Why Syria is Becoming the Coalition´s Spoiler (JCPA-JERUSALEM CENTER PUBLIC AFFAIRS) Vol. 1, No. 9 11/08/01)
JCPA-Jerusalem Center Public Affairs
JCPA-Jerusalem Center Public Affairs Articles-Index-Top
Ironically, the post-September 11 international environment has not
reduced Syria´s traditional support of international terrorism, but
rather led Damascus to follow a dangerously escalatory
Expectations of New Syrian Behavior
Two major developments in recent months were expected to
fundamentally alter Syria´s traditional support for international
terrorism. First, it was hoped in Western diplomatic circles that
Syria´s candidacy for a two-year term as one of ten rotating non-
permanent members of the UN Security Council (there are five
permanent members for a total of fifteen) would have a moderating
effect on Syrian behavior in Lebanon. After all, non-permanent
Security Council members require a two-thirds majority of the UN
General Assembly in order to be elected.
Also, the UN Charter
specifically stipulates that in that
election, "due regard" be given "in the first instance to the
contribution of Members of the United Nations to the maintenance of
international peace and security." How could Syria continue to
shelter at least seven international terrorist organizations if it
wanted to be perceived as a state that contributed to "the
maintenance of international peace and security"?
actively supporting Hizbullah´s drive to push Israel out
of the Shebaa Farms south of the UN-recognized Israeli-Lebanon
border, to which former Prime Minister Ehud Barak had withdrawn in
May 2000, Syria was defying UN Security Council Resolutions 1310 and
1337 that accepted Israel´s withdrawal line as the fulfillment of UN
resolutions and called on all parties to respect it. Could Syria sit
on the UN Security Council and still continue to systematically
violate its resolutions?
Nevertheless, on October 8, 2001,
Syria was elected to the UN
Security Council by a huge majority of 160 votes, when it really
needed the support of only 118 states. The U.S. and its European
allies did not contest the election, presumably hoping that Syrian
behavior would eventually change.
The second major development
that Western diplomatic circles hoped
would modify Syrian behavior was the September 11 attack on the World
Trade Center and the Pentagon. In its wake, President Bush had put a
blunt choice before every state, like Syria, that had given sanctuary
to terrorism in the past, in his address before a joint session of
the U.S. Congress on September 20:
"Every nation, in every
region, now has a decision to make. Either
you are with us, or you are with the terrorists. From this day
forward, any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism
will be regarded as a hostile regime."
Putting teeth into this
declaration, the U.S. pushed through a new UN
Security Council resolution on September 28, Resolution 1373,
establishing that all states "refrain from providing any form of
support, active or passive, to entities or persons involved in
terrorist acts...(and) deny (them) safe haven."
resolution invoked Chapter VII of the UN Charter which
provided the legal basis of all past UN Security Council resolutions
authorizing the use of force against Iraq in 1990-91. U.S. Ambassador
to the UN John D. Negroponte wrote a letter to the UN Security
Council on October 8, after the beginning of U.S. military operations
in Afghanistan, warning: "We may find that our self-defense requires
further actions with respect to other organizations and other states"
(emphasis added). Syria, which was not specifically singled out,
nonetheless should have gotten the hint.
For decades, Syria has hosted international terrorist organizations
on its territory and, since its 1975 occupation of Lebanon, within
areas under its military control in that country as well. Syria has
appeared on the State Department´s "terrorism list" since it was
first prepared in 1979. Syrian-backed international terrorism has
served Syria´s regional interest to be the dominant power in the
Levant -- what Syrians refer to as Bilad ash-Sham -- an area covering
the zone of Syrian territorial aspirations stretching from southern
Turkey through Lebanon, Israel, and Jordan. Moreover, terrorism was
used as leverage in Syria´s past water disputes with Turkey and
Thus, Syrian-backed organizations have, in the past,
operations in the Hatay district of Turkey to which Syria has
territorial claims, in Jordan, and against northern Israel, through
Lebanon. Similarly, Syrian-backed organizations like Hizbullah, the
pro-Iranian Shi´ite "Party of God," have sought to assault any
significant Western presence in Lebanon. They were responsible for
the 1983 bombing of the U.S. Marine headquarters in Beirut that led
to the deaths of 241 servicemen, as well as attacks against the U.S.
and French Embassies. Hizbullah offshoots have operated against U.S.
interests in the Arabian Peninsula as recently as 1996.
