Middle East Intelligence Bulletin
Jointly published by the United States Committee for a Free Lebanon and the Middle East Forum
  Vol. 5   No. 4 Table of Contents
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April 2003 

The American-Syrian Crisis and the End of Constructive Engagement
by Gary C. Gambill

Bashar Assad

The seismic shift in American-Syrian relations that has rapidly evolved over the last month is unprecedented in recent diplomatic history. Statements by American officials in late March warning the Syrians to end their support for "the dying regime of Saddam Hussein" were met with shock throughout the Arab world. However, the leading Arabic daily Al-Sharq al-Awsat was not expressing skepticism about the American claim when it called the statements an "unexpected surprise," but astonishment at the fact that this claim had been made public.[1]

Since the mid-1980s, successive American administrations had avoided the use of public threats to pressure Damascus in favor of behind-the-scenes diplomacy, particularly since the ascension of Syrian President Bashar Assad in 2000. The Bush administration's unprecedented use of coercive public diplomacy suggests that the State Department's standard operating procedure in dealing with the Syrians has been definitively discredited.

Apart from its sheer magnitude, what is most unusual about the transition that has taken place in American-Syrian relations is the complexity of causal mechanisms propelling it - dramatic shifts in international alignments usually unfold for fairly self-evident reasons. The crisis is not, as many European commentators insist, primarily an outgrowth of American neoconservative ambitions to remake the Middle East, or a reflection of Syrian President Bashar Assad's inexperience. While there are conflicts of interest at the heart of the crisis, internal divisions, miscalculations, and wishful thinking on both sides of the dispute have played a decisive role in its onset.

Constructive Engagement and Appeasement

Until last month, the parameters of American policy toward Syria were strictly defined by the State Department's doctrine of constructive engagement, a diplomatic operating principle inspired by the successful use of US economic and military aid during the 1970s to facilitate Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's acceptance of a bilateral peace treaty with Israel. The underlying assumptions of US constructive engagement in the Middle East are that the capacity of the United States to reward "good behavior" far exceeds its capacity to punish "bad behavior" (which was largely true during the Cold War) and that the latter is ineffective in conditioning policymaking in the Arab world for a variety of cultural and historical reasons.

American efforts to woo Sadat in the aftermath of the 1973 Yom Kippur War were paralleled by constructive engagement of Syrian President Hafez Assad. The United States pressured Israel to withdraw from part of the Golan Heights captured from Syria during the 1967 war, provided Syria with several hundred million dollars of economic aid, and tacitly supported the entry of Syrian troops into Lebanon (ostensibly to rein in radical Palestinian groups threatening the overthrow of its government). However, American rewards failed to win Assad's acceptance of a bilateral peace treaty with Israel - or even to persuade him not to sabotage Egypt's treaty with Israel.

Following the passage of congressional legislation prohibiting aid to state sponsors of terrorism, American economic assistance to Damascus was completely cut. The deployment of US and European peacekeepers to Beirut after Israel's 1982 invasion brought American-Syrian relations to a new low. Syrian military intelligence in Lebanon, along with Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commanders from Iran, mobilized extremist Lebanese militias to fight the American presence, culminating in the October 1983 suicide bombing of the US marine barracks in Beirut and the withdrawal of US peacekeepers four months later.

Having consolidated its military and political dominance in Lebanon, Syria used terrorist proxies to derail American efforts to revive the peace process. During the 1980s, Assad demonstrated that he could effectively undermine Yasser Arafat's "moderate" wing of the PLO by fueling open rebellion in Palestinian ranks, intimidate the Jordanian government into withdrawing its support for peace plans by sponsoring terrorism in the streets of Amman, and forcibly extinguish all hope for peace and stability in Lebanon if Syria's vital interests were ignored by Washington.

By the mid-1980s, American policy toward Syria had evolved into a melange of constructive engagement and appeasement - the provision of benefits to reduce the threat of bad behavior. After having encouraged Lebanese President Amine Gemayel to contest Syria's grip on Lebanon in 1982-1983, the Reagan administration accommodated Syrian interests in Lebanon - going so far as to exert pressure on Lebanese Christians in 1988 to accept Assad's hand-picked successor to Gemayel. The 1989-1990 revolt against Syrian forces by the interim government of Michel Aoun witnessed American officials stating publicly that the withdrawal of Syrian forces might destabilize the country and pressuring Lebanese members of parliament to accept the 1989 Taif Accord, which provided for the indefinite continuation of Syria's military presence in Lebanon until such time as the Syrian and Lebanese governments jointly decide to end it.

