, Fatah and Hamas authorities - after Hamas was expelled from the national unity government. Meshaal reiterated his support for the Arab peace initiative offering Israel peace and full recognition from all Arab states in exchange for an Israeli withdrawal of the Israeli army and the settlers from all territories occupied by Israel since 1967 - including the Golan Heights. For starters, Meshaal demanded assurances that Israel would agree to a ceasefire and the reopening of all border crossings with Gaza and the West Bank. While, Carter has no concrete political authority, he enjoys considerable respect and credibility. His meeting with Messhal and Asad has enabled both leaders to make an additional scratch in the diplomatic wall that the United States and Israel have helped to build since, effectively, the start of the second Intifada, which began with the failure of the talks between Arafat and Barak in 2000. Hamas has inflicted some important blows in this wall, including a media campaign showing the suffering of ordinary Gazans with the symbolic wall separating Gaza from Egypt at the Rafah crossing, and images of the daily civilian victims of Israeli attacks. Carter's visit to Damascus has, in a way, legitimized these efforts and puts considerable pressure on Olmert's government to act. It gives those members of Olmert's cabinet so inclined, the necessary leverage to make an effort to open talks with Hamas, not least to secure the release of the Israeli corporal Shalit, who was captured in June 2006 by Hamas forces. The 'intrusion' of Turkey, a US ally and Israeli friend, in the diplomatic efforts, as 'agent' of rumored Syro-Israeli talks for the Golan, adds further impetus to what appears to be a sustained collapse of diplomatic barriers. The US neo-conservative camp, strongly aligned with the hard-line Israeli positions exemplified by Benjamin Netanyahu, is left weakened by such legitimated requests for talks, forcing it to establish a diversion intended to discredit any concrete possibility for peace.

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