Syria: the next "Bush doctrine" success story?

Comrade Max thinks Syria might be the next target of the US's war without end.

Let's review some recent developments concerning Syria before examining this idea.

On the one hand, we are seeing indications that peace between Israel and Syria is quite possible and is not the monumental, existential exercise that it is usually made out to be:
Before the shooting [the Hizbollah attack on an Israeli military unit that had crossed over into Lebanon], Mr. Sharon told a parliamentary committee that it was clear to him that a peace deal with Syria would require Israel to withdraw from all of the Golan Heights, which is not far from the site of the Monday shooting.

One Israeli legislator said Syria was in a weak position, and suggested that Israel might be able to win concessions if talks were held soon.

"Have no illusions," Mr. Gissin quoted Mr. Sharon as saying in the discussion. "The price for full peace with Syria is Israel relinquishing all of the Golan Heights."

Mr. Gissin added, "The prime minister said this as a statement of fact, not as his position in any negotiations."
Let the record show that Sharon recognizes that (a) an end of hostilities between Israel and Syria is possible, (b) in fact, a "full peace" (i.e., Ehud Barak will finally be able to eat his falafel sandwich outside of the Grand Mosque before going shopping in the suq and sightseeing in the Old City) is possible, (c) it is a "fact" (not a supposition, not a far-fetched possibility, not a utopian vision) that all it will take is returning to Syria of the Golan Heights, territory that was internationally recognized as belonging to Syria well before the creation of Israel - in other words, applying the land-for-peace formula that is supposedly the bedrock of the "Middle East peace process", and (d) Syria is serious about this offer (it is not simply a public-relations stunt or a devious plot on the Syrians' part).

But there's more: a peace deal between Syria and Israel would actually be a two-fer for Israel. If Israel and Syria sign a peace treaty, Lebanon would almost certainly be on board as well. Syria's frequently attacked influence on/domination of Lebanon would, in the final analysis, not be a bad thing. It is difficult to imagine small Lebanon, which still has plenty of internal problems to deal with, becoming some kind of "radical" hold-out. It simply has better things to do. So, a peace treaty between Syria and Israel would also mean a peace treaty between Lebanon and Israel, which would mean that all the front-line Arab states (Egypt, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon) were on full, "normal" diplomatic terms with Israel.

This, in my opinion, would solve the Hizbollah "problem" as well. Lebanon and Syria would have no need to allow Hizbollah to operate with even the limited freedom it enjoys now. It wouldn't mean the end of Hizbollah; they would probably retain their weapons and organization. It would simply mean that there would be even fewer attacks than the few we see now, if any at all. Eventually, barring border provocations and with the normal supervision of borders that states at peace with each other maintain, guerilla activity would cease in southern Lebanon. No, this isn't wishful thinking: before Barak's unilateral withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 1999, there were all kinds of hysterical predictions (including many by Sharon, who was vehemently opposed to the withdrawal) that Hizbollah would rain down Katyushas on northern Israel on a daily basis. Well, the Israeli army withdrew, but the Katyushas never came. There is even less reason to expect that there would be an upsurge of military activity after a three-state peace treaty.

"Security"-related objections to handing the Golan back to Syria are not convincing to anyone who has looked at the issue even casually. The fear that the Syrian army would use the Heights to bombard Israel - as it did before the 1967 war - is based on the myth that the Syrian shelling then was unprovoked. This was not the case. The huge majority of incidents involving Syrian shelling were provoked by Israeli incursions into the DMZ to destroy or expropriate Arab villages or lands. Since these villages have been destroyed, the lands stolen, and the people moved away, the situation today is completely different than 37 years ago. The idea that the Golan somehow offers an awesome strategic advantage over Israel is simply preposterous. This may have been the case 100 years ago, when armies relied on cavalry and cannons to wage war, but any state with modern armed forces (as is the case with Israel) will also have jet fighters and bombers that can fly much higher than the Golan is high and destroy any hostile artillery positions there in a few minutes' time. There is simply no strategic or military value attached to the Golan.

To sum up: the Israeli leadership has recognized that peace with Syria is possible and that it only requires returning to Syria what rightfully belongs to it. A peace treaty with Syria is tantamount to peace with all of the front-line Arab states (this, of course, does not include the Palestinians - this is a separate and very different issue). There is no military or strategic reason not to return the Golan to Syria.

On the other hand, we are also seeing indications that the US and Israel do not care to resolve the issue peacefully and would much rather resort to military means. In addition to Israel's recent border provocations against Syria and Lebanon (including the air strike inside of Syria late last year and now Monday's incident inside of Lebanon), there are reports that a more "hands-on" US approach to Syria is being considered:
US secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld is considering plans to expand the global war on terrorism with multi-pronged attacks against suspected militant bases in countries such as Lebanon and Somalia...

... Deployment of US forces in the area would almost certainly involve a confrontation with Syrian troops.

That may well prove to be the objective, since the Bush administration is currently stepping up pressure on the Damascus regime in a bid to force it to cut off all support for radical Palestinian groups which have been targeting Israel during the three-year-old intifada. Washington also wants Syria to abandon its weapons of mass destruction and to withdraw all its forces from Lebanon, a virtual satellite since Syria moved in with tacit US support in 1990 as part of a strategy to end Lebanon's civil war.
[Note: Syria has actually had part of its army in Lebanon since 1976 as part of a (failed) Arab League initiative to end the civil war.]

