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US turns its sights back on Syria
By Hooman Peimani

After a few weeks of American allegations and threats levelled against Syria, the Syrian Foreign Ministry launched its own counterattack against the United States on Monday. Accordingly, its spokesperson raised doubts about the real objective behind last week's killing of Saddam Hussein's sons. The Syrian move reflected the growing hostility between Damascus and Washington despite signs of improving relations in the months following the collapse of the Iraqi regime.

In her interview with a Lebanese television program, Syrian Foreign Ministry spokesperson Buthaina Shaaban suggested that the killing of Uday and Qusay Hussein might have been planned for a certain reason. She made the suggestion while speculating about the possibility of having the brothers apprehended. Thus, "the United States could have captured Saddam Hussein's sons alive". Based on that assumption, she added, "killing the pair in a US military raid in Iraq may have aimed at covering up Washington's past political dealings with the defunct regime".

Shaaban therefore speculated that Saddam's sons could have been knowledgeable about secret relations between Washington and Baghdad during their honeymoon in the 1980s. In particular, she referred to the Iraqi invasion of Iran in 1980, which led to a devastating eight-year war. At that time, Washington encouraged Saddam to attack Iran - an open secret, given the extent of support the Iraqi regime received from Western, including NATO, states. As admitted by almost all of them in one form or another, they assisted the Iraqi war efforts by providing advanced weapons and by helping the Iraqis with their weapon development projects. A well-known example is the American, British and German involvement in their weapons-of-mass-destruction projects, especially the development of chemical weapons.

Syrian-US relations took a hostile direction right after the Anglo-American occupation of Iraq. At that time, the US accused the Syrians of providing to the Saddam regime military equipment (night vision goggles) and of providing a safe haven for senior Iraqi officials. The US then toned down it's anti-Syria statements as it heated up the war of words against Iran, which became the focus of the same types of accusations as Washington made against the Iraqi regime prior to the war. Increased diplomatic contacts between the US and Syria suggested an effort to de-escalate their hostility. US Secretary of State Colin Powel's June visit to Damascus created grounds for optimism about the end of a dangerous situation which seemed to have the potential to develop into a US attack on Syria as part of a plan for reshaping the entire Middle East.

There was a clear shift in Washington's propaganda campaign as Iran became its main target. Added to the two-decade-old allegations about Tehran's nuclear weapon program, the Iranian government was accused of harboring al-Qadea operatives and even of indirectly masterminding a terrorist attack in Saudi Arabia. The latter was a surprising accusation, given the growing multi-dimensional Tehran-Riyadh relations and last year's extradition by Iran to Saudi Arabia of the Saudi members of al-Qaeda arrested by the Iranian authorities as they escaped to Iran from Afghanistan.

In another surprising development, Syria regained its prominence in the American war of accusations about two weeks ago. US officials have since accused Damascus of active support of terrorists, of supporting the ousted Iraqi regime and of sheltering some of its members. In this regard, a good example is President George W Bush's speech on July 22. "Today Syria and Iran continue to harbor and assist terrorists", stressed the president. He added, "this behaviour is completely unacceptable and the states that support terror will be held accountable. This undermines the prospects for peace in the Middle East and betrays the true interests of the Palestinian people."

Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk as-Shara saw "Israeli hands" behind the change of American tone toward Syria, as he stated last Sunday. In fact, the US president made the remarks a few days before Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's visit to Washington. Hence, while Israel could have influenced the Bush administration, the mounting US hostility is still well within Washington's original plan of dealing with "rogue" states one by one, which also serves Israel's interests.

Although Iran has been the favorite candidate for regime change through US military means, various factors have created practical barriers to that, and non-military measures to effect regime change have gained favor, at least for the time being. The factors range from a hostile international mood toward Washington to the US military being over-stretched to Iran's significant military power and its capability to expand any war beyond its border.

The increasing American casualties both in Iraq and in less-publicized Afghanistan is certainly encouraging the Bush administration to find ways to distract attention from that. However, this objective also serves another: "dealing" with Iran and Syria, as they are obstacles to the expansion and consolidation of US influence in the strategically important Middle East.

Given the current extensive commitment of the US military to many overseas operations, there is no realistic possibility of engaging in a war with Iran, which would be a major undertaking even if all other conditions were met. In such a situation, small and militarily/economically weak Syria seems an easier target for the US than large, rich and militarily far stronger Iran. Iran's potential capability to worsen the already poor security situation in both Iraq and Afghanistan makes a strong case for picking on Syria, at least as long as the present situation persists.

Dr Hooman Peimani works as an independent consultant with international organizations in Geneva and does research in international relations.

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Jul 31, 2003

Why Syria need not be the next target (May 9, '03)

Chemical weapons program well advanced (Apr 19, '03)

Reasons for the war of words (Apr 17, '03)

In the pipeline: More regime change (Apr 4, '03)

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