Friday, November 27, 2009

Why does so much pf the world hate us?

 

by Isi Leibler:

I recently met with a group of high-level Australian journalists, including editors of some of the leading dailies.

They impressed me as a fair and open-minded group. In the course of discussions, one elegantly phrased question, not intended to offend, was put to me which I have been mulling over: Did I ever take into account that if virtually the entire world has concluded that we are the principal cause for the Middle East impasse, perhaps they are right? In other words, have we blinded ourselves to the extent that we are like the inmate in a lunatic asylum who insists that everybody other than himself is insane?

The question is particularly valid in relation to Europe, which has turned so dramatically against us.

When analyzing the changed attitudes of many European countries, one must take into account their redefinition of themselves as "enlightened" post-modernist secular societies which shun all manifestations of nationalism. In this configuration Israel is no longer considered a revival of Jewish nationhood, but as a colonial implant which many would be happy to see somehow disappear as a national entity.

And of course, there is the new anti-Semitism in which demonization of Israel has become the surrogate for traditional Jew-hatred. Just as the Jews in the Middle Ages were accused of all the ills of mankind, so today the Jewish state is increasingly being held responsible for the principal woes facing humanity.

In this environment, the Left and many liberals now focus their revolutionary fervor and rage against Israel, and have succeeded in hijacking human rights groups to serve as vehicles to undermine us.

In the international arena, the automatic majority of Islamic and other radical states guarantees the passage of all anti-Israeli resolutions initiated at international organizations such as the United Nations, no matter how absurd. The so-called United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), which includes the worst tyrannies and rogue states among its leading members, is just one example. People throughout the world unfamiliar with the intricacies of the UN or the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict are bombarded with constant reports of resolutions from a supposedly reputable body condemning Israel as a rogue state. Thus, the false narrative of the Islamic majority, automatically endorsed by compromised international agencies, becomes embedded in the public consciousness.

Simultaneously, there are realpolitik considerations resulting from the ascendancy of the Islamic world and the increased clout of oil-producing countries at a time when securing energy has become the national priority for most nations. This, together with the growing empowerment of radical Islamic immigrant groups throughout Europe, has resulted in many countries siding against Israel rather than confronting the rage and violence of the jihadists within their own borders.

It is in this context that Israel remains the only country in the world whose very right to exist is challenged.

It also highlights the dilemma we face. The more concessions we made over the past decade in order to reach an accommodation with our neighbors, the greater has been the terror unleashed against us and the more our international standing has eroded.

Ironically, despite the rising tide of hatred against us, on objective grounds we should be more entitled to receive the support of people of goodwill and genuine liberals today than ever in the past.

Israel remains the only democracy in the region; 20 percent of its inhabitants are Arab citizens who enjoy equal rights and freedom of expression, and elect their representatives to the Knesset.

In contrast, our despotic neighbors are autocracies or dictatorships that deny freedom of religion and many other basic human rights. They also include the only countries in the world which deny Jews the right of domicile. And yet, we are the ones depicted as a racist apartheid state.

Even under a right-wing government, a broad consensus in Israel supports a two-state solution and is desperate not to rule over the Palestinians. Two Israeli prime ministers offered to cede virtually all the territories gained in wars initiated by enemies seeking to destroy us. The offers were rejected by both Yasser Arafat and his successor Mahmoud Abbas.

The Sharon government unilaterally disengaged from Gaza and dismantled long-standing settlements. Thousands of Israelis who had transformed deserts into gardens were forcibly evacuated and forced to forfeit their livelihoods and homes. Yet the moment the settlements were evacuated, they were converted by the Palestinians into launching pads for intensified missile attacks and terrorism that culminated in the Gaza conflict.

