Syria Policy Reveals Neocon Power

In the clamor over Iraq in September was a significant White House appointment that went entirely unnoticed in the U.S. media. The appointment of David Wurmser as Dick Cheney's adviser on the Middle East last month was an ominous sign of the continuing dominance of neoconservatives over George Bush's foreign policy, despite his plunging poll numbers and widespread criticism over Iraq.

With the vice-president increasingly seen as the dominant force shaping U.S. foreign policy -- often publicly contradicing his own president's attempts to soften his "axis of evil" rhetoric -- Wurmser's new post spells bad news for the Baath-led government of Syria. Since the mid-1990s, he has written frequently in support of a joint U.S.-Israeli effort to undermine then- President Hafez Assad in hopes of destroying Baathist rule, hastening the creation of a new regional order dominated by "tribal, familial, and clan unions under limited governments." His new boss is none other than Cheney's powerful national security director, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby.

Cheney's decision to appoint Wurmser as his Middle East adviser is especially important given the increasingly hostile posture adopted by the Bush administration toward Damascus. Tensions with Syria have been escalating rapidly thanks most recently to the U.S. decision to veto a UN Security Council resolution deploring an Israeli air attack on an alleged Palestinian camp in Syria earlier this month. It was the first attack by Israel on Syrian territory since the 1973 war. The veto coincided with the approval by the House of Representatives of a bill that would impose new economic and diplomatic sanctions against Syria.

Washington's one-two punch against President Bashar Assad was precisely what prominent neo-con groups have been calling for since the mid-1990s. Nor could anyone miss the fact that the campaign against Syria is eerily similar to the political offensive launched last year to build the case for war on Iraq. Some of the charges are almost identical: that Syria supports terrorism, is developing weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and represses its own people. White House leaks this week claimed that Damascus was holding as much as $3 billion for Saddam Hussein some of which, according to unnamed sources, may be used to fund attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq.

It's a pattern that, according to some analysts, is designed to prepare the ground for military action against Damascus further down the road.

A Long Cherished Neocon Plan

Wurmser, who was quietly moved in mid-September from his post in the State Department (where he worked for Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton), has impeccable neoconservative credentials. He is a favored protégé of arch-hawk and former Defense Policy Board chairman Richard Perle at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), who is closely connected to the chief architects of the war on Iraq, including Cheney, Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld, his chief deputy Paul Wolfowitz, and Undersecretary of Defense for Policy, Douglas Feith.

Damascus has been in Wurmser's sights at least since he began working with Perle at AEI nearly a decade ago. His work during the late '90s was focused on thinking up strategies to diminish, if not eliminate Syrian influence throughout the Levant -- the eastern Mediterranean region that is now occupied by Lebanon and Syria and Israel. Indeed, it was precisely because of the strategic importance of the region that Wurmser advocated overthrowing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in favor of an Iraqi National Congress (INC) closely tied to the Hashemite monarchy in Jordan. "[W]hoever inherits Iraq dominates the entire Levant strategically," he wrote in one 1996 paper for the Jerusalem- based Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies (IASPS).

Wurmser was also the main author of a document titled, "A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm," a set of policy recommendations for then-incoming Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. He was among seven "participants" in a "Study Group on a New Israeli Strategy Toward 2000," which was also sponsored by the IASPS, which has close ties to leading figures in Israel's right-wing Likud Party.

The task force was chaired by Perle, and included other notable neo-cons, such as Douglas Feith, currently the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy (the man who was in charge of putting together the intelligence for Bush's case for the Iraq war) and David Wurmser's Israeli-born spouse, Meyrav Wurmser, who heads Middle East studies at the Hudson Institute, another neo-con think- tank.

The six-page report advises Netanyahu to oust Saddam Hussein in partnership with the U.S., Jordan, and Turkey, as part of a comprehensive effort to transform the balance of power in the region. The aim was not only to destroy the Oslo peace process, but also to permanently replace the "land for peace" formula backed by Washington since 1967 with a "peace for peace" formula based on "the unconditional acceptance by Arabs of our rights, especially in their territorial dimension."

