Global Policy Forum

Syria: The Next Iraq


By Robert Dreyfuss*

October 24, 2005

The news from Syria shows that the neoconservative plan for the Middle East is still in play.

Three years ago, the U.S. invasion of Iraq was widely viewed as the first chapter of a region-wide strategy to remake the entire map of the Middle East. Following Iraq, Syria and Iran would be the next targets, after which the oil-rich states of the Arabian Gulf, including Saudi Arabia, would follow. It was a policy driven by neoconservatives in and outside of the Bush administration, and they didn't exactly make an effort to keep it secret. In April, 2003, in an article in The American Prospect titled "Just the Beginning ," I wrote: "Those who think that U.S. armed forces can complete a tidy war in Iraq, without the battle spreading beyond Iraq's borders, are likely to be mistaken." And the article quoted various neocon strategists to that effect:

"I think we're going to be obliged to fight a regional war, whether we want to or not," says Michael Ledeen, a former U.S. national security official and a key strategist among the ascendant flock of neoconservative hawks, many of whom have taken up perches inside the U.S. government. Asserting that the war against Iraq can't be contained, Ledeen says that the very logic of the global war on terrorism will drive the United States to confront an expanding network of enemies in the region. "As soon as we land in Iraq, we're going to face the whole terrorist network," he says, including the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), Hezbollah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and a collection of militant splinter groups backed by nations—Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia—that he calls "the terror masters."

"It may turn out to be a war to remake the world," says Ledeen.

In the Middle East, impending "regime change" in Iraq is just the first step in a wholesale reordering of the entire region.

As the war in Iraq bogged down, and as a public outcry developed in the United States against the neoconservatives over the apparently bungled war, another sort of conventional wisdom began to take flight. According to this theory, the United States no longer had the stomach—or the capability—to spread the war beyond Iraq, as originally intended. Our troops are stretched too thin, our allies are reining us in and cooler heads are prevailing in Washington—or so the theory goes.

But the news from Syria shows that the conventional wisdom is wrong. The United States is indeed pursuing a hard-edged regime change strategy for Syria. It's happening right before your eyes. With the ever-complacent U.S. media itself bogged down in Iraq, and with the supine U.S. Congress unwilling to challenge our foreign policy apparatus, Syria is under the gun. As in Iraq, the United States is aggressively pursuing a regime change there without the slightest notion of what might come next or who might replace President Bashar Assad. Might it be the fanatical Muslim Brotherhood, by far the most powerful single force in largely Sunni Syria? Might the country fragment into pieces, as Iraq is now doing? The Bush administration doesn't know, just as they didn't know what might happen to Iraq in 2003. But they are going ahead anyway.

It isn't just the repercussions of the U.N.-led investigation into the assassination of former Lebanon Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, whose murder may or may not have been arranged by Syria's intelligence service. Since 2003, the United States has sought political and economic sanctions against Syria (long before Hariri was killed); sought to isolate Syria diplomatically; singled out Syria for its support for Sunni insurgents inside Iraq; issued a series of ominous threats against the Syrian regime ("our patience is running out with Syria," warned Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. proconsul in Iraq); and, according to an October 15 New York Times article, begun threatening "hot-pursuit" and other cross-border military action against Syria. That Times piece noted, in part:

A series of clashes in the last year between American and Syrian troops, including a prolonged firefight this summer that killed several Syrians, has raised the prospect that cross-border military operations may become a dangerous new front in the Iraq war, according to current and former military and government officials.

There is even a Syrian version of Iraq's charlatan Ahmad Chalabi, and there are rumors that Kurdish rebels in Syria northeast, along the Iraqi border, are getting support from Iraqi Kurds who are part of the current interim government in Baghdad.

Various U.S. Syria analysts who have not swallowed the neoconservative Kool-Aid argue that the United States is pursuing Regime Change II in Syria. Among them is Flynt Leverett, a former CIA analyst now at the Brookings Institution, who suggests that Assad is moving slowly in the direction of political and economic reform—and might want our help. Others, including several former U.S. ambassadors, tell me that Syria can be a key partner in quieting down the crisis in Iraq, but U.S. belligerence is driving Syria in the other direction. And Scott Ritter and Sy Hersh, speaking in New York last week, noted that Syria (and its spy services) has been an important behind-the-scenes partner in attacking Al Qaeda since 2001. But "So what?" argue the neoconservatives. It's regime-change time, and they won't let rational arguments get in their way.

The brilliant Syria weblog Syria Comment, written by Joshua Landis, had this to say on Sunday:

Here is a most extraordinary letter from Syria's Ambassador in Washington Imad Mustapha to Congresswoman Sue Kelly, which has come into my possession. It explains how the American Administration has been stonewalling Syrian cooperation on a host of issues. It explains how Syria is being set up to fail so that the US can isolate it and carry out a process of regime-change at the expense of Iraqi stability and the lives of American soldiers and Iraqi civilians. It explains how the U.S. administration's policy of forcing regime change in Syria is trumping the need to save lives in Iraq. …

For over a year Syria has been trying to cooperate with the West on the Iraq border, on the issue of terrorism finance, on the issue of stopping Jihadists from getting into Syria, on intelligence sharing, and on stabilizing Iraq. Washington has consistently refused to take "Yes" as an answer. Why? The only credible reason is because Washington wants regime change in Syria.

So I ask: Is it possible, after everything we've learned about the Bush administration's lies and deception over Iraq, after the staggering cost of that misguided war to the United States, is it possible that the American body politic is going to let Bush, Cheney and Co. get away with shattering another Middle East state?

It's possible. Because it's happening.

About the Author: Robert Dreyfuss is a freelance writer based in Alexandria, Va., who specializes in politics and national security issues. He is a contributing editor at The Nation, a contributing writer at Mother Jones, a senior correspondent for The American Prospect, and a frequent contributor to Rolling Stone. His book, Devil's Game: How the United States Helped Unleash Fundamentalist Islam, will be published by Henry Holt/Metropolitan Books in the fall.

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