Assad - arguably the most skilled statesman of the twentieth century - had a knack for recognizing where American "red lines" were drawn. He was keenly aware of the boundary between actions that would be reluctantly tolerated by the US and those that would provoke retaliation or reappraisal of policy. The Syrian dictator understood that US Mideast policy is myopic - that the desire for stability in the short-term would always trump American commitments to abstractions, such as Arab democracy or Lebanese sovereignty. Assad, more than any other foreign leader, understood the State Department's proclivity for wishful thinking and how to exploit the faulty calculus of overly optimistic policymakers.

Assad's crowning diplomatic achievement was that, in return for offering token support to an American-led coalition intent on smashing his second most powerful enemy in 1991, Syria obtained billions of dollars in aid from Arab Gulf states, an extremely favorable shift in US policy vis-a-vis Israel, and quasi-official American support for its occupation of Lebanon. In October 1990, Assad received a green light from the Bush administration to launch a full-scale invasion of east Beirut and force Aoun into exile. The United States made little effort to distance itself from Syria's bloody capture of the Lebanese capital - within a month, the US embassy in Beirut was reopened. In November, President Bush met personally with Assad in Geneva.

While this deal of the century was obviously facilitated by the prevailing consensus among US officials that a gesture of support from the Syrian dictator (the deployment of a few thousand soldiers nowhere near harm's way) was of critical importance, it was Assad's intuition and statecraft that enabled Syria to exploit circumstances to their fullest potential and preserve these gains until his death in June 2000. The late Syrian leader understood that the price of American forbearance regarding Syria's occupation of Lebanon and sponsorship of terrorist groups was its observance of certain "red lines" concerning Iraq.

Throughout the 1990s, the Clinton administration maintained a conspicuous silence regarding Syria's occupation of Lebanon and actively worked to strengthen it behind the scenes (e.g. efforts by US diplomats to persuade Lebanese opposition figures to end their boycott of the Syrian-orchestrated electoral process; the State Department's denial of a visa to Aoun when he was invited by a congressional committee to testify about the Syrian occupation in 1997). However, American appeasement did little to moderate Syrian demands in peace talks with Israel, which were suspended in 1996. Following a brief revival of the talks in late 1999, Israeli officials announced that they would not object to American military aid to Damascus following the signing of a peace treaty - an indication that previously unimaginable "sweeteners" were being offered by the United States. But the ailing Assad declined to accept.

For a few months following the failure of the Clinton-Assad summit in March 2000 , the United States began referring explicitly to the Syrian presence in Lebanon in public statements (though words such as "occupation" remained barred to American diplomats). This touched off a wave of vocal opposition in Lebanon to Syrian hegemony, further enflamed by the unilateral withdrawal of Israeli forces in May 2000. However, the death of Assad in June and the ascension of his son, Bashar, led to renewed hopes at the State Department that constructive engagement could bring Syria to the peace table.

About four months after Bashar Assad's ascension, Syria began importing an estimated 200,000 barrels of Iraqi oil per day in violation of UN sanctions, allowing it to increase its own oil exports, a scheme which earned the Assad regime about $1.5 billion last year. In addition, the money spent for this oil was used by the Iraqis to buy poorly-manufactured Syrian consumer goods which were virtually unmarketable anywhere else. After some initial grumbling by the incoming administration of George W. Bush in early 2001, the United States abruptly stopped raising the issue publicly. Without American tolerance of its continuing violation of UN sanctions, Syria would not have been able to siphon massive quantities of cut-rate petroleum through a partly exposed pipeline. In a sense, Syria's windfall Iraqi oil scam was a form of indirect economic aid from the United States. While the Syrians clearly had a large stake in maintaining the political status quo in Baghdad, they also had a large stake in maintaining cordial relations with the Bush administration.

PFLP-GC arms shipment
To the chagrin of Washington, however, Bashar Assad decided to increase, rather than decrease, Syrian support for anti-Israeli extremist groups regarded as terrorist organizations by the United States - most notably Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - General Command, and Hezbollah. Fueled by a massive influx of arms and explosives from Syrian-occupied Lebanon, Palestinian-Israeli violence soured to unprecedented heights.

