On the Road to Damascus? The U.S. Targets Syria
Getting out of the political quicksand of Iraq, or at least burying the bloody occupation as an embarrassing daily news item, is mission number one for the Bush campaign.
Extricating U.S. troops and political capital from the mess the Bush administration created in Iraq may be mission impossible. But the president’s political and ideological handlers have proved adept at spinning the administration out of scandals and misadventures. Their operating principle, which they enshrined as official national security strategy, seems to be: the best defense is a good offense.
When you are down in the polls and the “bring ‘em on” machismo no longer seems to get the patriotic rise it first did, the Bush team doesn’t retreat. It advances with more tough words backed by military muscle and missionary zeal. The Bush administration still has an itchy trigger finger, and is in search of another evildoer to confront.
Even before the U.S. occupation forces settled into Saddam Hussein’s palaces in Baghdad, the neoconservatives who have set the direction of the Bush presidency’s radical foreign and military policies were looking toward Syria. Before the month is out, it’s likely that President Bush will announce new sanctions against Syria–accusing the northern neighbor of Israel, Lebanon, and Iraq of many of the same offenses that were leveled against the Hussein regime in Iraq. The charge list includes developing biological and chemical weapons of mass destruction, condemning the U.S. occupation of Iraq, supporting international terrorism, and succoring anti-U.S. and anti-Israel guerrilla forces.
Immediately before the Iraq invasion, Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security traveled to Israel and promised Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that “it will be necessary to deal with threats from Syria, Iran, and North Korea afterwards.” In April 2003 Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz warned: “There’s got to be a change in Syria.”
The Road to Damascus
The road to Damascus, which is at the center of the Bush administration’s roadmap for restructuring the Middle East, doesn’t run directly from Baghdad. Its starting points are in Washington, Jerusalem/Tel Aviv, and Beirut–charted by the neoconservative think-tanks, the Christian Right, and the right-wing Zionists who move easily back and forth between Capitol Hill and the Middle East.
The neoconservatives harbor a deep sense of history–one that is shaped, they say, by the forces of good and evil and the righteous and the appeasers. For the neocons, history also teaches the virtues of certain political strategies, such as the necessity of establishing bipartisan front groups and establishing the legislative foundation for their agendas.
One of the key figures who has set Washington on the road to Damascus is Ziad K. Abdelnour, an expatriate investment banker from Lebanon who, together with neocon supporters of Israel’s Likud Party and the Christian Right, established the U.S. Committee for a Free Lebanon (USCFL) in 1997.
The USCFL describes itself as the “cyber-center for Pro-Lebanon Activism.” USCFL was one of the leading proponents of the “Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act of 2003,” which calls for a series of sanctions against Syria and which President Bush signed on December 12, 3003.
Like Ahmad Chalabi, chief of the London-based and U.S.-financed Iraqi National Congress (INC), the USCFL’s Abdelnour is an expatriate investment banker. He has lobbied the Bush administration and the U.S. Congress for a U.S. foreign policy that mirrors the hard-line position of Israel’s Likud Party. Working closely with neocon supporters on Capitol Hill in the late 1990s, Chalabi helped persuade Congress to pass the Iraq Liberation Act of 1998, which provided support for the Iraqi National Congress and other anti-Saddam Hussein forces. The Iraq Liberation Act of 1998 set the bipartisan foundation for a military-induced regime change in Iraq. In the lead-up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, necon polemicists such as Richard Perle, William Kristol, and Bruce Jackson created the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq (CLI) to consolidate bipartisan support for the preventive war.
The neoconservatives, strongly backed the right-wing Zionist lobby through such groups as the Orthodox Union and the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, have followed a similar strategy to advance their agenda for political transformation in Syria and Lebanon. In much the same way that they moved forward their agenda for regime change in Iraq step by step, the neocon advocates for a radical transformation in the Middle East have in the case of Syria and Lebanon also formed a “front group”–USCFL–and supported bipartisan legislation that establish the political base for sanctions against Iraq–and eventual U.S. military action. USCFL’s page of “selected links” recommends just three lobbying organizations: Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, American Israel Public Affairs Committee, and Christian Coalition of America. (4)
USCFL, a self-described “non-profit, non-sectarian think tank,” states that it aims to rid the Middle East of “dictatorships, radical ideologies, existential conflicts, border disagreements, political violence, and weapons of mass destruction” and to do so while abiding with the tenets of the Charter of the United Nations. (5) (6)
USCFL’s core supporters, which it calls its “Golden Circle,” include several members of the Bush administration: Elliott Abrams, Richard Perle, Paula Dobriansky, Michael Rubin, and David Wurmser. Other prominent neocons in the Golden Circle include Daniel Pipes (Middle East Forum and U.S. Institute for Peace), Frank Gaffney (Center for Security Policy), Jeane Kirkpatrick (AEI) , Michael Ledeen (AEI), David Steinmann (Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs), and Eleana Benador (Middle East Forum). Also included in this circle of those who have donated $1,000 or more to USCFL is Rep. Eliot Engel (R-NY), the congressional representative who was the main sponsor of the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act of 2003.
