Syria in the Crosshairs

I walked into the Arab grocery store just in time to see Michael Young – opinion editor at Beirut’s Daily Star newspaper and a contributing editor at Reason magazine – declaring on television that Syria will almost certainly be blamed for the assassination of Rafik al-Hariri, a former Lebanese prime minister. The store owner, a Maronite Christian from Lebanon, who usually greets me happily, listened gravely as Young reiterated pretty much what he said to the Los Angeles Times and dozens of other media outlets:

“Certainly, the mood is very clearly that Syria did this. Syria will be blamed for it no matter who did it. They’ll be even more isolated internationally than they already are.”

Translation: Never mind the facts. Damascus must pay.

That is clearly the view of the U.S. government, which has recalled its ambassador and is implicitly blaming the Syrians – albeit not directly – in spite of a broadcast on al-Jazeera featuring a man identified as Ahmed Tayseer Abu Adas, who took responsibility for the attack on behalf of a previously unknown group, the “Group for Advocacy and Holy War in the Levant.” Adas denounced Hariri as a “Saudi agent” and declared that the killing was in retaliation for the “martyrdom” of al-Qaeda operatives in the Saudi kingdom.

The investigation so far has shown that this was most likely a suicide bomber – hardly the method one might expect Syrian intelligence to utilize – and not an explosive placed underneath the road, as the Lebanese opposition claims.

But the facts don’t matter here, as Young so helpfully pointed out. The United States government is using this tragedy to ramp up its rhetorical assault against the Syrians, whom it has recently accused of aiding Iraqi insurgents by providing a safe haven and failing to close its border. Reuters cites administration sources as saying that it isn’t just more economic and political sanctions that Washington has in store for the Syrians:

“The administration also was debating whether the U.S. military could cross the Syrian border from Iraq in ‘hot pursuit’ of insurgents, sources familiar with the discussions said.”

As I pointed out last year, we’re on the Middle East escalator, and the assassination of Hariri has just given Washington a pretext to put the pedal to the metal.

For years a mediator between the various sectarian factions that divide the Lebanese political landscape into religious and ethnic cantons, Hariri was seen as moving away from Syria and implicitly backing a call for the withdrawal of Syrian troops. Yet he did not go up against the Syrians until recently, formerly backing them up, with some reservations, because – unlike the American presence in Iraq – theirs is not an occupation born of conquest.

Syria was invited in by the Lebanese government, in 1976, to keep order in the face of a civil war pitting Maronite Christians against Sunnis and Druze. Adding to the chaos, the Israeli invasion in 1982 was aimed at the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which had established bases in southern Lebanon. Syria, in alliance with various militias, resisted the Israeli invaders, who were eventually forced to withdraw. Yet the civil war dragged on until peace was brokered by the Arab League, in 1989, and enforced by the Syrian presence (legitimized by the Taif agreement, which brought an end to the internal hostilities). Syria has slowly been withdrawing forces, but the U.S. and Israel have been pressuring the Syrians to get out entirely: Israel claims that Syria is aiding the Hizbollah guerrilla movement, which regularly launches assaults on Israeli territory. Syria denies this.

Once again, it’s all about Israel.

The escalation of U.S. pressure on Syria is the culmination of a strategy plainly and clearly outlined in a 1996 paper prepared for Tel Aviv’s Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies, entitled “A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm.” This collaborative effort by Richard Perle, James Colbert, Charles Fairbanks, Jr., Douglas Feith, Robert Loewenberg, David Wurmser, and Meyrav Wurmser – most of whom are now ensconced in high positions in the Bush administration – outlined for then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a new Israeli strategic vision:

“Israel can shape its strategic environment, in cooperation with Turkey and Jordan, by weakening, containing, and even rolling back Syria. This effort can focus on removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq – an important Israeli strategic objective in its own right – as a means of foiling Syria’s regional ambitions.”

Syria was seen by these Likudniks as the main target of the Israeli advance. However, Israel could not invade Iraq and outflank the Syrians. Only Washington could change the strategic environment for the Israelis – and that is certainly what has happened. The theme of the “Clean Break” scenario is that the road to Damascus runs through Baghdad, and phase one of the Likudnik mission has been accomplished. We are now entering phase two – the Syrian phase – of the “Clean Break” strategy. Get ready for “shock and awe” over Damascus.

The neoconservatives in the administration have long planned to go after Syria: two years ago, Julian Borger of the Guardian reported that plans for an invasion were readied by Rumsfeld, but vetoed by Bush: to our perspicacious neocons, a veto is only a postponement. The propaganda barrage started last year, and it is now reaching its climax with the assassination of Hariri and the subsequent outcry.