Although some officials in the Bush administration made public their frustration with Assad's increasingly provocative behavior, the State Department's policy of constructive engagement remained in place. After congressional leaders introduced the Syria Accountability Act in March 2002, the State Department began a public relations campaign claiming that Syrian intelligence sharing following the 9/11 attacks had "helped save American lives" - a catch phrase repeated dozens of times during the year. Some who met behind closed doors with State Department officials during this period have said that the word "helped" was dropped in private discussions.[2] Due to pressure from the Bush administration, the bill was shelved before it could be brought to a vote.

In spite of the Assad regime's continuing sponsorship of terrorist groups, its occupation of Lebanon and its violation of UN sanctions on Iraq, the United States declined to categorize Syria as a "rogue state" or include it in the so-called "axis of evil." While the Bush administration frequently expressed a desire for more cooperation from Damascus, the Syrian government was never presented in official statements as an obstacle to peace and stability in the region. This reflected both a continuation of diplomatic norms established by the previous three American administrations and an inherently optimistic view of Bashar Assad as a modernizing young leader committed to political liberalization at home and closer ties with the US, but constrained by difficult domestic and regional circumstances. The conventional wisdom at the State Department was that the United States should work with, rather than against, such "reform-minded moderates."

The Bush administration's commitment to bringing about regime change in Iraq presented Assad with a vexing dilemma. Lacking the political strength to institute economic reforms at home, his regime had become ever more dependent on an economic drip-feed from Baghdad. Although sensitive aspects of Syrian-American diplomacy have remained far too clouded in secrecy to say for certain, it is reasonable to assume that the Bush administration was amenable to the continuation of this drip-feed after the ouster of Saddam under certain conditions - at a minimum, Syrian neutrality in the conflict with Saddam Hussein, and probably also an end to (or reduction in) Syrian sponsorship of terrorism. Assad's decision not to accept such a trade-off merits close examination.

Assad's Dilemma

In light of the Syrian regime's inability to weather the domestic repercussions of losing its drip feed from Iraq (or, for that matter, its drip feed from Lebanon - also a product of Western forbearance), most Western analysts expected to see Assad, like his father before him, barter some measure of Syrian neutrality, if not token support, for American policy in Iraq in exchange for the best possible arrangements that could be achieved diplomatically. In view of the Bush administration's public characterization of Syria as an ally in the war against al-Qaeda (if not terrorism in general), few expected the young Syrian leader to place his chips squarely on the side of the Iraqis.

However, even the best possible deal that Assad could have obtained - a continuation of cut-rate petroleum exports from Iraq in exchange for mere neutrality - would have been a Faustian bargain for his regime. Economic dependence on a pro-American Iraq would have been a Trojan horse through which the United States could not only exercise much greater pressure on Syria in the future, but could calibrate this pressure much more finely (e.g. the flow of oil would not require air strikes to disrupt, and it could be reduced in gradations). Previously constrained by weak US-Syrian economic ties, American leverage over Damascus would become greatly empowered. Moreover, Syria would be surrounded by US allies: Israel and Jordan to the south, Turkey to the north, and Iraq to the east.

For Assad, even more pernicious than the economic and strategic implications of a "liberated" Iraq were the political implications. In many respects, the Iraqi regime was a carbon copy of his own. They were run by rival branches of the same secular Arab nationalist Baath party. Both used pan-Arab ideology to mask the political domination of a minority sectarian group (Sunni Muslims constitute just over 20% of the population in Iraq, while Alawites constitute around 12% of the Syrian population). Both regimes used similar methods of control (e.g. overlapping security-intelligence agencies) and had butchered tens of thousands of their own citizens. For the Assad regime, the rise of a democratic, stable government in place of its Baathist twin next door would constitute an existential threat. As a provincial official of Syria's ruling Baath Party confided to the New York Times late last month, "If things improve for the Iraqis, people will demand reform here."[3]

When internationally acclaimed Syrian caricaturist Ali Ferzat recently published a cartoon in a Kuwaiti newspaper that portrayed the Iraqi leader as oblivious to the welfare of his people, the state-run daily Tishrin ran a full-page feature condemning him (and the Kuwaiti press) for two consecutive days. So similar are the Syrian and Iraqi governments that, under the present circumstances, Assad is concerned that criticism of the latter is a vicarious attack on the former.

While the prospect of an American victory in Iraq was evidently troubling enough for Damascus to preclude cooperation with the United States, Syria's decision to contribute to the Iraqi war effort and wage war by proxy against US forces was not driven by any realistic prospects of preventing this outcome. Rather, Assad and others may have hoped that covert assistance to Iraq could make the US-led campaign to seize control of the country so costly that the coalition would exercise less discretion in avoiding civilian casualties during the war and, in its aftermath, be less willing to stay in the country long enough to build stable democratic institutions. If the Iraqi people paid a heavy enough price for their freedom, it might not inspire demands for the same in Damascus.

