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  2003 2002 2001 Ranking(2003)
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Books on Syria

Update No: 060 - (31/10/08)

October Surprise
In an action that can only be described as bewildering, the United States launched a commando raid in northern Syria, which killed eight people, apparently all civilians. As unpleasant as the outcome may have been, it is the timing of the attack, which is especially peculiar. Despite all the threats that had emanated from Washington against Syria since the war on Iraq began in 2003, this is the first direct and intentional US attack on Syrian territory. The neo-conservatives whispering in the background of the Bush administration had always advocated expanding, rather than containing - let alone peace building, the wars of the Middle East and Syria was one of the main targets, having inherited the vacant spot in the 'axis of evil' after Iraq was cleansed by 'liberation'. In 2006, the US appeared to be actively coaxing Israel to expand its war on Lebanon into Syria. Yet, it seems unlikely, that even as wrong as the neocons have been, that the raid in Syria was an attempt to ensnare Syria into retaliating (perhaps bolstering McCain's flagging electoral campaign). Since 1973, Syria has engaged only in well calculated military actions; president Basher al-Asad has also shown himself to be as cautious as his father Hafez having resisted several provocations since the US invasion of Iraq, from both the US and Israel. President Bush uttered the predictable refrain, claiming that the attack was necessary to stop "Al-Qaeda linked" groups smuggling terrorists into Iraq, implying that the targets must have been very important. The trouble is that any White House statement is now regarded as totally untrustworthy so this just has to join a queue of possible reasons.

Many Questions, Few Answers
The attack raises some important questions: why now? Why now, barely a week before a presidential election, and especially, why attack Syria now, just as it is mending relations with neighbors and after diplomatic niceties were exchanged between Washington and Damascus in the wake of the bombing of last September. It seems a very strange gambit, even for the Bush administration. Is the United States sending some kind of a message to the Middle East to offer a preview of how it will use its freshly signed military and security agreement with Iraq, launching swift attacks to target 'rogue states'? Was the attack ordered or authorized by the White House or was it planned by the new commander of US forces in Iraq, General Odierno? After all, General David Petraeus had shown interest in engaging Syria through peaceful means in order to secure greater collaboration in helping to control the 'porosity' of the Syro-Iraqi border. 

Indeed, Last December, Petraeus, said, "Syria has taken steps to reduce the flow of the foreign fighters through its borders with Iraq." Moreover, the attack comes at an especially inauspicious time, as Tzipi Livni failed to form a new Kadima led government, forcing the matter of parliamentary elections in Israel. Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud would be Livni's main rival; his re-appearance as a contender has virtually ended any immediate progress on the Turkish mediated peace talks between Damascus and Tel Aviv. There is also the matter of Iran. The raid on Syria also sends a signal to Teheran that the US is not yet ready to leave the region, and that it is interpreting the new security pact as a 'carte blanche' to pursue its anti-terror whims anywhere in the region from around Iraq. In other words, the US has not yet given up on the idea of using force against Iran. The raid on Syria may be but a dress rehearsal for a raid against perceived threats in Iran, such as the Pasdaran, which have been included in the US list of terror organizations. After the first week of November, barring any electoral 'glitches', president Bush will enjoy less virtual accountability than at any other time during his eight year presidency. He will not even have to be concerned about defending his party's fortunes, given that one way or the other the election will have been decided. This could either make his foreign policy more reckless, using his last few weeks to carry out what's left of the neo-conservative vision, launching more attacks into Syria and possibly Iran or - more unlikely - more willing to compromise with the State Department - including a very diplomatic Condoleezza Rice, who actually met Syria's foreign affairs minister Mo'allem on the margins of the UN general Assembly in October. This seeking to find a way to restore a modicum of stability to the Middle East by trying to revive the moribund peace promises made a year ago at the Annapolis conference. 