We are confronted by two Palestinian entities. Hamas, the terrorist group ruling over Gaza, unequivocally demands the total destruction of the Jewish state and unashamedly calls for the physical extermination of Jews. The other is the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, headed by Mahmoud Abbas, who we are told represents a moderate partner for peace. Yet Abbas speaks with a forked tongue, and to this day still sanctifies suicide bombers as martyrs and provides their families with state pensions. The PA-controlled media, education system and mosques continue to promote anti-Semitism and demand the dissolution of the Jewish state.

Fully aware of these realities, most European states nevertheless apply double standards against the Jewish state. Many either applauded or stood by while the Arabs and their allies accused us of committing war crimes. This, despite the fact that the conflict against Hamas was only launched after thousands of missiles had been directed at Israeli civilians for years.

The IDF's unprecedented steps of telephoning civilians and distributing pamphlets warning of impending attacks in order to minimize civilian casualties were ignored, as was the submission to the UNHRC by the former commander of British forces in Afghanistan, Col. Richard Kemp, who stated that "the IDF did more to safeguard the rights of civilians in a combat zone than any army in the history of warfare."

In such a climate, it is almost inevitable that "enlightened" global public opinion regards us as a rogue state and an even greater threat to world peace than North Korea or Iran.

It is frequently alleged that we are responsible for the world turning against us. We are told that Israel's military superiority (in the absence of which it would not exist) has created sympathy for the Arab underdog. There is no disputing Palestinian misery and suffering, but it is rarely pointed out that this is a direct byproduct of the policies adopted by their leaders. We are frequently admonished to cease killing terrorists and negotiate with Hamas. Would anyone seriously suggest that the United States negotiate with al-Qaida or cease efforts to kill terrorists planning attacks against its civilians?

I am confident that any objective evaluation would undoubtedly morally validate our broad efforts to achieve peace in the face of Palestinian intransigence. It would also demonstrate that the constant portrayal of Israel as a rogue state by purportedly reputable international organizations such as the United Nations dominated by our enemies, have now become embedded in the public consciousness.

This has been facilitated by the opportunism, bias and cowardice of much of the "enlightened" world.

 

Isi Leibler:

Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.

 

Iran and Hizballah Get Hillarycare.

 

by Barry Rubin

Two Mistakes That America's Enemies Notice and Act On

People are aware—at least those people who don’t get all their news from certain sources—that the Obama Administration is messing up a lot on foreign policy, especially in the Middle East. What is often missed, however, are the little things that have big consequences. Because even if these go without attention in the United States, people in the Middle East are paying very close attention.

So here’s a wonderful example of what happens due to two seemingly small errors, shown during Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s appearance on the Charlie Rose interview show.

She stated:

“The Iranians not only worry us because of their nuclear program, they worry us because of their support for terrorism, their support for the military wing of Hezbollah, their support for Hamas, their interference in the internal affairs of their neighbors, trying to destabilize gulf countries and other countries throughout the greater region.”

This was in the context of a relatively tough statement, right? But note two things: a tiny detail in the paragraph above and later on in this article (patience, please, it will be worth it) the explanation of U.S. policy she made immediately after.

Can you find the error? Ok, I’ll tell you: the words “military wing of Hezbollah.” This is a gimmick used by Hizballah [my transliteration] and Hamas, too, to fool people in the West. It is used by advocates of engagement with these radical Islamist terrorist groups in places like Britain.

Sure, they say, there is a military wing and a political wing. The latter is moderate or becoming so and thus you can negotiate with them separately. This is rubbish. There is no such differentiation except for normal administrative purposes. The same leadership and doctrine runs both.

So one could interpret this slip—and I do believe it was a slip—as a change in U.S. policy toward Hizballah. Don’t think so? Well, it happened.

The public manifestation of this came from Sami Moubayed, who may have the distinction of being the smartest of the Syrian intellectuals who serve as a flak for the regime. In an article, he wrote:

“Clinton's statement on the Charlie Rose show came only 24 hours after Sa'ad Hariri had formed a cabinet of national unity [in Lebanon], which includes two members of Hezbollah. “Clinton was seemingly offering a life jacket to Hariri by saying that while the US frowns on the military wing of Hezbollah that engages in war, the political branch is acceptable.