An additional consideration for Assad was that the ouster of Saddam essentially eliminated the region's most powerful Arab nationalist regime. So long as the Iraqi leader was in power, Assad could make no credible claim to pan-Arab leadership. Because of Baghdad's status as an international pariah, Saddam would always be more in synch with the Arab street - his staunch rejection of a post-Gulf War regional order that excluded Iraq mirrored the sentiments of those who were politically and economically excluded at home by the custodians of this order. By undertaking hostile actions against US troops in Iraq, Assad may have hoped to stake an early claim to the now-vacant position of supreme Arab nationalist leader. Again, the objective of Syrian intervention would not be to save Saddam - it is precisely because Saddam could not be saved that Assad may have felt obliged to confront the United States.

Of course, there were a variety of more material incentives for Assad's covert re-armament of the Iraqis, which intensified as the United States readied its forces for deployment to the Persian Gulf in 2002. Arms and spare parts from former Soviet bloc countries with weak export controls arrived in Syrian ports throughout the year and were transported overland to Iraq. Saddam's desperation presumably made this enterprise immensely profitable for the Syrians.

It is also evident that Assad hoped to secure the transfer of Iraqi WMD and missile technology to Syria. The acquisition of solid fuel experts from Iraq's Technical Corps for Special Projects (Techcorp or TCSP), which worked on development of the Condor-2 (Badr-2000) missile prior to the 1991 Gulf War (and continued some of this work afterwards), would be the most prized catch for Damascus - Syria has long sought to develop solid fuel technology in order to increase the range of its (liquid fuel) missile arsenal. According to intelligence sources cited by the German daily Die Welt, at least seven Iraqi scientists from Saddam's solid fuel research program have taken up residence in the Syrian town of Hamat, along with their families. Hamat is reportedly the site of a new missile research facility run by the Scientific Studies and Research Center (SSRC) and plush with $180 million of fresh funding from the Syrian government.[4]

Misreading America

Although the Bush administration was cognizant of the economic, strategic, and political benefits Syria derived from arming the Iraqis, no public pressure was applied to persuade Damascus that the cost of opposing the United States would exceed these benefits. Although warnings were issued through private channels, this was nothing new - private warnings from the Americans about Syrian sponsorship of terrorist organizations had long been routine, and Assad understood that they could be ignored without precipitating a change in American policy. As long as the United States refrained from the use of public threats, as it had in the past, the Syrians had no reason to take the warnings seriously.

After US intelligence agencies first confirmed that Damascus was shipping military contraband to the Iraqis in early 2002, the Bush administration communicated its displeasure to Assad through private channels. According to the Lebanese daily Al-Nahar, American officials confronted the Syrians in May, producing satellite photographs showing Syrian arms shipments en route to Iraq.[5] Behind closed doors, American objections became more persistent and vocal as the influx of military shipments from Syria to Iraq accelerated in the months leading up to the war. In January, according to a source cited by the London-based daily Al-Sharq al-Awsat, Assistant Secretary of State William Burns presented the Syrian dictator with "precise and documented details concerning ground transportation of military equipment and ammunition sent from Syria to Iraq" during a visit to Damascus.[6] MEIB has learned from another source that names of specific individuals and ministries involved in the smuggling were presented to Assad.

The persuasive power of these warnings was undermined not just by the fact that they were not made public, but by the fact that American diplomats continued to publicly praise Syria's cooperation in the war on terror. As the United States inched closer to war, Assad remained convinced that his assistance to the Iraqis would not irreparably damage Syrian relations with the United States. Subtle indications to the contrary in American public diplomacy were misinterpreted in Damascus. For example, endless repetition of the mantra that Syrian cooperation in the war on terror had "helped save American lives" was not just confined to the State Department, but mainly confined to career diplomats who had been inherited from the Clinton administration, such as Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs William Burns, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs David Satterfield, and Richard Erdman, the head of Lebanon, Syria and Jordan affairs at the State Department.[7] Secretary of State Colin Powell himself avoided uttering the phrase, as did conservatives who entered the department after Bush's election, such as Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton and Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage. Bolton and Armitage had also made public statements that hinted at trouble on the horizon (the former on Syrian weapons of mass destruction, the latter on Hezbollah as a future target in the war on terror).