Israel´s May 2000 full withdrawal from Lebanon should have
the primary grievance of Hizbullah against the State of Israel. But
Hizbullah then articulated new claims to the Shebaa Farms, an area of
Lebanon that was transferred by Beirut to Syria in the 1950s and
taken by Israel in 1967, as part of its entry into the Golan Heights.
The UN defines the Shebaa Farms as part of the Golan area and hence
an issue for future Israeli-Syrian negotiations. Nevertheless, since
Israel´s Lebanon pullout, Hizbullah has conducted ten separate
attacks against Israeli forces in the Shebaa Farms area. Israel
responded to the June 29, 2001, attack on July 1 by destroying a
Syrian radar station in eastern Lebanon. For three months afterward
the Shebaa Farms area remained quiet; Syria´s control over Hizbullah
was patently demonstrated.
Surprisingly, just five days before
its election to the UN Security
Council in New York, on October 3, 2001, Hizbullah opened up the
Shebaa Farms front again with mortar and anti-tank missile attacks
against Israel. Days earlier, Damascus hosted a high-profile
conference of leaders of Hizbullah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad, PFLP, and
others (MEMRI). Within a week, a second Hizbullah attack followed.
Clearly, Syria does not feel that Hizbullah military activity against
Israel defines the Syrian regime, in Western eyes, as a state
providing shelter to international terrorism. Moreover, the effects
of Israeli deterrence have apparently eroded in the new international
constellation that has emerged. If Syria senses that it has a free
hand for backing Hizbullah operations against Israel, while Israel´s
hands are tied, the resulting escalatory potential in the new post-
September 11 situation becomes considerable.
What Went Wrong?
Why Did Syria Not Feel Constrained?
Obviously, Syria did not get
President Bush´s message and halt its
support for international terrorism. Several factors are likely to
have affected Syria´s calculus:
Mixed Messages from Washington:
President Bush has remained
absolutely consistent in his unqualified criticism of any state that
harbors or supports terrorism. However, State Department Spokesman
Richard Boucher on September 27 began drawing distinctions between
bin Laden-type terrorism that seeks "to destroy societies" and other
Middle Eastern violence surrounding essentially "political issues
that need to be resolved." He characterized these forms of
violence "as two different things." Moreover, the U.S. then issued
different lists of terrorist organizations whose assets were to be
frozen: Hamas and Hizbullah were initially not mentioned. Bashar
Assad was encouraged by this confusion: "The U.S. has not demanded
anything [regarding Hizbullah]; on the contrary, the lists of
organizations designated as ´terrorists´ was changed -- the forces
resisting Israeli occupation were omitted" (MEMRI).
American Differences: The very day that Ambassador Negroponte
notified the UN Security Council that "other states" might come under
U.S. attack, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw suggested that the
U.S. and Great Britain had agreed that military operations would be
confined to Afghanistan alone. President Bush had stated on September
20: "Our war on terror begins with al Qaeda, but it does not end
there." Yet the British message was different. During the visit of
Prime Minister Tony Blair to Damascus, Assad felt that he could
unabashedly argue that Hizbullah´s struggle (presumably for the
Shebaa Farms) was similar to the French resistance against the Nazis
in World War II.
Syria´s Interest to be a Spoiler: Syria is one
of the few countries
that has opposed the American right to respond to the September
terrorist attacks (MEMRI, October 7, 2001). Moreover, President Assad
has expressed his understanding that after the first phase of the
present war, a second phase could be initiated that might be mostly
economic and directed against Syria itself (MEMRI). Syria´s interests
would be served if the U.S. war on terrorism did not go forward.
Syrian efforts to escalate the conflict against Israel, after months
of relative quiet, must be understood in the context of its hope that
renewed conflict in Lebanon will disrupt U.S. coalition efforts,
making it difficult for the U.S. war on terrorism to advance beyond
the present Afghan phase.
Syria´s sense that it somehow
benefits from immunity in President
Bush´s war on terrorism could be highly destabilizing and, if not
reversed, threatens to disrupt America´s present military efforts. A
strong, unified, Western diplomatic message needs to be communicated
to Damascus, so that there be no misunderstanding about the
unacceptability of present Syrian behavior in harboring major
terrorist groups. (JCPA.ORG.IL 11/08/01)
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