“Never since the US declared Hezbollah a terrorist organization in 1999 has a senior U.S. official made such a groundbreaking statement about Hezbollah.

“The US has obviously realized that no breakthrough is possible in Lebanon unless Hezbollah is represented in the Cabinet. Some call it pragmatism; others say that it was a difficult reality that Washington has had to digest.”

In other words, this shows that the Syrian regime is using the statement to reinforce Hizballah’s power, and thus its own and that of Iran. Even the Americans are ready to accept Hizballah in government (or sell you out) is the message given to the moderate March 14 forces, which would rather eat snakes and scorpions than have a coalition with that group.

But what choice do they have? The West didn’t help them; the United States is engaging with Lebanon’s would-be hegemons, Iran and Syria. There’s nothing to do but give up. In the end they gave Hizballah control of 12 cabinet positions, more than they’d planned to turn over.

What the Syrians and their Lebanese allies are saying is sort of the equivalent, so to speak, of what Japanese soldiers yelled at Americans across the trenches in World War Two:

“GI Joe! Give up! You can’t win! Hillary is with us! Surrender and we’ll give you a nice bed, a hot meal, and a ticket out of this war.”

When you make friends with dictators, you sell out their victims, thus strengthening the dictators. So now Hizballah and Syria are trying to leverage this into putting into the government platform a statement that the regime supports “resistance,” that is, Hizballah keeps its guns in order to fight Israel whenever it pleases.

But that’s not all. Here’s Clinton’s analysis of U.S. policy toward Iran:

“Iran has given us many reasons to worry about their motivation and their action, but I think what President Obama has tried to do since becoming president, is to create a dynamic where, look, we don't have to trust or love each other to understand that it is in our interest to try to stabilize the world. It is not in Iran's interest to have a nuclear arms race in the Gulf where they would be less secure than they are today. It is not in Iran's interest or the Iranian peoples' interest, to be subjected to very onerous sanctions, so the president has reached and has really gone the extra mile to try to engage with the Iranians. If they cannot overcome their mistrust and their internal political dynamic, then we have to do what we think is in our best interests.”

Let’s consider her argument. It is in Iran’s interest to have nuclear arms when others don’t have them, believing that there won’t be a “nuclear arms race in the Gulf” since it’s doubtful the Saudis will obtain them and certain that Iraq and the smaller states won’t. So she’s wrong there.

It is in Iran’s interest to deal with constantly postponed and watered-down sanctions, which Russia and China will circumvent, to get nuclear weapons. So she’s wrong there also.

And by being so weak it is the Obama Administration itself that signals Iran that she’s wrong and that it is a correct rational calculation to disregard American threats, play for time, and do whatever it damn well pleases.

The interviewer then says to her: “They'll have to deal with the consequences.”

And Clinton replies: “Well, yes, of course. I mean, that's the way the world works.”

But is that the way the world works with Obama’s policy? No. Indeed, the interviewer then states:

“Is there anything that we can do to say to them, `We understand your fear. We understand your paranoia. We ask you what…can we do to convince you that nuclear weapons are not in your interest?’”

And, of course and correctly, Clinton replies: that’s what we’ve been doing.

But here’s what the interviewer does not ask her, I made this up:

“Is there anything that we can do to say to them, `We are going to increase your fear. We are going to play on your paranoia. We are going to make life really miserable for you with constant verbal attacks, applying very big sanctions right away, help the opposition subvert you, and have credible power to make you tremble that we might attack in order to convince you that nuclear weapons are not in your interest?”

See the difference? This, to quote Clinton, is “the way the world works.” Yet we only hear about carrots, never very much about sticks.

And then Clinton says something that might be an effective technique on a school playground but not in international diplomacy:

“If this were a confident leadership, they would accept the Tehran research reactor deal. They would not be worried about it. This is not a confident leadership because of the pressures that are coming from within Iran as well as from outside.”