While statements by Bolton and Armitage certainly raised eyebrows in Damascus (judging from the vociferous objections of its foreign ministry), Syrian officials apparently took at face value the reassurances of State Department officials with whom they had developed a close relationship dating back to the 1980s - most notably Satterfield. British officials also sought to mollify the Syrians. As he sipped tea with the Queen during his visit to London in December 2002, Assad must have wondered if his alignment with Iraq wasn't reinforcing, rather than eroding, the West's proclivity for appeasement.

Continental European opposition to regime change in Iraq also reinforced Assad's belief that he could aid the Iraqis with impunity. Syrian officials have repeatedly portrayed their country as having sided with "international legitimacy." In the absence of vocal opposition by "Old Europe" to the United States, it is doubtful that Damascus would have remained so defiant. Significantly, Syria, which holds a rotating seat on the UN Security Council, unexpectedly dropped its objections to UN Security Council Resolution 1441 in November after France and Russia did the same. According to one European source, the Syrians also became more resolved to defy the US after Turkey refused to permit American forces to enter Iraq from its territory.[8]

As Syrian arms shipments to Iraq continued unabated, Pentagon officials began pressing the White House to exert stronger pressure on Syria. However, the White House continued to follow the recommendations of State Department officials, who contended that publicly accusing the Syrians would undermine diplomatic efforts to secure Syrian support for regime change in Iraq. Some at the State Department endorsed Assad's claim to have been unaware of illicit arms trafficking at face value and blamed the shipments on "entrepreneurial officers" acting on their own accord without the Syrian leader's knowledge. Rather than raising the issue publicly, it was said that the United States should assist Assad in identifying the perpetrators.

The State Department's reasoning appears to have been deliberately misleading. The most likely principal Syrian intermediary is the son of Defense Minister Mustafa Tlass, Firas, who had been involved in smuggling consumer goods into the country and selling them for a handsome profit on the black market, as well as regular commercial trade with the Iraqis. However, as State Department officials were no doubt aware, Firas Tlass, a Sunni Arab, is an ally of Assad - it is doubtful that he would have kept these transactions secret.

While it is possible that senior Alawite military officers may have been organizing the arms shipments and that Assad had not approved them, it is almost inconceivable that the Syrian president did not know that they were taking place or was unaware of who was in charge of the smuggling. With Assad's loyalists firmly in control of the regime's overlapping intelligence agencies, his failure to stop them would not have been the result of ignorance, but of lacking the political strength to interfere. The White House's failure to raise the issue publicly would only have served to embolden those responsible for the smuggling by reinforcing their belief that arming Saddam Hussein would not provoke American ire.

The Syrians, not surprisingly, concluded that their cooperation in the war against Al-Qaeda had given them broad leeway to flaunt American policy on Iraq. Just one week before the start of the war, "informed" Lebanese sources close to Damascus quoted by the London-based daily Al-Hayat brushed aside American displeasure regarding Syria's stance on Iraq and expressed confidence that "the issue of [al-Qaeda] terrorism remains the fundamental one in the dialogue between Damascus and Washington."[9]

Syria Escalates

In the weeks leading up to the war,, the Syrians launched an impressive diplomatic campaign to thwart US efforts at mobilizing Arab support for regime change in Iraq. Damascus was instrumental in engineering the final communique of the February 15-16 Arab League foreign ministers' meeting in Cairo, which urged Arab states to "refrain from offering any assistance or facilities to any military operation that might threaten the security, safety and territorial integrity of Iraq." According to Kuwait's ambassador to the Arab League, the chair of the meeting, Lebanese Foreign Minister Mahmoud Hammoud (a Syrian appointee), "did not form a committee to write the final statement" and distributed the text "minutes before the end of the meeting" after having informed "only one other delegation" beforehand (a reference to Syria). Hammoud also "ignored a request from the Saudi delegation, backed by 10 Arab states including Egypt, to put the statement to a vote."[10]

A few weeks before the start of the war, Syria and Lebanon scuttled plans by an Arab League ministerial committee to persuade Saddam Hussein to go into exile. Although few believed that Saddam could be persuaded to step down, pro-American Arab governments (particularly Kuwait and Qatar, where most US forces readying for battle were deployed) considered the meeting critical - a way of demonstrating to their constituents that all possible means had been used to find a peaceful solution to the crisis and that Saddam had deliberately chosen war over exile. According to the editor of Egypt's state-run Al-Ahram newspaper, Ibrahim Nafie, "signals from Syria and Lebanon . . . encouraged Baghdad to refuse to receive the committee . . . and pushed [Saddam Hussein] toward the abyss."[11]

The cancellation of the Arab League committee's visit on March 12 marked the beginning of the American-Syrian crisis. The very next day, during a House appropriations subcommittee hearing, Powell suddenly departed from the State Department's diplomatic vernacular regarding Syria by using the word "occupation" to describe the 27-year presence of Syrian forces in Lebanon. Although barely noted in the Western press, the unprecedented utterance of this single word (which had been conspicuously absent from official American statements for nearly two decades) made headlines in Lebanon. In Damascus, however, Powell's remark was initially met with conspicuous silence.

