Sunday, September 18, 2005

Destination Damascus

pv vivekanand

WASHINGTON is cranking up pressure on Syria on several fronts, and many in the Middle East see it as heralding an Iraq-style scenario for that country regardless of whatever it does to ward off the threat.
The thrust of the American campaign is the charge that the Syrian government is not only doing enough to check the flow of international jihadists into Iraq through the borders but also that it is actually encouraging guerrillas to enter Iraq and fight the US-led coalition forces and their allies there.
Parallel to that is the diplomatic pressure stemming from allegations that the Syrian regime was responsible for the February assassination of Lebanon's former prime minister, Rafiq Al Hariri.
Another charge against Damascus is linked to the Palestinian war of resistance against Israel. Washington insists that Syria-based leaders of militant groups such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad and leftist factions are plotting and implementing anti-Israeli attacks, and this amounts to Syrian support for "international terrorism."
Yet another assault is coming through human rights groups as well as the State Department which accuse the Syrian authorities of gross violations of human rights — by continued detention of "political prisoners," denying the civil rights and freedoms of the Syrian people and arbitrary jailing and torture of dissidents.
Syria is also accused of harbouring Nazi war criminals and refusing to surrender them for trial, presumably in Israel, for "crime against humanity" (read Jews).
The US is also working on the internal political front in Syria by offering assistance to Syrian activists living in exile and within the country to stir unrest among Syrians. US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is spearheading that effort through meetings and contacts with leaders of the Syrian community living in the US and elsewhere who do not agree with the policies of the government of President Bashar Al Assad.
The pressure has been stepped up in recent weeks and many observers see a link between the mounting insurgency in Iraq and Washington's efforts to spark serious developments in the Syrian context. They believe that the US is seeking to to divert world attention and possibly create a strategy to alleviate the pressure the US faces from Iraqi and international jihadist groups resisting the American military presence in post-war Iraq while also building a case for "regime change" in Damascus.
An overwhelming number of Arabs, in the Gulf and elsewhere, believe that it is only a matter of time before the US arrives at a point where it feels that it has built enough pressure and through it an international consensus that Syria should be "punished" for its alleged role in the Iraqi insurgency, in the Hariri assassination and in supporting international terrorism.
They liken the situation to the build-up to the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq. Many of them had foreseen as far back as December 2001 — when the US was waging war in Afghanistan — that it was Iraq's turn next and there was nothing Saddam Hussein could have done to pre-empt the American invasion that followed more than 15 months later.
It has since been established that all justifications that the Bush administration cited for action against Saddam Hussein had any substance. If anything, it has more or less been proved that the US government doctored intelligence reports to convince the international Congress and people that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction and was somehow linked to the Sept.11, 2001 attacks in New York and Washington.
A similar situation is unfolding now for Syria, they say.
They do not believe that the Syrian leadership was naive enough to think that it could get away with murdering Hariri and to overlook that Damascus was emerging as a top priority target for an American-engineered "regime change" because Israel-specific considerations.
As such, Damascus could not have undertaken an action that was sure to be exploited by hostile forces into launching anti-Syrian action on the regional and international action.
Therefore, they argue, Syria is being set up through "planted" evidence and doctored intelligence finds that would be placed in the way of the UN investigations into the Hariri murder. They are convinced that the UN inquiries would soon reach the conclusion that "orders" for assassinating Hariri had come from the "top ranks" of power in Syria and this would be followed by UN Security Council sanctions against Damascus, setting the ground for eventual action that would destabilise the Bashar Al Assad regime.
What is subject to conjecture at this point is whether such action would involve outright military intervention or whether the pro-Israeli neoconservative camp in Washington would wait until they feel they have built enough internal challenges to the Syrian regime before supporting a revolt against Bashar Al Assad.
Not many believe that the Bush administration would engage itself in another military adventure in the region as long as the Iraqi crisis rages out of control. Washington could not but be aware that the "strategic alliance" between Syria and Iran would automatically bring the Iranians into the equation in the event of an American military intervention in Syria. The US has also to make allowances for unpredictable anti-American action by Lebanon's Hizbollah and other factions allied with Syria.
People in the Middle East have no doubts over the American motivation for action against Syria. They have a rather simplified view of the situation: There is no possibility of an Israeli-Syrian peace agreement under the given geopolitical imperatives for the two sides. Israel, which occupies Syria's Golan Heights and counts on it as the key source of its water, would never relinquish the area. No Syrian government, least of all the Bashar regime, would ever accept a peace deal that does not involve the return of the Golan to Syrian sovereignty and hope to survive in power in Damascus.
As such, the only way out of the impasse is to destabilise Syria and create an American-friendly regime in Damascus that could be pressed into making compromises accept a peace deal on Israel's terms. That is where ultimate objective of the mounting pressure against Damascus, and, it has become embedded in the Arab mind that the only question is when the US would launch action on the ground.