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Bush Administration - Overthrowing Syria?

Many NeoCons called for regime change in Syria once regime change in Iraq was completed, but after a few years of combat in Iraq, such calls were muted. The Bush administration played good cop, bad cop with Syria on after September 11th. The Syrians got mixed signals from this administration. Until the war with Iraq, the administration was giving Syria a pass on a variety of issues. Now that time has come to an end. No sooner had combat operations ended in Iraq than several top Bush Administration officials issued stern warnings to Syria that it must cooperate with the United States or face some kind of retaliation. The sharp warnings surprised many, but some observers say it was to be expected. They point out that elements in Washington would like to see Syria treated more harshly than it has been in previous years as part of the Administration's war on terror. The US cut off the supply of Iraqi oil through the Kirkuk pipeline that passes through to the port of Latakia.

The Bush administration has signaled that wants to achieve some kind of Middle East peace, achieving stability and promoting democracy in the region. It would be very difficult to provide security for Israel and peace in a Palestinian state without dealing with the question of terrorism coming from Syria. If Lebanon and the Bekaa Valley are no longer a safe haven for terrorism across Israel's northern border, and if the Golan Heights are no longer a necessary strategic barrier to the return of Syrian aggression against Israel from the North, then the strategic condition might be commensurate with an Israeli willingness to make peace.

A wing of the Baath party has controlled Syria. It is the country cousin of the party that was overthrown in Iraq. The Baath party in Syria is a secular party. It is also a party that represents a dictatorship. There's no democracy, much less a decent civil society inside Syria that has blocked economic reform. And the ruling family is a small minority inside an Alawite small minority that rules a much broader Sunni majority. Focusing the Sunni public's attention on the continuing Palestinian conflict is the tried and true way of decrepit Arab regimes to draw the public's attention away from what is necessary to help improve their own lives.

Iran and Syria are strong bilateral allies. Iran has been a major supporter of Syria financially and funding terrorist groups. Iran is probably are paying the rent for most of the terrorist groups in Damascus.

Syria had thrown its lot in with Iraq, which was a grave miscalculation. It showed the inexperience of President Bashar Al-Asad. There are some who think that Syria is making a power play to fill a vacuum that's been left open inside the Middle East after the fall of Saddam. With Osama bin Laden no where to be found, Bashar Al-Asad may think that he has an opening to speak out in a vociferous way in the Arab world. As the war for Iraq came to a close in April 2003, the United States accused neighboring Syria of harboring former Iraqi officials who were implicated in Saddam Hussein's regime. It was only in recent years where the Baath party in Iraq and the Baath party in Syria began reconciling. Asad's father and Saddam were mortal enemies. Their Syrian foreign minister said that if the Americans dared to attack Iraq, they will be treated the way they were treated in Lebanon. The Syrians may intend to do bleed American forces as much as they can inside Iraq, because they do fear that the US will eventually turn its attention to Syria. Syria continues to provide safe haven and political cover to Hizballah in Lebanon, which has killed hundreds of Americans in the past.

Syria allowed military equipment to flow into Iraq on the eve of and during the war. Syria permitted volunteers to pass into Iraq to attack and kill US service members during the war, and is still doing so. Statements from many of Syria's public officials during this time vilified the Coalition's motives in seeking to overthrow Saddam Hussein. Indeed, the United States portrayed as an enemy is a consistent theme found in newspapers and public statements in Syria, as it is in other states in the region.

President George W. Bush called on Syria to stop giving shelter to Iraqis sought by coalition forces. But that's only one of the concerns the United States expressed about Syria. US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said that Syria, which harbors terrorist groups including Hezbollah and Hamas, has been testing chemical weapons. One of the main reasons the US gave for toppling Saddam Hussein in Iraq was the need to keep weapons of mass destruction out of the hands of terrorists and states that harbor terrorists. On 16 April 2003 the State Department's John Bolton, the under secretary of state for arms control and international security affairs, said the United States intends to exert "a maximum diplomatic effort" to persuade "states like Syria, Libya and Iran among others to give up their pursuit of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons and long range ballistic missile delivery systems.... We want a peaceful resolution to all of these issues, but the determination of the United States, especially after September 11, to keep these incredibly dangerous weapons out of the hands of very dangerous people should not be underestimated."

US Secretary of State Colin Powell warned Syria to change its behavior, but he also tried to reassure allies that the US was not threatening immediate military action against Syria. Secretary of State Colin Powell said in a television interview April 17 that the United States had no plan to invade Syria, despite clear indications that Syria is developing weapons of mass destruction. There is the implicit threat of military force, with tens of thousands of US troops nearby, and quite bellicose rhetoric coming from some members of the administration. In addition, the United States has cut off the illicit oil supply that was going from Iraq to Syria. And there is the threat of additional economic and political penalties as well.