Ahmad Kaftaro

Once the war started, Damascus began issuing increasingly strident public statements urging Arabs throughout the region to fight alongside Saddam. On March 26, Syrian Vice-president Muhammad Zuhayr Mashariqah called for "standing by fraternal Iraq" in the face of "savage aggression" by coalition forces and praised the "steadfastness of the Iraqi people and their efforts to repel the invaders."[12] In a March 27 interview, Assad crossed a diplomatic threshold by becoming the first Arab head of state (other than Saddam) to publicly express hope that American and British forces will be defeated in Iraq.[13] He also advocated intervention by non-Iraqi Arabs for the first time, insisting that "it is natural for all the Arab countries to defend any Arab country facing an invasion."

On the same day, Syria's leading government-appointed religious official, Ahmad Kaftaro, issued a fatwa calling on Muslims to carry out suicide operations to defend Iraq. "I call on Muslims everywhere to use all means possible to thwart the aggression, including martyr operations against the belligerent American, British and Zionist invaders," he said in a statement faxed to international news agencies. "Resistance to the belligerent invaders is an obligation for all Muslims." Kaftaro also warned that Arab rulers who "offer facilities to the war on the Muslims . . . are responsible before God, history and people."[14]

As Syrian officials called for non-Iraqi Arabs to fight the US-led coalition, thousands of volunteers converged on the Syrian capital, where convoys of busses brought them overland to Iraq. Although officials in Damascus publicly distanced themselves from the operation, the Lebanese branch of Syria's ruling Baath Party and other Syrian-sponsored extremist groups openly mobilized their followers to heed Assad's call.

Kornet antitank missile

In Washington, officials at the Pentagon were fuming as the continuation of Syrian arms shipments to Iraq proved to be a critical factor on the battlefield. In southern Iraq, "irregulars" driving pickup trucks with Kornet anti-tank missiles mounted in the back knocked out two American M1 Abrams tanks during the first week of the war - the first M1s ever destroyed in battle by enemy fire. The missiles, which have a range of 5.5 km (3.4 miles) and can engage targets at night, were believed to have been supplied by the Syrians, who purchased up to 1,000 Kornets from their Russian manufacturer, KBP of Tula, in 1998 and 1999.[15] Intelligence reports also indicated that Syria had provided the Iraqis with night vision equipment. Since the ability of American and British soldiers to fight effectively at night was their single greatest advantage over the Iraqi army, Saddam's acquisition of night vision goggles in significant quantities clearly had the potential to dramatically reverse coalition fortunes. More ominously, night vision goggles would greatly bolster the effectiveness of Iraqi chemical weapons (which, because sunlight breaks down the chemical agents, are more effective at night). For the Pentagon, Damascus had crossed a major threshold.

Rumsfeld's Surprise

During a press briefing at the Pentagon on March 28, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld announced, "We have information that shipments of military supplies have been crossing the border from Syria into Iraq, including night-vision goggles . . . These deliveries pose a direct threat to the lives of coalition forces." He added that the United States "consider[s] such trafficking as hostile acts and will hold the Syrian government accountable for such shipments." Asked whether the shipments were state-sponsored, Rumsfeld replied curtly that "they control their border." Asked if the United States was threatening Syria with military action, Rumsfeld again demurred: "I'm saying exactly what I'm saying. It was carefully phrased."