More prophetically, part of the proposed strategy include[d] "securing the Northern Border" where Israel should "seize the strategic initiative ... by engaging Hezballah, Syria, and Iran, as the principal agents of aggression in Lebanon." Among the suggested actions was "striking Syrian military targets in Lebanon, and should that prove insufficient, striking at select targets in Syria proper."

According to the report, "Israel can shape its strategic environment, in cooperation with Turkey and Jordan, by weakening, containing, even rolling back Syria." Once Iraq came under pro-Western rule, this "natural axis" would then "squeeze and detach Syria from the Saudi Peninsula. For Syria, this could be the prelude to a redrawing of the map of the Middle East, which could threaten Syria's territorial integrity."

A Renewed Offensive

In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks, Syria again became a target -- albeit not as much of a priority as Iraq -- of the neo-cons. In an open letter to Bush on Sept. 20, just nine days after 9/11, the Project for the New American Century (PNAC) advocated not just military action against Afghanistan and the al Qaeda, but also the removal of Saddam Hussein "even if the evidence does not link Iraq directly to the attacks." It also added, "We believe the administration should demand that Iran and Syria immediately cease all military, financial, and political support for Hezbollah and its operations. Should Iran and Syria refuse to comply, the administration should consider appropriate measures of retaliation against these known sponsors of terrorism."

Like many of the other recommendations contained in the letter, a confrontational posture toward Syria is becoming an integral part of official U.S. policy. Wolfowitz was the first senior administration official to suggest that Washington might take action against Syria amid reports in April that Damascus was sheltering senior Iraqi leaders and weapons of mass destruction in the wake of the U.S. invasion. "There's got to be a change in Syria," Wolfowitz said at the time, accusing the government of President Bashar Assad of "extreme ruthlessness."

Rumsfeld subsequently claimed that Syria was allowing Islamic "jihadis" to infiltrate Iraq to fight U.S. troops. The sentiment was echoed in early October by the U.S. ambassador to the UN, John Negroponte at a Security Council meeting convened to discuss the Israeli attacks. He declared, "Specific directions for terrorist acts continue to be issued from terrorist groups based in Syria."

As has been the pattern with this administration, the most aggressive statements have come from its allies outside the White House. Perle, who last week was in Israel to receive a special award from the "Jerusalem Summit" (an international group of right-wing Jews and Christian Zionists who describe themselves as defenders of "civilization" against "Islamic fundamentalism"), made no secret of his own desires for a military confrontation with Damascus. "Syria is itself a terrorist organization," he asserted, insisting that Washington would not find it difficult to send troops to Damascus despite its commitment in Iraq since "Syria is militarily very weak."

Applauding Ariel Sharon's actions, Perle expressed the "hope" that the U.S. would itself take action against Damascus, particularly if it turned out that Syria was acting as a financial or recruitment base for the insurgency in Iraq. On Wednesday, unnamed administration sources echoed Perle's allegations, suggesting in a New York Times article that Saddam's assets held in Syrian banks "might instead be used to finance attacks on American forces inside Iraq."

Most observers agree that war against Syria in the short term is highly unlikely, particularly given the fears of Bush's political handlers that a major new military engagement in the Middle East would only deepen the spectacular plunge since last May in the president's approval ratings. But the ongoing anti-Syria campaign at the very least serves to distract media attention from Iraq and move Washington closer toward confrontation with a state that Israel has long considered its most steadfast regional foe. Wurmser's appointment to Cheney's staff is yet another confirmation of this shift toward an increasingly hostile U.S. posture toward Syria.

Washington's emerging Syria policy also highlights the growing convergence between the strategic aims of the Bush administration and Sharon's government, especially now that the U.S. military is directly engaged in military operations in the heart of the Middle East. This foreign policy union is precisely what the U.S. neo-cons and the Likudniks have sought for the past quarter century.

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