2013 is very far from being the time that independent Syria has been targeted by the west (sometimes, including Israel.) The history of western intervention in the country has been long– starting from, of course, the protectorate that France established there in the wake of World War I, under the guise of a ‘Mandate’ from the League of Nations– though not, of course, from the Syrian people. In 1949, just three years after Syria won its independence from France, the CIA engineered a coup by the head of the Syrian armed forces, Hosni Zaim, against the democratically elected president Shukri Quwwatly. CIA operative Miles Copeland wrote later (Game of Nations, 1969, p.50) that he and his colleagues had judged Quwwatly “not liberal enough”… and therefore he had to be toppled by a coup. (Echoes in Egypt today, anyone? People organizing a military coup in the name of “liberalism”?)
Sticking, for now, with the record of purely American interventions in Syria, this record is long indeed, running (in more recent times) through:
- 1979, when the State Department put Syria on the list of “states supporting terrorism” back in 1979– which triggered economic sanctions that have lasted until today, and have been progressively tightened ever since;
- December 2003, when Congress– in the first flush of enthusiasm that the U.S. victory in Iraq could be speedily replicated in Syria and Lebanon– passed the punitive “Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act (SALSRA)”. In late spring 2005, after the growth of the Lebanese popular movement that followed the killing of former PM Rafiq Hariri, Syria did indeed withdraw from Lebanon the troops that had been deployed there since they first went in (at, it has to be said, Washington’s urging) back in January 1976. But even the restoration of Lebanon’s sovereignty was not enough to ease up the sanctions Washington maintained on Syria. Actually, the SALSRA was a great big dog’s breakfast of a sanctions bill; and it has been cited more recently as a source of legitimacy for U.S. punitive action against Syria on account of Syria’s CW capabilities.
- From 2009 until today: The funding of clandestine opposition movements in Syria under the MEPPI program that George W. Bush launched (with Liz Cheney supervising much of it in the early years.) Crucially, after Pres. Obama took office, he continued this program– as was revealed in some of the Wikileaks cables in April 2011.
- The various forms of clandestine and not-so-clandestine aid given to the Syrian opposition since 2011. The biggest gift so far? Washington’s insistence, ever since August 2011, that “President Asad has to leave power before there can be any negotiations for political reform ins Syria.” That insistence has blocked every single attempt other parties have made so far, to find a negotiated end to the conflict in the country. (The biggest contrasts there are, as I have frequently noted, with the stances Washington adopted in Apartheid-era South Africa and more recently Myanmar/Burma. In SA, if they had insisted from the get-go that De Klerk should leave office before there could be any negotiations about political reform… well, we’d still have Apartheid in South Africa today, wouldn’t we?)
Okay, a quick personal interjection here. In late 2008, I agreed to join something called the U.S.-Syria Working Group that had been established by the Washington, DC-based NGO Search for Common Ground with the declared aim of improving the extremely strained relations between the two governments. I joined a small delegation of WG people who traveled to Damascus in early 2009 to hold talks there. It was not the delegation’s first visit; but since it was being held in the days immediately preceding Obama’s inauguration, there was a definite sense– on both sides, I think– that there could be new space opening up for an improvement in the relationship with the arrival of the new president. At that point, the U.S. still did not have an ambassador in Damascus, George Bush having withdrawn the previous ambassador some years before.
Our working group’s task was not easy. The Asad regime has always had its own, always extremely complex and centrally controlled, way of doing (or not doing) business. From their side, plans were made and remade for the WG meetings, and their delegation member-lists were formed and re-formed in an incomprehensible, apparently capricious, and deeply chaotic way. That did not surprise me at all, based on my many years of trying to deal with various portions of the Syrian diplomatic/public information machine. What did surprise me was the near-total stonewalling we met from the Obama administration– despite the fact that our delegation was headed by the veteran former diplomatist Samuel Lewis (a deep believer in the need for good diplomacy, who was also the inaugural president of the U.S. Institute of Peace), and the very well-connected longtime Democratic Party operative and former AIPAC head Tom Dine.
Of course, once the Wikileaks revelations came out, the reasons for the Obama administration’s stonewalling were clear. They did not want to see any significant improvement of relations with the Asad regime, since they’d already decided to continue Bush’s policy of funneling large amounts of money into the clandestine effort to overthrow it.
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MSM journalists and others in the United States frequently seem to take it for granted that Syria’s policies have always been deeply hostile to (and a threat to) U.S. policy in the region. This is absolutely not the case. Some examples:
- In Sept. 1970, when Palestinian guerrillas were being mown down in northern Jordan by the (U.S.-backed) Jordanian army, Syria’s then-president and army chief sent ground troops down toward the Syria-Jordan border to help them. Those ground troops needed air cover, however. Hafez al-Asad was the air force chief of staff. He decided (a) not to provide the air cover, and (b) to launch a coup and install himself in power. Those decisions saved the day for the Americans in the region.
- In the aftermath of the 1973 war, Pres. Hafez al-Asad accepted UN resolutions 242 and 338 which called for a final peace to be made between Israel and all its Arab neighbors based on the exchange of land for peace. (As it happened, it was Iraq– which did not have any land occupied by Israel– that led the camp in the Arab world that continued to reject the resolutions.)
- In 1973-74, Asad participated in negotiations for a disengagement between the still-tangled Syrian and Israeli forces that faced each other on Syria’s Golan plateau. The disengagement agreement reached in June 1974 never did lead to the final peace (accompanied by a full Israeli withdrawal from Golan) that Asad sought. But the disengagement agreement of 1974 proved rock-solid from then until very recently, when the disintegration of some of Asad’s forces n the region allowed some opposition militants to operate there.