Say what? If they are confident they’d give up but if they are really scared then they’ll defy the world? She has it backward: It is because they are so confident that they can say to America, if you don’t like it go… [You can fill in the blank since this is a family-oriented G-rated blog].

But do you see what’s wrong with this formulation of Clinton’s? If the reason Iran is so aggressive because it is really scared and insecure, the way to succeed is to comfort, soothe, and make the regime feel that America loves it and wishes it well.

But if the reason Iran is so aggressive is because it is really confident (drunk on ideology and assessing that its enemies are cowards) then what is required to succeed is to scare, pressure, and punish it.

And on the failure to understand that distinction, Obama’s foreign policy is going down big-time.

PS: Back in in August, the Obama Administration issued a statement saying it had not changed its policy on Hizballah after John Brennan, the president's terrorism advisor (see here and here) strongly implied that Hizballah had a peaceful political wing.

Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal.

Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.

 

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Syria's Path to Islamist Terror. Part I

 

by Michael Rubin

 

1st part of2

While the Obama administration and congressional leaders may justify renewed engagement with Syria with their desire to jumpstart the Middle East peace process, they ignore the very issue that lies at the heart of the Syrian threat to U.S. national security: Syrian support for radical Islamist terror. This may seem both illogical and counterfactual given past antagonism between the 'Alawite-led regime and the Muslim Brotherhood, but there is overwhelming evidence that President Bashir al-Asad has changed Syrian strategic calculations and that underpinning terror is crucial to the foreign policy of the country.

 

Background

On February 14, 2005, a huge bomb killed former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri as his motorcade drove through Beirut. All eyes fell on Damascus.[1] Syria's leaders had motive: Hariri was a prominent Lebanese nationalist who opposed their attempts to grant Lebanon's pro-Syrian president Émile Lahoud an unconstitutional third term. The Syrians had the means to carry out such an attack: Their army had occupied Lebanon for more than fifteen years. Syrian military intelligence (Shu'bat al-Mukhabarat al-'Askariya) operated freely throughout the tiny republic and maintained operational networks there.[2] Asad had actually threatened Hariri: Druze leader Walid Jumblatt reported that at a meeting with Asad and Hariri a few months before the latter's murder, Asad told him, "Lahoud is me … If you and [French president Jacques] Chirac want me out of Lebanon, I will break Lebanon," a remark Jumblatt interpreted as a death threat to Hariri.[3]

Following the assassination, Syria became an international pariah. U.N. secretary-general Kofi Annan dispatched a fact-finding mission. This mission resulted in the establishment of an international, independent investigating commission headed initially by German judge Detlev Mehlis.[4] U.S. president George W. Bush and French president Jacques Chirac, two leaders whose views of the Middle East seldom coincided, agreed to isolate Syria diplomatically.[5] The State Department withdrew its ambassador, Margaret Scobey, and maintained only a lower-level diplomatic presence in Damascus. Under immense pressure, the Syrian army finally withdrew from Lebanon. But, over subsequent months and years, as Asad detected chinks in the West's diplomatic solidarity—and as U.S. members of Congress began to defy the White House and re-engage with Asad—the Syrian regime began to put cooperation with the U.N. investigators on the back burner. Today, Syrian cooperation with the Special Tribunal for Lebanon, the successor to the more ambitious Investigation Commission, is negligible.