Apart from this wide range of conjectures we could return to the White House line quoted above, the answer being that it would depend on whether the targets were low-level people smugglers on the pipeline of suicidalists, coming to Iraq to be human bombs; or more intriguingly a target of sufficiently high value to 'justify' the political risks enumerated above. The evidence for this last is that when it was at first reported in the US it was in terms of a high value target and that the commando unit that carried it out was not a regular military line unit, but one which belonged to a dedicated team whose role was purely the targeting of the al Qaeda leadership, in whatever nation they might be. Thus it was said, this top secret unit never gave press statements about any aspect of their missions, which explained the absence of information until the White House came up with their contribution. Another aspect of this is that it was suggested that when the US helicopters flew into this border town, it was already ringed with Syrian ground forces. Clearly it is going to take someone's memoirs before we know the whole story. 

Syrian Public Opinion
The cross border raid has turned Syrian public opinion genuinely against the United States; Syrians are also resentful that the United States has not shown sufficient gratitude to Syria on account of the latter's efforts to catch would-be terrorists going to Iraq (an activity which also has important Syrian security implications, as witnessed during last September's bombing in Damascus). More importantly perhaps, Syria has also been harboring over 1.5 million Iraqi refugees, apart from gradually improving diplomatic relations with Lebanon, Iraq and the European Union. Indeed, rather than the much hyped 'surge', which senator McCain has so vociferously commended as the sole reason for the reduction of ethnic violence in Iraq, the fact that so many Iraqis, Sunnis and Shiites, have been displaced away from their towns and neighborhoods, many of them finding refuge in Syria, has probably a great deal more to say about the less intensive inter-communal violence than the 'surge'. The United States has never offered any help for Syria to deal with the influx of Iraqi refugees, who have been taking advantage of and overburdening Syria's social assistance and education systems. It may well be that the US raid into Syria was not the first of its kind since March 2003; however, Syria has decided to draw all due attention to it, perhaps because it feels betrayed in spite of having done everything possible to ease American concerns. Syria has chosen not to counterattack against other flagrant violations of sovereignty in the recent past. Much less than choosing to retaliate militarily, Syria may not even go as far as expelling the US charge d'affaires from the country, limiting it to shutting down an American school and the American Cultural Center for the time being. Damascus may just philosophically be avoiding escalation and waiting like the rest of the world for the White House to change occupants.

What of the Golan and Regional Peace?
Syria's diplomatic position with the EU, however, remains solid. France itself, current president of the EU, intervened on behalf of Syria, demanding that full light be shed on the raid, while Russia, which has increased military cooperation with Syria, issued a full condemnation of the US attack. But none of this matters in real terms; the Golan is further away than it was a month ago. Syria will have not even be able to rely on its new friends, as well as new and old regional allies like Lebanon, Turkey and Iran, to pursue its goal of securing the return of the Golan. Tzipi Livni, the Israeli prime minister designate from the Kadima party, failed to form a government prompting elections pitting her against the Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu, one of the authors of the Project for the new American Century, who has already staked his 'neo-conservative' positions refuting both the peace talks with the Palestinian National Authority and Syria. Netanyahu has vowed not to give up the Golan, which he sees as an important security buffer. Had the United States played a role sponsoring the Israeli-Syrian talks in Turkey, even Netanyahu would have been pressured to make some concessions. However, that notable absence and the Israeli elections have effectively ended the talks and the lack of US sponsorship will see to it that they will be buried for some time. 

Finally, while President Asad's position vis--vis Europe remains strong, at home his regime may prompt concerns of weakness from hardliners within the Ba'ath party. In the past few months, Syria's reputation as being impervious to infiltration has waned after the murder of the Hezbollah military chief Imad Mughniyeh, a security official close to President al-Asad and the mysterious attack of last September. Many Syrian 'nationalists' will also be wondering how and why were the US helicopters allowed to penetrate into Syrian territory without retaliation? Two of the helicopters actually landed to drop off US soldiers, according to media reports. Asad will be hard pressed to consider retaliation, especially as important diplomatic victories such as the Golan are evaporating. The prospect of Netanyahu winning the Israeli elections, coupled with the still possible (though less likely if polls are to be trusted) John McCain victory in the United States is rather a terrifying, but possible, scenario for Middle East peace. Netanyahu has shown himself every bit as hotheaded as Bush, if not more, suggesting he would be willing to launch a "nuclear strike on Iran". 


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