- In 1976, as mentioned above, Syrian troops went into Lebanon with the full blessing of Pres. Ford, since their mission was to prevent a leftist/pro-Palestinian victory in the country’s civil war. Though Syria remained in a formal state of war with Israel, which was deeply involved there through its proxies– and in 1978, became much more directly involved– the extent and ROE’s for Syria’s actions there were carefully agreed with Israel through the Americans. Throughout the many tumultuous developments in Lebanon, in the 29 years between then and Syria’s final withdrawal in 2005, those ‘Red Lines’ succeeded in preventing any significant clash between Syria and Israel.
- During Israel’s very large-scale invasion of Lebanon in 1982, Syria kept its troops well out of the way, in line with the longstanding ‘red Line’ agreements. But after the main body of PLO fighters shipped out of Beirut in August 1982, there were some smaller pro-Arafat units left elsewhere in the country, primarily in the north. The Syrian forces then went in for the kill against them… and as Israel retreated from Beirut in 1983-85, Syria sent its allies (primarily from Lebanon’s Amal movement) into West and South Beirut to wage a terribly debilitating and bloody war against the Palestinian refugee camps there.
- In 1990, Syria sent troops to participate in the military coalition that Washington assembled in order to push Iraq’s Saddam Hussein back out of Kuwait.
- In October 1991, Syria participated in the Madrid peace conference that had been convened primarily by the Americans, to try to find a lasting final-status peace between Israel and all its Arab neighbors. from late 1992 through 1996, Syria and Israel participated in good faith in negotiations that very nearly succeeded in finalizing a bilateral peace between their two countries. That long and productive round of negotiations ended only when Israeli PM Shimon Peres withdrew from them in spring 1996.
- Later, there were other rounds of both direct and indirect negotiations, always conducted under U.S. auspices. They came to an end at Geneva in May 2000, when it became clear to Asad that Israeli PM Ehud Barak was not– as PM’s Rabin and Peres had been– prepared to undertake a complete negotiation from occupied Golan. Hafez al-Asad died (perhaps of shock?) just a few days later.
- In late 2002, there was almost certainly some coordination between the Syrians and the Americans as the U.S. forces prepared their attack against Saddam. But that was kept under wraps. After the U.S. found itself in occupation in Iraq, there were some further meetings with the aim of securing Syria’s border with Iraq against infiltration.
- Throughout the mid-2000s, Syria cooperated with the CIA on many occasions, including by participating in its “international rendition” and “torture of suspects under contract” programs.
I am not trying to act as an apologist for the Asads, pere et fils. I know that at the internal level, their rule has been oppressive and sometimes extremely bloody; and the Syrian military and mukhabarat took many really terrible actions against both Palestinians and Lebanese people over the years. But the picture that the western MSM paint of any “evil, irredeemably anti-American” duo of presidents there in Damascus is simply incorrect.
What is true, however, is that over the decades, Syria has been a prime punching-bag (and fundraising tool) for the pro-Israel lobby in he United States. Syria was the prime target for the neocons’ key “Clean Break” document back in 1996; but the “hate-Syria” movement in the United States is both a lot longer-lived and politically much broader than that. Of course, you could say that the Syrians have not helped themselves. They have had some good diplomats working for them over the years. But the conduct of their strategic decisionmaking as controlled from Damascus has frequently (as I noted above) been chaotic. I’ve said for a long time that, once the Foreign Ministry in Damascus gets more than one phone line, you’ll know that at last it is entering the 20th century…
But just being extremely klutzy in the conduct of foreign policy is not in itself a crime. Back in the 1980s, I remember that Saddam Hussein– who at that point was running a regime that was far more repressive than the Syrian regime– had an extremely smart diplomat working for him in Washington, Saadoun Hamadi. What was more, Hamadi both had huge budgets to throw around (and don’t under-estimate the susceptibility of Washington “intellectuals” to large cash subventions), and the full backing of Baghdad. Okay, it probably helped hugely, too, that Saddam was at that point in a fairly close relationship with Washington as they worked together to try to unseat the mullahs in neighboring Iran (including, we should all remember, by the use of massive amounts of chemical weapons, to which the U.S. turned a completely blind eye.) But none of that “smart” Iraqi diplomacy counted for anything in Washington once Saddam had invaded Kuwait…
I just thought that, in light of the widespread ignorance about the history of Syrian-American relations in the U.S. commentatoriat, it would be useful to pull together a list of the many occasions on which the two governments have actually pulled together.
Right now, Syria’s 23 million people are caught in a terrible meat grinder as the forces of their own government battle it out with the forces of a ragtag concatenation of scores of separate “opposition” forces , some of which are receiving U.S. aid, some of which are affiliated with Al-Qaeda, and some of which doubtless enjoy both of those distinctions.
Pray for the people of Syria tonight. My deepest hope and prayer for them all is that my government, here in the United States, can be persuaded to turn away from pumping more death and violence into the toxic mix there and turn toward strengthening all the forces, inside and outside Syria, that are capable of working to end this inhumane fighting. I think it is probably helpful for people in the antiwar movement here in the United States if we all try to learn and understand more about our country’s long and very complex history of interactions with Syria.
2 thoughts on “Syria in the crosshairs of the west”
Helena, thank you for the very informative articles.
Personally, I think Kerry’s comment about Assad’s chemical weapons was not a serious one because Obama already had his crosshairs on Syria. The Russians jumped at the opening Kerry inadvertently gave them..
However,it is possible that Obama saw this as a way to save face and back away from a disaster of his own making.
Time will tell, and soon.
Thanks for the great article. i really appreciate it. it will be a great guide for my thesis