 

Obama's Approach to Syria

Barack Obama campaigned on a platform which made engagement central to his foreign policy. "Not talking [to adversaries] doesn't make us look tough—it makes us look arrogant," he declared during his campaign.[6] In his inaugural address, he declared, "To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history; but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist."[7]

The Syrian regime signaled that it would accept Obama's offer, so long as the White House's hand preceded the unclenching of the Syrian fist. In a congratulatory telegram to Obama, the Syrian leader expressed "hope that dialogue would prevail to overcome the difficulties that have hindered real progress toward peace, stability, and prosperity in the Middle East."[8]

While the Syrian regime had yet to cooperate with the Hariri investigation, cease its sponsorship of and support for terrorism, stop interfering in Lebanon, or stop helping Hezbollah build up its rocket force, the Obama administration wasted little time in easing pressure on Damascus. This rush to dialogue was undertaken in order to create a more conducive atmosphere for engagement. On March 7, 2009, the State Department dispatched Jeffrey D. Feltman, assistant secretary of state and the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit Syria in more than four years, to Damascus for talks with Syria's foreign minister.[9] The Obama administration called an abrupt end to the moratorium initiated during the Bush administration forbidding U.S. officials' attendance at Syrian embassy functions in Washington when it sent Feltman and senior National Security Council aides to Syrian National Day festivities.[10] Feltman's participation in the renewed engagement was particularly symbolic given his previous posting as ambassador to Lebanon during the Cedar Revolution of 2005 when he led the diplomatic charge to rid Lebanon of Syrian influence and troops.

On June 24, 2009, the State Department announced that it would once again nominate an ambassador for the U.S. embassy in Damascus.[11] Just over a month later, the Obama administration announced that it would ease sanctions on Syria. State Department spokesman Ian Kelly explained that "Senator [George] Mitchell [the president's Middle East envoy] told President Assad that the U.S. would process all eligible applications for export licenses as quickly as possible."[12]

While the easement did not include those sanctions imposed by Congress in the wake of Hariri's assassination, they, nonetheless, reflect the White House's desire to bring Syria in from the cold. Nor will Congress necessarily act as a check on this enthusiasm to roll back even those sanctions. Less than two years after Hariri's assassination, senators Arlen Specter (Democrat of Pennsylvania), Bill Nelson (Democrat of Florida), John Kerry (Democrat of Massachusetts), and Christopher Dodd (Democrat of Connecticut)[13] traveled to Syria to promote engagement. Four months later, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi also visited Asad for the same purpose, declaring, "The road to Damascus is a road to peace."[14]

 

Can Syria Be Divorced from Terrorism?

Flipping Syria away from its axis with Iran is a diplomatic priority for the Obama administration as it seeks to revitalize the Middle East peace process.[15] Many Western diplomats and analysts hoped that Syria would reform when the young, Western-educated Bashir al-Asad succeeded his hard-line father Hafiz as president of Syria in 2000. But the Damascus spring proved fleeting. Syria remained a police state at home and an enabler of terrorism abroad with

policies rooted firmly in rejection of Israel's right to exist and opposition to U.S. regional interests. Should Syria be flipped, the theory goes, not only would it mitigate the threat of Hezbollah, Hamas, and other terrorist groups such as Al-Qaeda in Iraq, but it could enable Syria to join forces with Lebanon to make peace with Israel. According to Martin Indyk, director of the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution, "Syria is a strategic linchpin for dealing with Iran and the Palestinian issue. Don't forget, everything in the Middle East is connected."[16]

To seek a resolution to conflict in the Middle East is a noble goal. And yet, to base that deal on Syrian goodwill is not only naïve but requires a perception of Syria and its intentions that is seriously out-of- date. While many in Washington and other capitals continue to perceive Syria as a largely secular state with a leadership fundamentally hostile to radical Islam, today's Syrian leadership encourages both radical Islam and international Al-Qaeda.[17] The traditional assumption that support for extremist Islam is limited to Saudi Arabia and wealthy Persian Gulf financiers is no longer valid. Bashir al-Asad is playing a dangerous game, one that is not only inimical to U.S. interests in the short term but also employs a strategy that could undercut Syrian stability in the long term.