The US administration has long considered Damascus as a prime candidate for 'regime-change' (along with Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran and possibly even Saudi Arabia). Syria, once a powerhouse of Arab radicalism that could not be ignored, has been seriously weakened, both militarily and politically. Washington may feel that the time is coming to oust Bashir Al-Assad and the ruling generals. Targeting Syria via Lebanon, the only concrete political influence Damascus has to show following decades of radical diplomacy, could prove to be a means to that end...

Moreover, since the 11 September 2001 attacks, Washington has been keen to prove that Hizbullah has a global reach, and is thus a legitimate target for its war on terrorism. Thus far, US intelligence services have been unable to produce compelling evidence supporting this claim.
(Link via MaxSpeak)
So, according to this Jane's report, the US may be looking for a means of attacking Syria via a confrontation with Hizbollah, the latter of which could easily be subsumed under its "war on terrorism".

US officials and lawmakers also continue to suggest that Iraq's "WMD arsenal" somehow made it to Syria:
U.S. Senate Intelligence Committee chairman Pat Roberts says there is some concern Iraqi weapons of mass destruction have gone to Syria, as Washington vowed to carry on searching for such arms in Iraq.

Roberts, a leading member of President George W. Bush's Republican Party, said in Washington on Wednesday: "I think that there is some concern that shipments of WMD (weapons of mass destruction) went to Syria." He did not elaborate.
Syria, unlike Iraq, certainly has "WMD", at the very least in the form of battlefield chemical weapons and probably also "WMD-related program activities". The former aren't technically WMD but, as we have seen, such distinctions are beyond the intellectual capabilities of most right-wing talking heads, administration apologist bootlickers, and large parts of the American public. If the US did go into Syria, it would be the easiest thing to hold up some of Syria's own chemical munitions and say something to the effect of "Hey, we were right - here are the Iraqi WMD" - thus simultaneously justifying both the war against Iraq and any military action against Syria. An ex post facto justification in the case of Syria would be a certainty (which, unfortunately for the Bush administration with Iraq, was not the case).

Is this scenario likely? Not especially. On the other hand, why not? The administration has made all kinds of fanciful claims and continues to do so: Powell said, with a straight face, that one vial of 10-year-old botulin constituted a "weapon of mass destruction"; Bush included the Niger yellowcake claim in last year's SOTU address, even though it had been discredited well in advance by Wilson's mission; etc. etc. For this administration, there is a real difference between "The Truth" (head shaking, glowering look) and "the truth!" (head nodding, beaming smile).

But this aspect of the overall strategy remains entirely speculative and is, in any event, some ways off in the future. The real questions, much more immediate, are (a) does the US have the capability of invading Syria and/or Lebanon, and (b) does the administration have the desire/will to do so?

In terms of (a), the answer appears to be "not at the moment". High-ranking US generals seem to be unanimous in their assessment that the US military is stretched almost to the breaking point. But an invasion of Syria and/or Lebanon, in my opinion, would require about the same number of soldiers as the Iraq war did (about 130,000). This is because the Syrian army, though very weak, would fight harder than the Iraqi army did (Bashar, while a dictator, is no Saddam) and because there is already a highly trained and motivated guerilla force in place - Hizbollah - whose capabilities would make the Iraqi guerillas look like a boys choir in comparison. So, for example, even if the US military could shift its entire force in South Korea (approximately 37,000 soldiers) and half of the forces in Iraq (approximately 60,000) to a Syrian theater, it would still be 30,000 soldiers (one and one-half divisions) short. The only way the US military could make up such a gap would be to turn to a draft.

Of course, there are always other considerations at work. With the occupation of Iraq, Syria and Lebanon are now entirely isolated, making them especially easy targets. Hizbollah's and the Syrian army's weapons supplies would eventually run out, especially if the US prevented flights from reaching Syria (from Iran, for example). Still, barring a draft or large-scale troop shifts, it is difficult to see how the US could attack Syria and/or Lebanon at this point.

As for (b), there seems to be little doubt that in the perfect Bushian-Rumsfeldian-Perlean world, a coalition of American and Israeli soldiers would triumphantly march through Damascus, be greeted with rose water and rice, and leave free markets and liberal democracy in its wake. But this is not the world we live in. Though it is difficult to tell with this administration, I think that the emphasis now is more on consolidation than expansion (for the next two years, at least). The American public also seems to have had enough of wars and saving the world for now and has become much more interested in the economic and social disasters the Bush administration is foisting on the country. As for Congress, despite their recent approval of the incredibly stupid sanctions against Syria, one can hope that it would be much more skeptical of a Bush administration case for action against Syria and not be so easily duped in the future.

Which policy will win out? Is there even a change of policy coming from the status quo? Though the Bush administration's intentions are something to have some concern about, its actions at this point seem to be more bluff and intimidation than anything else. Which leaves us with the possibility that Sharon (or, if he gets knocked out by this bribe thing, the next Israeli leader) being forced to seriously face the horrible possibility of peace with Syria.

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