Marc Ginsberg, former US ambassador to Morocco, called Syria the "safe-house of evil" -- the hospitality suite for terrorist organizations that have killed Israelis and other foreigners but also Americans. The Bekaa Valley, that territory that exists between Lebanon and Syria, has been the "predators ball" haven for terrorist groups. The Syrians, with the connivance of the Iranians, have let that area become a reservation for terrorists to operate freely. Ginsberg suggested that the US should begin taking out the Bekaa Valley installations, and make it abundantly clear that the US will use military force if necessary. But he suggested that Syria should not necessarily be a military target of the United States. Ginsberg noted that there were a number of things that the US could do to pressure Syria. Syria is a state sponsor of terrorism, and yet it is a country with which the United States maintains diplomatic relations. The incongruity of that could be addressed by recalling the US ambassador, or at least downgrade US diplomatic relations with Syria to send a strong signal. Syria is an occupying power in Lebanon, and the US could end the "Hobson's choice" that let Syria have a free ride in Lebanon. And the US could strangle them a bit on economic and financial support they may be getting from international financial institutions.

Leading up to the war with Iraq, Hezbollah and Hamas put themselves in check. There issued statements that they would not attack Americans unless they were attacked first. Hamas in particular said we're going to keep the fight at home. Over the course of the war, particularly on Hezbollah's television station, there was a great deal of vitriolic rhetoric against President Bush.

This is one of the main challenges that the administration faces. President Bush said that you're either with us or against us in the war on terror. A number of countries, including Syria, have tried to have it both ways. Syria has been with the US in some respects, providing information, debriefing or interrogating terrorists that are captured and turned over to them. And yet Syria continues to engage in activities that provide safe haven, training, intelligence, infrastructure, logistical support, and possibly some financial support to these terrorist organizations.

Many observers suggest that Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad is too weak a person to be able to maintain a consistent policy, or to be able to see what is coming up ahead in the road for him. This suggests that Syria is going to make one mistake after another. The result is that things would escalate until a point where the Syrian's propensity to resist will be too great and then they will back away, but then it will be too late. There are a lot of people right now waiting to see how weak this regime will get.

One of the reasons Syria may be testing the limits is that they have the power to pose risks that the United States administration may be unwilling to take. Lebanon is essentially on life support. Syria can pull the plug and do a lot of damage inside Lebanon. Syria has Hezbollah in their pocket. If Syria says "go" they could possibly launch something that would really turn into a regional war if not something a little bit bigger than that. These are the sorts of calculated risks that the Syrian government is taking. The US experience in Lebanon was most dramatically the truck bomb attack on the Marine barracks in Beirut. The US, by talking tough on Syria, may be trying to keep Syria from having a role in similar attacks that might take place within Iraq.

After a high-profile visit to Damascus in May 2003 by Secretary of State Colin Powell, U-S officials say Syria made some commitments to shut down Damascus offices of radical Palestinian organizations. But there has been increased skepticism about how far the Syrians went. Congressional concern about Syrian links with terrorist groups conducting suicide bombings in Israel continued.

The Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act would impose a range of sanctions on Syria if it does not cease all support for terrorism and withdraw its forces from Lebanon.

Syria is on the US State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism, the only nation on that list to have full diplomatic relations with the United States. US-Syrian relations, severed in 1967, were resumed in June 1974, following the achievement of the Syrian-Israeli disengagement agreement. In recent years, Syria and the US have worked together in areas of mutual interest. In 1990-91, Syria cooperated with the US as a member of the multinational coalition of forces in the Gulf War. The US and Syria also consulted closely on the Taif Accord, ending the civil war in Lebanon. In 1991, President Asad made a historic decision to accept then President Bush's invitation to attend a Middle East peace conference and to engage in subsequent bilateral negotiations with Israel. Syria's efforts to secure the release of Western hostages held in Lebanon and its lifting of restrictions on travel by Syrian Jews helped further to improve relations between Syria and the United States. There were several presidential summits; the last one occurred when then-President Clinton met the late President Hafiz al-Asad in Geneva in March 2000.

The US continues to have serious differences with Syria, however. Syria has been on the US list of state sponsors of terrorism since the list's inception in 1979. Because of its continuing support and safe haven for terrorist organizations, Syria is subject to legislatively mandated penalties, including export sanctions and ineligibility to receive most forms of US aid or to purchase US military equipment. In 1986, the US withdrew its ambassador and imposed additional administrative sanctions on Syria in response to evidence of direct Syrian involvement in an attempt to blow up an Israeli airplane. A US ambassador returned to Damascus in 1987, partially in response to positive Syrian actions against terrorism such as expelling the Abu Nidal Organization from Syria and helping free an American hostage earlier that year. There is no evidence that Syrian officials have been directly involved in planning or executing terrorist attacks since 1986. Other issues of US concern include Syria's human rights record and full implementation of the Taif Accord. The principal themes of the bilateral dialogue include a call for cooperation in the international effort against terrorism, the cessation of support and safe haven for terrorist groups in Syria and Lebanon, cooperation in efforts to forge a comprehensive peace, and prevention of an escalation of conflict along the UN-designated Blue Line.

