Tuesday, July 29, 2003

Syria and the War on Terror

Yesterday my friend Tim e-mailed me this article about how neo-con plans for the Middle East may be disrupting the War on Terror by interfering with our developing relationship with Syria. In the wake of September 11, the Syrians quickly became an important source of intelligence about al-Qaeda. The article gets specific:

"In one instance, the Syrians learned that Al Qaeda had penetrated the security services of Bahrain and had arranged for a glider loaded with explosives to be flown into a building at the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet headquarters there. Flynt Leverett, a former C.I.A. analyst who served until early this year on the National Security Council and is now a fellow at the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution, told me that Syria’s help 'let us thwart an operation that, if carried out, would have killed a lot of Americans.' The Syrians also helped the United States avert a suspected plot against an American target in Ottawa."

Like most hard-liners in the Arab world, Syrians draw a distinction between global terrorism and that against Israel, which they characterize as resistance to occupation. (This should not, in my mind, obscure the fact that resistance to occupation which follows basic rules of warfare is legitimate under international law.) I would argue that while all attacks designed deliberately to kill civilians for the purpose of terrorizing them are equivalent, the American interest is to prioritize terrorists who want to kill Americans. On the other hand, Syria is a dictatorship, and if the liberal line is going to be that supporting dictatorships ultimately leads to anti-American blowback, then getting too close to them here could create problems for the U.S. down the road.

I guess this means that I favor constructive engagement in the Syrian case. I went into what I see as the main differences back on April 15. Since then I've seen this Middle East On-Line article about the reformist winds now blowing in Damascus, though it could easily be a false start meant to keep dissent from getting out of hand. If the U.S. gets Iraq right, it could legitimately help democratic forces in Syria the same way al-Jazeera did two years ago. Working on a peace deal with Israel would also remove the Syrian government's major foreign enemy and a major source of popular legitimacy. In the meantime, the Syrians help us save lives by going after al-Qaeda. It might not be a long-term solution, but it has advantages.


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