The Mischief-Makers

by , September 30, 2008

While the American people are consumed with the news on the home front – economic implosion, job loss, a record number of foreclosures, failed banks – and a presidential election in which the usual amount of smoke is being blown, if you look behind the headlines the outline of an emerging crisis in – where else? – the Middle East is beginning to take shape.

What the heck is going on in Syria? The news of a huge explosion in Damascus, caused by a car bomb, has shaken the region, and it isn’t at all clear who or what is responsible. Whatever the source, however, the attack – which killed 17 bystanders, including possibly a top Syrian intelligence official – augurs ill for the future of peace in the Middle East (an increasingly elusive goal).

The attack occurred Saturday morning, near a major Syrian intelligence facility, although news reports in the West are focusing on the proximity of the Shi’ite shrine. Israeli media are emphasizing the possibility of an internal struggle within the Syrian regime itself, while the Iranians are saying the blast was the work of the Mossad and/or CIA. Suffice to say that this incident is shrouded in mystery, as the Syrians hint of attackers from beyond their borders, and the context – a series of equally mysterious attacks on targets in Syria over the past few years – indicates they may be correct.

In August, Syrian army Gen. Mohammad Suleiman was assassinated by a sniper in the city of Tartus. Suleiman was reputed to be the Syrian regime’s chief liaison to Lebanon’s Hezbollah organization – a job description that would point to Israel as the culprit. Last February, an explosion in Damascus knocked off Imad Mughniyeh, a Hezbollah military commander. Hezbollah and Syria have close ties.

Add to this recent Israeli allegations that the Syrians were trying to build a nuclear facility – accusations debunked in this space, and later proven to be entirely bogus – and the circumstantial evidence certainly points in the direction of Tel Aviv.

The key to understanding what is going on in the Middle East today – including the American invasion and occupation of Iraq and the stepped-up pressure on the Iranians – is to be found in a seminal paper published in 1996 by an Israeli think-tank, the Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies: "A Clean Break: A New Strategy for the Realm." In it, five U.S. academics and policymakers – many of whom hold (or held) high positions in the U.S. government, including Richard Perle, Douglas Feith, and David Wurmser – outline a strategic perspective that posits a policy of regime change throughout the region. The premise is that Israel is caught in a bind, hemmed in by hostile neighbors and unfavorable demographic facts on the ground. Israel, the authors aver, must break out of its box, or perish in the attempt. The first item on the agenda: regime change in Iraq. The rationale for this was that the road to Damascus must first pass through Baghdad. Syria is the primary "frontline state" engaged in destabilizing the occupied territories and fomenting the Palestinian uprising, so it must be eliminated. Damascus has always been the primary target of the Israelis, whether they are engaged in Lebanon or the occupied territories, and now that Iraq is out of the way, thanks to Uncle Sam, it makes sense that the Israelis are moving against Damascus.

It also computes in a broader sense: the Israelis have always targeted the more secular elements among their many enemies in the region. Saddam Hussein was their first target, and his regime was notably irreligious, although in its latter years the Ba’athists tried to assume the mantle of Islamic legitimacy. Earlier, you’ll remember, the Israelis also went after Yasser Arafat hammer and tongs, while helping Hamas – at least, in its initial stages – to gain a foothold. Now they are going after the secular Ba’ath Party of Syria, which has ruled that country with an iron hand since the days of the late Hafez al-Assad. Assad’s son, Bashir, a UK-educated ophthalmologist, is generally seen as an ineffective ruler, and is reportedly in the midst of a power struggle between the old guard and his own supporters. Israeli news outlets portray the mysterious explosions as being a function of this purported internal struggle, but it is more likely that the Israelis are using their new position of strength to exert enough pressure to cause the brittle Syrian regime to implode.

That this would introduce chaos into the region and unleash the forces of Islamic extremism – including al-Qaeda, which reportedly has a Syrian adjunct – concerns them not at all. Better to fight al-Qaeda, which has narrow support among in the Arab world, than to face a secular anti-Zionist force such as the PLO or the Syrian Ba’athists, who enjoy some degree of popular support.

In Israel itself, there are disturbing developments aplenty. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, upon leaving office in the wake of a financial scandal, denounced the rising tide of "extremism, " exemplified by the recent attack on a prominent academic critic of the settler movement. We warned about that, too, in this space, and the gathering ultra-rightist sentiments in the Israeli electorate at large do not bode well for the future. The present Israeli government reportedly asked for a green light from the Bush administration to go ahead and bomb Iran, ostensibly to take out its nuclear facilities. The answer, according to the British newspaper the Guardian, was no. A future Israeli government, run by extremists, might not be in the mood to ask permission before striking.