Although Rumsfeld's statements received the full backing of President Bush, within hours State Department officials were already seeking to undermine it in leaks to the press. One told the Associated Press that the shipments were organized by parties well-known to the Syrian government and that evidence of their involvement was being sent to officials "at the highest levels" - implying not only that the Assad regime was unaware of the activity, but that the Syrian authorities were cooperating in bringing it to a halt.[16]

Emboldened, perhaps, by leaks signaling a return to business as usual diplomacy, Syrian officials responded to the allegations contemptuously. On March 30, Foreign Minister Farouq al-Sharaa told parliament in Damascus that "Syria has a national interest in the expulsion of the invaders from Iraq."[17]

Just two days after Rumsfeld's statement, the administration reiterated its view that the Assad regime, not unspecified parties in Syria, were considered responsible for the shipments and called upon Powell to emphasize this point. "Syria faces a critical choice," he said. "Syria can continue direct support for terrorist groups and the dying regime of Saddam Hussein, or it can embark on a different and a more hopeful course. Either way, Syria bears the responsibility for its choices, and for the consequences."[18]

The Syrians again responded with defiance and made it clear that their "critical choice" had been made. Syria has "chosen to side with the people of Iraq, who are facing an illegal and an unjustified invasion and against whom are being committed all sorts of crimes against humanity," the Syrian Foreign Ministry said in a statement issued the following day.[19] On April 1, the state-run English language daily Syria Times called for American officials to be tried for "crimes against humanity."

Officials in Syrian-occupied Lebanon were (typically) vocal in their condemnation of the American warning. President Emile Lahoud called the warnings "part of an Israeli-led propaganda campaign" against Syria and Lebanon.[20] Labor Minister Ali Qanso, who heads the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), which favors Syrian annexation of Lebanon, condemned Rumsfeld's remark and warned that "any attack against Syria will set the entire Arab area, from the (Atlantic) ocean to the Gulf, on fire against the United States."[21]

Advocates of appeasement within the administration again sought to thwart the White House's initiative through press leaks. Newsday quoted an unnamed "administration official familiar with US intelligence in the region" (a phrase which implies that the source was not actually an intelligence official) as saying that the CIA had no credible evidence that the Syrian government had played a role in shipping military equipment to Iraq. The official, who (not surprisingly) declined to disclose his departmental affiliation, was quick to add (incorrectly) that American allies Turkey and Jordan had experienced similar problems with illegal arms trafficking to Iraq.[22] An anonymous "senior official" told The Financial Times that the statements by Rumsfeld and Powell were "a pre-emptive warning" to Damascus and that "there has never been any specific danger of real intervention" by Syria in Iraq.[23]

The Syrian-American crisis continued to escalate during the first two weeks of April as repeated American warnings were ignored by Damascus and reports surfaced that Syria was providing shelter to Iraqi officials and relatives of Saddam Hussein. According to US officials, a large convoy of several dozen vehicles crossed into Syria during the first week of the war, carrying numerous government officials and members of Saddam's family, including his first wife, Sajida. Several Iraqis who entered Syria later moved on to third countries, such as the head of Iraq's nuclear program, Jaffar Dhai Jaffar, who made his way to an unspecified Persian Gulf country before turning himself in in mid-April. Farouk Hijazi, a senior Iraqi intelligence official serving as Iraqi ambassador to Tunisia, is also known to have fled to Syria. Hijazi is said to have been a key player in a 1993 plot to assassinate former president George Bush. On April 6, US forces fired on a Russian diplomatic convoy en route to Syria from Baghdad that was believed to have been carrying Iraqi officials.

Continued Syrian assistance to its dying sister regime brought an escalation of threats by American officials. On April 9, Rumsfeld said that Syria had made a "conscious decision" to ignore his earlier warning about arms shipments to Iraq. Two days later, President Bush warned Syria "not to allow for Baath Party members or Saddam's families or generals on the run to seek safe haven" in Syria. On April 14, Powell warned that the US "will examine possible measures of a diplomatic, economic or other nature as we move forward." As if in answer to what the "other" might be, reports surfaced that the Pentagon had drawn up contingency plans for an attack on Syria. In a largely symbolic gesture intended to emphasize that previously-offered rewards were now off the table, US forces disabled the Syria-Iraq oil pipeline and bombed the Syrian Trade Center in Baghdad.

Syrian defiance appeared to be at least partially fueled by the continuing efforts of career State Department officials to downplay the administration's tough line toward Damascus. "Syrian-US relations have not yet reached the stage of a crisis or an open rift," proclaimed one commentator in the pro-Syrian Lebanese daily Al-Safir. "Each side is still preserving a path back to the pre-Iraq war phase."[24] Efforts by the State Department to downplay US warnings have evidently contributed to this perception. "Happily I can say that lots of senior people in this administration . . . are very unhappy about this campaign against Syria," boasted Syria's deputy ambassador to the United States, Imad Moustapha, in an interview on NBC's "Meet the Press."[25] After Powell announced on April 16 that he expected to travel to Syria for "very vigorous diplomatic exchange" with the Syrians, State Department officials (who "appeared surprised by Powell's remarks," according to The Washington Post) hastened to explain that any trip to Damascus by Powell would likely be for the purpose of breathing life into the peace process.