It was not long after the start of military operations against Iraq in March 2003 that the Pentagon grew concerned at Syrian support for the insurgency there. Speaking at a press conference held in Baghdad in 2004, Gen. Richard Myers, then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said, "There are other foreign fighters. We know for a fact that a lot of them find their way into Iraq through Syria for sure."[18] According to some estimates, perhaps 80 percent of foreign

fighters who infiltrated Iraq crossed the Syrian border.[19] These were disproportionately responsible for the most devastating suicide bombings in Iraq.[20] An Italian investigation of foreign fighter recruitment in Italy found that "Syria has functioned as a hub for an Al-Qaeda network."[21] Syrian president Asad repeatedly denied any involvement in facilitating terrorism in Iraq. In 2007, he told ABC's Diane Sawyer: "If you stoke [terrorism], it will burn you. So if we have this chaos in Iraq, it will spill over to Syria … So saying this [that Syria aids Iraq's insurgency], it's like saying that the Syrian government is working against the Syrian interest."[22]

Two common assumptions handicap an understanding of terrorist networks. The first is that Shi'i and Sunni groups or governments do not cooperate. Hence, some scholars argue that it is impossible that the Iranian regime could supply arms to the Taliban. In 2007, Juan Cole, a professor at the University of Michigan, wrote, "Among the more fantastic charges that Bush made against Iran was that its government was actively arming and helping the Taliban in southern Afghanistan. In fact, the Taliban are extremist Sunnis who hate and have killed large numbers of Shiites. Shiite Iran is unlikely to support them."[23] The evidence that they have done so, however, is overwhelming as U.S. forces have seized truckloads of Iranian weaponry en route to the Taliban.[24]

Another false argument—and one that applies specifically to Syria—is that secular regimes do not support radical Islamist groups. The Egyptian government, for example, has long turned a blind eye to the supply of Hamas terrorists through tunnels from Egyptian territory.[25] Libya, too, has engaged in the practice, supporting the Islamist terrorist group Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines even as Libyan leader Mu'ammar al-Qadhafi sought to present himself to the West as an ally in the fight against radical Islam.[26] To ensure U.S. national security, U.S. analysis must be based on reality rather than image. Despite Asad's stated animosity toward Islamist terrorism and his regime's trumpeting of its own vulnerability to radical Islamism, the Syrian record shows a willingness not only to tolerate but also to aid Islamist groups and assist Al-Qaeda violence.

The assumption that the Syrian government would not support Islamism is rooted in the regime's troubled history with radical Islam. The originally Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood established a branch in Syria in the late 1950s. The group remained quiet for two decades but, in 1979, it began to engage in terrorism, most famously when members of the group murdered several dozen 'Alawi military cadets near Aleppo.[27] Three years later, after some 200 Islamists staged an insurrection in Hama, Syria's fifth largest city, the Syrian military razed much of the city, killing between 10,000 and 20,000 civilians, including women and children. In the aftermath of Hama, many analysts note that the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood renounced violence although only the most prescient Syria hands have observed that, behind the regime's veneer of secularism, Hafiz al-Asad subsequently sought to co-opt Islamism.[28]