Israel’s amen corner in the U.S. doesn’t need solid evidence that Syria was behind the murder of the beloved Hariri: as Michael Young put it, “the mood” determines guilt in this instance, not the facts. Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz pointed the finger at a nameless “pro-Syrian terror organization,” adding that they’re doing the same thing in Iraq. How Israel knows so much about this he did not say.

Whoever killed Hariri was no amateur: the assassination required knowledge of his movements, technical sophistication, and lots of planning. And in spite of the eagerness of some to convict the Syrians out of hand, the number of suspects – if we count all of Hariri’s many enemies – is far more than one. As Tim Cavanaugh points out in Reason:

“To leftists and Islamists, he was too pro-American. To neocons, he was too anti-Israel. The Group for Advocacy and Holy War in the Levant purports to have hated him for his ties to the Saudi monarchy. And the vast population of Lebanon regarded his achievements as vast populations always do: with jealousy, trash-talk, and spite. There was a surreal pattern throughout the nineties, of seeing a ruined capital turn into a functioning city while friends and neighbors tirelessly grumbled about the arriviste Saudi who had ruined their country.

“Which brings us to the question – and I can already assure you it will never be resolved – of who hated Hariri enough to kill him. I am not as confident as my colleague Michael Young that the Syrian occupiers were behind the bombing. Hariri is an odd choice for assassination given how much more vociferous Druze leader Walid Jumblatt has been in his opposition to the Syrian occupation.”

I don’t purport to know, at this point, who killed Hariri, but what I do know is this: a large number of well-placed people, both in and out of the U.S. government, are pushing very hard to blame the Syrian government, without any evidence – and even disdaining, as in the case of Michael Young and Defense Minister Mofaz, the need to provide any proof. Of course Damascus is responsible, we are told – let “regime change” begin!

Not so fast. This anti-Syrian outcry has about it the same air of orchestration that permeated the run-up to war with Iraq. The Busheviks are employing an identical strategy – pushing fake “intelligence” (often via their favored media organs, such as the London Telegraph) and lying about “weapons of mass destruction,” linking Damascus to “terrorism” by dubious means, and latching onto alleged “liberals.” What a coincidence that the discovery of a major “reform“-minded leader – dubbed by some as the Syrian Chalabi – has lately been in the news.

Less than a week before the assassination of Hariri, Elisabeth Eaves wrote in Slate:

“So, you’re an Arab exile. You’ve prospered in the United States. You’ve got lots of influential neocon friends. And now you want to overthrow the evil Ba’athist dictator back home. Here’s the catch: Your name, fortunately – or perhaps unfortunately – is not Ahmed Chalabi. What are you supposed to do?

“This is the predicament in which a man named Farid Ghadry finds himself. (Remember that name: He could soon be cashing millions in U.S. government checks.) The regime Ghadry would like to terminate is that of Bashar Assad, dictator of Syria, his country of birth. … But Ghadry finds himself in a peculiar post-Iraq-invasion dilemma: to be Chalabi, or not to be. President Bush singled out Syria’s bad behavior in the State of the Union, but no one expects regime change in Damascus anytime soon. Syria’s mere nastiness isn’t enough these days. Iraq has sapped the appetite for war…”

But wars don’t respect national borders, and it’s only a matter of time before the Americans’ ongoing battle against the Iraqi insurgency spills over into Syria. As I predicted in September 2003, “We are a border incident away from taking the war into Syria, and beyond,” and that analysis seems borne out by events.

All the elements of a regional conflagration are now in place, and the assassination of Hariri has set the fuse to burning. How long before the troops move out is anyone’s guess, but make no mistake about it: Syria is next on the War Party’s agenda.

As I have said from the very beginning, the war in Iraq was and is just a means to the ends of finally securing Israel’s “security” – by making it the dominant power in the region. This is now being confirmed as the U.S. takes aim at Syria and moves against Hizbollah. This new ratcheting-up of U.S. threats against Damascus shores up support for Bush’s Middle East peace plan – in Israel – and gives domestic support for extending the war beyond Iraq some impetus (at least in Washington).

The occupation of Iraq was just the beginning: before all this is over, we may see America’s real war aims in the Middle East come into very clear focus, with U.S. troops back in Beirut – and occupying Damascus. This makes the call for the withdrawal of U.S. troops, and a public timetable for getting out, a vital necessity, and not at all a radical proposal. What’s radical is the prospect that those troops may soon be crossing over the border into Syria – that is, if we don’t get them out of Iraq first.

Author: Justin Raimondo

Justin Raimondo passed away on June 27, 2019. He was the co-founder and editorial director of, and was a senior fellow at the Randolph Bourne Institute. He was a contributing editor at The American Conservative, and wrote a monthly column for Chronicles. He was the author of Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement [Center for Libertarian Studies, 1993; Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2000], and An Enemy of the State: The Life of Murray N. Rothbard [Prometheus Books, 2000].