On 05 October 2003 Israeli planes bombed a terrorist training camp in Syria. The strike was retaliation for a terrorist suicide bombing at a restaurant in Haifa in which nineteen people, including children were murdered. It was the first time that Israeli forces had attacked targets inside Syria since 1982, when the Jewish state went to war against Palestinian forces in neighboring Lebanon. Islamic Jihad, long harbored in Syria, claimed responsibility for the killings in Haifa. Much of the American press is viewing the Israeli air raid into Syria as a significant escalation of the Middle East conflict. While describing the Palestinian suicide bombing that killed 19 people on the eve of Yom Kippur [the Jewish Day of Atonement] as "horrific," many papers editorialized that the Israeli response may broaden hostilities.

Syria has also given safe haven to other terrorist groups, including Hamas and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine General Command. US officials say that terrorists operating out of Syria have also targeted Americans. Under Secretary of State John Bolton says that "Syria permitted volunteers to pass into Iraq to attack and kill our service members during the war and is still doing so."

On 15 October 2003 British Prime Minister Tony Blair said that his country had no plans to engage in military action against Syria. "We have absolutely no plans to engage in hostilities in respect of Syria at all," Blair told the House of Commons, responding to questions whether the government would join the United States and Israel if they launched military action against Damascus. "It is extremely important that Israel conducts itself with restraint in these very difficult times," Blair told the lower house of the parliament.

The US House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved legislation 15 October 2003 that would call for new sanctions against Syria until President Bush declares that it has stopped providing support to terrorists and halted development of its chemical and biological weapons programs. By a vote of 398-4, the measure -- known as the Syria Accountability Act -- won widespread support from Republicans and Democrats. The sanctions bill moved swiftly from the House International Relations Committee on October 8 to full House consideration on October 15. Normally, Congress takes considerably longer to debate and vote on bills that carry economic and political sanctions. During the last session of Congress, the White House convinced the legislators not to take a final vote on the bill. Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Richard Lugar (Republican, Indiana) said he will open hearings on the Syria sanctions measure later in October 2003. "Every indication is that the president will sign the bill," said Representative Eliot Engel, a New York Democrat.

On 20 November 2003 the House of Representatives gave final approval to new sanctions against Syria and sent the bill to President Bush for his signature. The measure aims to press Damascus to end what the United States says is its support for terrorism and its efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction. The measure tightens diplomatic and economic sanctions against Syria until the US government certifies that Damascus has stopped providing support for terrorism, ended its military occupation of Lebanon, ceased efforts to produce or acquire weapons of mass destruction, and stopped terrorists and weapons from entering Iraq. The measure would ban US trade with Syria in items that could be used in weapons programs. Among the sanctions the president could impose are reducing diplomatic contacts, freezing Syrian assets, barring US businesses from investing in Syria, restricting travel in the United States by Syrian diplomats, and banning exports of U-S products other than food and medicine to Syria.

The Bush administration affirmed Israel's right to defend itself in the face of terrorist attacks, though US officials denied this meant giving Israel a so-called "green light" for operations like its air strike Sunday deep inside Syria. The tone was set by President Bush, who pointedly avoided criticizing Israel for the air strike and upheld its right to self-defense. Bush said he had told Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in a phone call Sunday that Israel should avoid actions that would raise regional tensions even further. "I made it very clear to the prime minister, like I have consistently done, that Israel's got a right to defend herself; Israel must not feel constrained in terms of defending the homeland. However, I said it's very important that any action that Israel takes should avoid escalation, and creating higher tensions."

On 11 May 2004 President Bush imposed economic sanctions on Syria. The sanctions were in response to what the White House sees as a lack of action by Damascus on key issues. For years, the United States raised concerns about Syrian support for militant groups. More recently, the Bush administration complained that Syria was not doing enough to stop anti-American insurgents from crossing its border into neighboring Iraq. The president did not impose all the sanctions authorized by congress, but opted for a middle ground by banning exports and barring take-offs and landings in the United States by Syrian aircraft. Mr. Bush added on a few penalties not specifically mentioned in the legislation. They include restrictions on banking ties between US financial institutions and the Commercial Bank of Syria. He also put a freeze on American assets held by certain Syrian citizens or entities deemed to have ties to militant groups, Syria's presence in Lebanon, the pursuit of weapons of mass destruction or the destabilization of Iraq.

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Page last modified: 01-05-2017 18:52:57 ZULU