The USCFL lists Amin Gemayel, who as Lebanon’s president in 1983 signed an aborted peace treaty with Israel, as a leading supporter. Although there are a few Muslims in USCFL’s Golden Circle, most of the Lebanese-Americans associated with USCFL are Christian, including Abdelnour. In its selected links, USCFL includes the Guardians of the Cedars, a fascistic Christian Right Lebanese organization that has a military wing. The large majority of USCFL supporters, however, are Jewish-Americans.
USCFL may be “non-sectarian,” but its list of core supporters and the “pro-Lebanon” groups listed on its website signal its neoconservative and pro-Likud sympathies. Among the organizations interlocked with USCFL’s Golden Circle include Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD), American Enterprise Institute (AEI), Project for the New American Century (PNAC), Center for Security Policy (CSP), Middle East Forum, Hudson Institute, and Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA).
In 1999 Abdelnour founded the Middle East Intelligence Bulletin (MEIB), which is the USCFL’s monthly online publication. Michael Rubin is on the editorial board and Gary C. Gambill, an associate with the Middle East Forum and Freedom House, is the editor. In 2002, Daniel Pipes of the Middle East Forum (MEF) became a co-publisher of MEIB. The MEIB concentrates on “internal political developments in the Middle East, especially those that are thinly covered in other English-language publications.” (In 2000 Pipes coauthored a jingoistic report with Abdelnour that advocated the use of U.S. military action to force Syria out of Lebanon and to disarm Syria of its alleged weapons of mass destruction. Virtually all 31 signatories of this MEF report (which was used to persuade Congress to introduce and pass the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act in 2003) are USCFL members, and several became high officials or advisers in the Bush foreign policy team, including Abrams, Perle, Feith, Dobrianksy, and Wurmser.
The 2000 report by Pipes and Abdelnour concluded that that “Syrian rule in Lebanon stands in direct opposition to American ideals.” It strongly criticized Washington’s policy of engaging Syria rather than confronting it. The Lebanon Study Group of the Middle East Forum advocated harsh economic and diplomatic sanctions. “The Vietnam legacy and the sour memories of dead American Marines in Beirut notwithstanding,” the group observed, “the United States has entered a new era of undisputed military supremacy coupled with an appreciable drop in human losses on the battlefield.” Finally, said the report, “If there is to be decisive action, it will have to be sooner rather than later.”
The Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act of 2003 received overwhelming support in both the House and the Senate. This public law aims: “To halt Syrian support for terrorism, end its occupation of Lebanon, stop its development of weapons of mass destruction, cease its illegal importation of Iraqi oil and illegal shipments of weapons and other military items to Iraq, and by so doing hold Syria accountable for the serious international security problems it has caused in the Middle East, and for other purposes.” It is designed to punish Damascus for its alleged links to terrorist groups and its alleged efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction. It bans all transfers of “dual-use” technology to Syria. In addition, the act recommends an arsenal of sanctions against Syria, including: reducing diplomatic contacts with Syria, banning U.S. exports (except food and medicine) to Syria, prohibiting U.S. businesses from investing or operating in Syria, restricting the travel of Syrian diplomats in the United States, banning Syrian aircraft from operating in the United States, and freezing Syrian assets in the United States. Although the bill obligates the executive branch to enact at least two of the recommended sanctions, it does permit the president to waive the sanctions if it is determined that they would harm U.S. national security.
USCFL commended Rep. Engel for his leadership in moving the bill through the House, and also expressed its special appreciation for the strong support provided by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) and to Senators Barbara Boxer (D-CA) and Rick Santorum (R-PA) “for pioneering it in the Senate.”
The appointment of David Wurmser, a long-time advocate of U.S. military action against Syria, to the staff of Vice President Cheney in September 2003, followed by the president’s signing of the Syria Accountability act in December were widely regarded as another signal that the U.S. regional restructuring crusade might soon be embarking on the road to Damascus. If the president imposes sanctions against Syria rather than attempting to engage it through diplomatic channels, it’s likely that the Syrian regime will be painted with the same fear-mongering brush used to justify the invasion of Iraq. With Osama bin Laden still on the lam and bedlam in occupied Iraq, the Bush administration needs to refocus public attention on another evildoer–which, not so coincidently, is also the next preferred target of the Likudniks in Israel.