By mid-April the rapid crumbling of Iraqi resistance to coalition forces appeared to have persuaded Assad to quietly comply with American demands. On April 16, Brig.-Gen. Vincent Brooks told Centcom's daily briefing in Qatar that "there has been a sharp fall in the numbers of people moving between Syria and Iraq," though this was partly due to the deployment of US forces along the Iraqi side of the border. At least two figures in the Iraqi regime who had taken refuge in Syria were found back in Iraq - one of Saddam's top bodyguards (who has not yet been identified) and the Iraqi leader's son-in-law, Jamal Mustafa Abdallah Sultan al-Tikriti. On April 20, Bush announced that there had been "positive signs" of Syrian compliance with American demands.


For the time being, the White House must contend with the steep cost of having misread Assad. Although Syria appears to have reduced its efforts to foment resistance to American forces for the time being, the effects of this campaign will likely be felt for months to come. The discovery of around 300 suicide vests lined with explosives in an Iraqi school on April 12 was tempered by indications (e.g. empty hangers) that up to 80 other vests had been recently moved to other locations.

Irrespective of whether Syria continues or resumes efforts to inflict harm on coalition forces in Iraq, it appears doubtful that American-Syrian relations will return to business as usual. For a year and a half prior to the launch of Operation Iraqi Freedom, American diplomats repeated the mantra that Syrian cooperation in the war against Al-Qaeda had "helped save American lives." Today, Syria stands accused of taking actions that have cost American lives, despite clear US warnings to cease and desist. While military action against Syria is unlikely, barring some major provocation, the Bush administration appears resolved to exert all instruments of diplomatic and economic pressure at its disposal to force Damascus to comply with long-standing American demands, such as WMD disarmament and an end to its sponsorship of terrorist organizations that block the path to peace in the region. The era of constructive engagement has ended.


  [1] Al-Sharq al-Awsat (London), 2 April 2003.
  [2] In his testimony during the September 2002 House subcommittee hearings on the SAA, American Task Force for Lebanon (ATFL) President Edward Gabriel directly quoted Satterfield as having told him in August that "American lives have been saved because of their cooperation." [Hearing of the Middle East and South Asia Subcommittee of the House International Relations Committee, 18 September 2002.]
  [3] The New York Times, 30 March 2003.
  [4] Die Welt (Berlin), 1 April 2003.
  [5] Al-Nahar (Beirut), 21 June 2002.
  [6] Al-Sharq al-Awsat (London), 1 April 2003.
  [7] See the statement of Satterfield to the Middle East and South Asia Subcommittee of the House International Relations Committee, 18 September 2002. An exception is the use of the phrase by Assistant Secretary of State for Legislative Affairs Paul Kelly in an April 2002 letter to Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Delaware) shortly after the introduction of the Syria Accountability Act. Kelly, an aide to Powell when he was at the Pentagon, did not use the phrase publicly (the contents of his letter were leaked to the Jerusalem Post, which published highlights on May).
  [8] Al-Hayat (London), 2 April 2003.
  [9] Al-Hayat (London), 11 March 2003.
  [10] Agence France Presse, 18 February 2003.
  [11] Al-Ahram (Cairo), 15 March 2003.
  [12] Syrian Arab Republic Radio (Damascus), 26 March 2003.
  [13] "If the American-British designs succeed - and we hope they do not succeed . . . there will be Arab popular resistance," said Assad. Al-Safir (Beirut), 27 March 2003.
  [14] Agence France Presse, 27 March 2003; United Press International, 27 March 2003.
  [15] Newsweek, 7 April 2003.
  [16] The Associated Press, 29 March 2003.
  [17] The Associated Press, 30 March 2003.
  [18] Colin Powell, remarks before the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee, 30 March 2003.
  [19] Syrian TV satellite service (Damascus), 31 March 2003.
  [20] The Daily Star (Beirut), 1 April 2003.
  [21] The Daily Star (Beirut), 31 March 2003.
  [22] Newsday (New York), 3 April 2003.
  [23] The Financial Times, 1 April 2003.
  [24] Al-Safir (Beirut), 2 April 2003.
  [25] Full transcript published in The New York Times, 14 April 2003.

2003 Middle East Intelligence Bulletin. All rights reserved.

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