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Syria Unsanctioned By: Barry Rubin
Global Research in International Affairs | Wednesday, October 20, 2004


Consider the following three parallel events which happened within a 24-hour period last week:

     --In Pakistan, security forces killed Amjad Hussain Farooqi, a key figure in Usama bin Ladin's terrorist group and a man accused of the murder of American journalist Daniel Perl and two assassination attempts on Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf. He was tracked down by a special military team.     

     --In Iraq, a U.S. air strike killed Abu Ahmad Tabouki, a Saudi who was a key al-Qaida operative, believed responsible for the beheading murders of two Americans.

     --And in Damascus, Syria, a car bomb killed a top Hamas leader Izz El-Deen al-Sheikh Khalil, reportedly the main organizer of that group's terror attacks on Israel and involved in the deaths of hundreds of civilian victims.

Are there really any significant differences between these operations? Aren't they equally victories in the war against terrorism? So why are two of these actions going to be cheered in the West while one is more likely to be criticized or at least questioned?

The story of Syria as a sponsor of terrorism, like so many things about the contemporary Middle East, is remarkable--and all the more shocking because of what is being ignored or taken for granted. Syria was an ally of the USSR throughout the Cold War, has repeatedly sponsored terrorism (including being caught red-handed trying to blow up a passenger plane at a British airport,) subverted its neighbors, took over its inoffensive neighboring country (dispatching a million workers there essentially as settlers), engaged in drug smuggling and counterfeiting of foreign currencies, massacred its own citizens, repressed internal democratic dissidents, violated with impunity UN sanctions on Iraq, rejected Israel's offer of peace in exchange for all Syrian territory captured in 1967, gave safe passage to Usama bin Ladin's men and cooperates with them in Lebanon, passed down its republican presidency like a monarchy to the dictator's unqualified son, is hosting Saddamist war criminals and perhaps even WMD material, and is sponsoring a proxy war against the United States in Iraq.

Did I mention that it has paid almost no price for all these activities? Even that last point is an understatement, though the U.S. Congress has passed symbolic sanctions: Syria was elected a member of the UN Security Council, serving in 2002-2003, and completed an association agreement with the European Union in 2003. If the world was a bit saner, Syria would be subject to the type of denunciation and punishment reserved for, oh I don't know, let's say Israel for example.

Early in the Bush administration, Syrian President Bashar al-Asad promised visiting Secretary of State Colin Powell that he would remove the terrorist offices in Damascus. Three years later, the terrorists are still there and still carrying out attacks on civilians. 

Now if this were a powerful state with massive economic and military might before which everyone trembled, this situation would be at least partly comprehensible. In fact, though, Syria is a basket case. Its military is in terrible shape, Soviet superpower protector is long gone, and economy is stagnating. True, Syria participated in the 1991 war against Saddam Hussein and for a while engaged in the peace process. But that was a cynical ploy to get away with everything else it does. Such cooperation didn't last long and bore no results.

At any rate, the cleverer maneuvering was carried out by Papa Asad, the dictator Hafez, who ruled the country for thirty years. Now his son, Bashar, is running things and he is neither as smart nor as cautious.

By eliminating Khalil, Israel has sent a message to the Asad dictatorship that it cannot provide a safe haven for terrorism with impunity. Those who haven't been following events may ask whether this will stir up Syria to take revenge. The point is that it has been sponsoring terrorism at about the highest level possible for years. True, Syria will not let its own territory be used for direct attacks, but that is about the only front where it feels compelled to maintain quiet.

Syria's subversion in Iraq has removed any American incentive to try to appease or even engage Syria. In response to Khalil's death, the U.S. State Department warned Syria to stop providing a safe haven to terrorists groups and leaders who are in Damascus, it said, "with the support and connivance of the government."

The point is that Syria is acting in a very adventurist way. Perhaps Syrian generals and veteran members of the ruling establishment are coming to understand that Bashar may be leading them over the cliff and will try to rein him in.

A brief anecdote about how easy it has been for Syria to fool people in the West. When Bashar was being pushed into the presidency, it was commonly stated that he was a pro-reform, modern kind of guy because he was head of the Syrian Internet Society. A visit to the group's site shows that he only became the society's president when his brother--a ruthless playboy type who was supposed to succeed Hafez--drove his car into a bridge abutment. Bashar may not drive sports cars recklessly, but he seems to be doing the same thing with an entire country.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and co-author of Yasir Arafat: A Political Biography and Hating America: A History (Oxford University Press, August 2004).  Prof. Rubin's columns can now be read online at http://gloria.idc.ac.il/columns/column.html.


Barry Rubin is Director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, Interdisciplinary Center university. His latest book, The Truth about Syria was published by Palgrave-Macmillan in 2007. Prof. Rubin's columns can be read online here.


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