September 23, 2004
A new day in Damascus?By Olivier Guitta
With virtually no attention from the major American media, France and a number of Arab regimes have joined with the Bush Administration, to bring pressure on Syria to step back from its occupation of Lebanon, and behave itself by halting its acquiensence to support for terror attacks in Iraq. While John F. Kerry blathers on about "isolation" the Bush Administration is getting the job done.
After being left on the backburner for awhile, Syria has now come to the forefront of the news. Between an historical United Nations Security Council resolution condemning its occupation of Lebanon, a stormy Damascus visit from Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs William Burns, and the announcement of a redeployment of troops yesterday, Syria is back on top of the agenda. And for good reason.
First and foremost, since the official end of the war in Iraq last year, it has been widely reported that Syria is directly or indirectly attacking our troops. Syrians also provide terrorists with weapons and are involved with plotting bombings as well. Hizbullah, the Shia Lebanese terrorist organization supported by Syria, has two offices in Iraq, where they foment deadly schemes against the Coalition.
Additionally, Syria has been often cited as the stashing place for Saddam Hussein's weapons and money.
On January 5, 2004 in an interview with the Dutch newspaper De Telegraaf, and then speaking to Britain's Channel 5 News, Nayouf— a very courageous Syrian journalist who spent ten years in prison in Damascus for his human rights activism and opposition to the Assad regime, now in exile in Paris — affirmed that in February 2003, a month before the US intervention in Iraq, Saddam's WMD were evacuated to Syria in ambulances, with the personal involvement of President Bashar Assad and his family. Nayouf's source inside Syria's military intelligence gave him also the exact locations where these weapons were hidden.
That is not all: Syria's Central Bank and the Medina Bank in Lebanon are said to be holding at least $2 billion in cash, as well as gold bullion and platinum that were smuggled out of Iraq before the war. The go—betweens for these transactions were three Lebanese politicians, including Emile Lahoud, Parliament member and the Lebanon President's son.
This last fact is crucial because it corroborates an important report from the Iraqi newspaper Al Mada, which published an exhaustive list of international personalities who benefited from Saddam Hussein's generosity for services rendered. This list, confirmed by the Iraqi Oil Ministry, contains the name of Emile Lahoud, along with twelve Syrian bigwigs such as the Syrian Defense Minister's son and also lots of Western politicians.
That is why on October 15, 2003, the US House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved what is commonly called the Syria Accountability Act, signed into law by President Bush in December 2003. Nonetheless, its full name is the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereign Restoration Act. This bill imposes diplomatic and economic sanctions on Syria, not only because of its sponsorship of terrorist organizations, but also because of its occupation of Lebanon. Since not much has changed on the ground, especially in Lebanon, an historical and exceptional Franco—American resolution 1559 condemning Syria passed on September 3 at the UN Security Council 9—0 with six abstentions.
How did Assad react? The next day the Lebanese Parliament changed the Constitution in order to allow Syrian puppet Lebanese President Lahoud to be reappointed for another three years. Also according to Amir Taheri, in the New York Post, Assad ordered 'a strengthening of Syria's military presence in Lebanon from 28,000 men to almost 40,000 men before year's end.'
In this context, William Burns met with Assad on September 11 and according to the news website proche—orient.info, things did not go well. They report that Burns was very angry and banged his fist on the table, accusing Assad of provoking the international community by forcing the speedy change in the Lebanese constitution. Burns reminded Assad of the comments of Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz who said that Syria was on the verge of being added to the axis of evil. He also added that pressure would be applied until Lebanon becomes a free country. However, a carrot was added to the stick: if Syria brought itself into compliance on this issue and halted support for terrorists in Iraq, US—Syrian relations could tremendously warm up and a real partnership could even be envisioned.
From the American point of view, the Libyan scenario — getting rogue states to comply by forceful diplomacy — is clearly preferred. That is why, according to the Lebanese paper Assafir, the US Congress is preparing a tougher bill on Syria, which will demand the evacuation of Lebanon with a detailed schedule, and the total halt of support to terrorist organizations like Hizbullah — what Richard Armitage, Deputy US Secretary of State, calls "the A—team" of terrorists, while Al Qaeda may be the B team. Hizbullah controls the Southern part of Lebanon. If Syria does not comply, then tougher sanctions will be enforced.
But what is the most striking is the total turnaround of France and most Arab countries. They, for the first time, condemned Syria, in sync with the USA. France has always had a love story with Syria, its ex—colony. For proof, French President Chirac was the only Western leader to attend Hafez Assad's funeral in 2000 — but did not make it to President Reagan's while he was already in the States for the G8 summit. In an article in French daily Liberation entitled 'France—Syria: the honeymoon is over,' we learn why the French have turned their backs on Assad and why Syria feels Resolution 1559 is a declaration of war from one of his best allies.
The reason has a name: Rafik Hariri, Lebanon's Prime Minister and Chirac's best friend. Some French papers have established that Hariri — a multi billionaire—contributed heavily financially to Chirac's reelection campaign in 2002. It is not a secret that Hariri hates the current pro Syrian Lebanese President Lahoud.
Assad, realizing that he lost almost all support from his traditional allies, had to show a more compromising face. Thus, he had (coincidentally?) his Ambassador to the US announce yesterday a 'major' redeployment of Syrian troops in Lebanon. According to unconfirmed estimates, 1,000 to 3,000 men — out of a total force of 20,000 — are going to be moved from Beirut to positions at the Lebanese—Syrian border, but (interestingly) on the Lebanese side. The Ambassador also spoke of a new close cooperation between Syria and the US regarding the control of the Iraqi border where so many foreign fighters are crossing to attack our troops.
The major Lebanese daily L'Orient le Jour is very skeptical, to say the least, of this sudden change of heart of the Syrians. They note that this is the sixth redeployment of troops since 1996, that nothing has really changed, and this time it is not going to be any different. Hopefully, the resolve of this Administration to forcefully follow through, and not fall for fake withdrawals, will translate in the medium term into a full compliance from Assad.
One very important aspect of Syria's support of terror is the presence of major terrorist organizations in Damascus. For instance, Hamas and Islamic Jihad have their headquarters there. Recently, the State Department accused Damascus of having responsibility in the double suicide attacks in Beersheba that killed 16 innocent Israelis. But there might be changes on that front: according to the website elaph.com, Hamas Head Khaled Mechaal might have decided to leave Damascus for good, to set—up shop in Tehran. Elaph reported that a top Syrian official advised Mechaal to leave Damascus for his own safety, and an Iranian delegation visited him to set up an evacuation plan.
So only time will tell whether Syria has really gotten the message or is still playing its usual cat and mouse games. But since France and the UN are on board, we might see if multilateralism and endless resolutions work in taming rogue dictators' ambitions.
The US, by pressuring Syria on Lebanon and support of terrorist organizations, hopes to get a better grip on the situation in Iraq. Furthermore liberating Lebanon and coercing Syria into becoming a new Libya would leave us left only with Iran as a major threat in the region.
Not so bad for the Bush Administration record, especially if we get there with the French and the UN on board...