There is trouble afoot in the Middle East, and the source of it consists of two major mischief-makers: on the one hand, we have al-Qaeda (and affiliated Sunni extremists), and on the other we are witnessing the rising tide of extremism in Israel, both in government and in the general population. These two forces, ostensibly antithetical, are objectively allied in the sense that they both share a number of common goals: the elimination of Arab moderates, the defeat of Arab secularism, and opposition to all nationalism. Regarding this last, the Israelis oppose Arab nationalism because it inspires military resistance to their predations, and al-Qaeda disapproves of it because it often comes packaged with secularism or what they regard as heretical versions of Islam (such as the Alawite sect that the ruling caste in Syria belongs to). Nationalism also flies in the face of Osama bin Laden’s vision of a Sunni caliphate stretching from the straits of Gibraltar to the steppes of Central Asia.

Another reason for Israeli concentration on secular Arab targets it the American factor: U.S. public opinion is much more likely to side with the Jewish state if the enemy is seen as a fanatical religious movement that cannot be reasoned with. That Israel itself is coming to resemble this caricature is not something the authors of the "Clean Break" scenario took into account. Nor has Israel’s lobby in the U.S., which has yet to react to – or take seriously – the upsurge in extremist activity in Israel.

If Syria implodes, the consequences for the U.S. will be incalculably awful. With 150,000 troops in neighboring Iraq, we will soon be hearing that al-Qaeda has established a base in Syria, and the war will spread. We will also be hearing that Syria, too, needs "liberation," and all sorts of figures will be brought forth as likely candidates for U.S. support, including, no doubt, the Reform Party of Syria, which has been promoted and nurtured by the neocons in Washington for the past few years.

There is an alternative to this mess, and it consists of preventive diplomacy. Although the Syrians have cooperated with the U.S. in fighting al-Qaeda – including providing some vital intelligence early on in the fight against Sunni extremism – we have not reciprocated. Instead, for the past eight years, U.S. government officials have refused to talk with the Syrians, and that country’s ambassador to the U.S. is reportedly the loneliest man in Washington, D.C. Not only that, but Donald Rumsfeld, when he was defense secretary, routinely threatened the Syrians with military action, claiming that they deliberately kept their border porous to facilitate the passage of Iraqi insurgents, supposedly based in Damascus. Yet there is no more fearsome and effective foe of al-Qaeda-type organizations than the Ba’athist dictatorship, which, under old Hafez, slaughtered some 30,000 inhabitants of the city of Hama, where members and fighters of the Muslim Brotherhood had risen up against him. Not very nice, but the Middle East is a rough neighborhood, and any upset in the balance of forces – including the stability of the Syrian regime – would likely produce a result far worse than the status quo.

The Iraq war’s consequences are still rippling outward, and the destabilization of Syria is perhaps the most perilous, as far as U.S. interests are concerned. If and when whomever is trying to upset the Syrian apple cart succeeds, it is Americans – after, of course, the poor Syrians – who will be paying the price. The only solution: diplomatic engagement and the dropping of economic sanctions, followed by a policy that encourages the opening up of Syria to Western influence. This has been the dearest wish of the Syrian government, which has been earnestly, if ineffectively, trying to repair relations with the West. Yet the Israel lobby has such a powerful stranglehold on policymaking, including Congress and the White House, that this has proved impossible. Whether or not the election of Barack Obama – who supposedly will talk to anyone – will mean a fundamental break with the failed policies of the past remains to be seen. For the moment, however, we can only hope that Washington will rein in the Israelis before they do irreparable damage and Syria comes unraveled.

NOTES IN THE MARGIN

If you’re interested in my thoughts on the Obama-McCain debate, go check out Taki’s Magazine.

Thanks for all the letters wishing me good luck on my move. I have to admit, country living takes some getting used to – but I’m getting there! Yesterday, I rode my bike into town and had a glorious time exploring all the way down to Monte Rio, a small and very picturesque town on the Russian River. What beautiful country: it’s like being inside an Art Nouveau painting. Some letter-writers have detected a favorable influence on my work, and I hope that’s true. In any case, thanks for the letters. I really appreciate them.

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