In recent years, however, the Syrian government has blamed domestic terrorism on shadowy and often unnamed Islamist groups. In July 2005, the Syrian government returned alleged Islamist terrorists to Saudi Arabia and Tunisia[29] although, more often, Damascus has refused to extradite terrorists, suggesting that the decision to release is linked more to immediate diplomatic necessity rather than a principled commitment to combat terrorism. Still, the Syrian government has sought to project an image of victimization. In June 2006, Syria's tightly-controlled national television showed the aftermath of a gun battle in Damascus between Islamists and state security forces, suggesting that the government—normally secretive on security matters—wanted to cast itself as a victim of Islamism.[30] The Syrian government cited the September 27, 2008 car bombing in Damascus, which killed seventeen people, as an indication that Islamist terrorists—in this case it named Fatah al-Islam—had targeted the country for its cooperation with U.S. efforts to strengthen security along its border with Iraq.[31] Pointing the finger at Fatah al-Islam may also have been meant to deflect suspicion that the Syrian government had supported the group's activities in Lebanon. A precedent of staged violence, such as the attack on the Danish embassy in Damascus during the Muhammad cartoon crisis, suggests analysts should consider the possibility that other such incidents were also faked.[32] Asad's stated animosity toward radical Islam and Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups is mirrored in Al- Qaeda's traditional hatred of the 'Alawi regime in Syria. A year before the 9/11 attacks, a leading Al-Qaeda tactician, 'Umar 'Abd al-Hakim (better known by his nom de guerre Abu Mus'ab as-Suri) penned a lengthy polemic against the Syrian regime. Suri described the 'Alawis as heretics, fanatical Shi'a descended from Jews and Zoroastrians.[33] About Hama, he related not only how the "lives of more than 45,000 [sic] unarmed Sunni civilians were claimed" but also how the Syrian security forces continued to kill an additional 30,000 Sunni Muslims over the subsequent fourteen years.[34] After a rambling religious discourse on the meaning and necessity of jihad, Suri concluded, "It is not permissible for Muslims to stay under their ['Alawi] rule for one moment ...They must be pursued and killed to cleanse them from Greater Syria and the face of the earth. They should be killed as individuals and groups, and Sunni Muslims must ambush and kill them all."[35]

Such hatred is real, but in the Middle East alliances shift and enmity can be deferred. Enemies cooperate against those whom they consider a mutual threat. Iran and the Taliban—who hardly like each other and were on the verge of military conflict in 1998—nevertheless found themselves allied only a decade later in efforts to undermine U.S. stability efforts in Afghanistan. For all his diplomatic promises about non-cooperation with terrorists, the evidence that Bashir al-Asad aids and abets Al-Qaeda is damning.

Michael Rubin
Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.

 

./..

Syria's Path to Islamist Terror. Part II

 

by Michael Rubin

 

2nd part of 2

Syrians in the Iraqi Insurgency

In September 2007, U.S. forces in the northern Iraqi town of Sinjar, twelve miles from the Syrian border, discovered computers and a cache of documents that included the records of more than 600 foreign fighters who had infiltrated into Iraq between spring 2006 and summer 2007. The documents show a pattern of Syrian behavior at odds with the regime's public statements and diplomatic posture. While the records listed Syrian as the nationality of only forty-four of the foreign fighters—behind Saudis (237) and Libyans (111)—Syrians coordinated the insertion into Iraq of almost all the fighters listed.[36] The insertion of the Saudi terrorists is especially instructive as Saudi Arabia shares a lengthy and porous border with Iraq. The Saudi jihadists presumably choose to travel to Iraq through Syria because Asad tolerates what the Saudi leadership will not. It is also possible that the total Syrian numbers are underrepresented since Syrians formed a majority of the detainees held at Camp Bucca, the main U.S. detention camp in Iraq.[37]

The Syrian jihadists themselves come from across Syria although most originate in the inland Dayr az-Zawr region, which abuts Iraq. Still others come from Latakia, the home province of the Asad family, and from Damascus, Homs, and Aleppo.[38] At just thirty-four individuals, the sample size of Syrians whose hometown is listed in the Sinjar records is too small to draw definitive conclusions about the roots of all Syrian jihadists, but it is clear that the radicals come from all across the country.

The Sinjar records also detail recruitment methods. Those recruiting most jihadists were "ikhwan (brothers)," not necessarily Muslim Brotherhood (al-ikhwan al-muslimun) members, but rather those whom the recruits considered devout or to be members of radical groups. Friends and relatives also recruited young Syrians for terrorist missions in Iraq. Most damning for Syrian government denial of culpability for facilitating terror was the Sinjar record's notation that recruiters reached several Syrians through the Internet. Given strict Syrian monitoring of electronic communication, Syrian statements that they did not know of such recruiting activities on their soil are not credible.

Underlining the extent and intensity of these recruitment efforts was the fact that almost

two-thirds of the Syrian nationals who volunteered for jihad in Iraq—and all those who reported initial recruitment by the Internet—became suicide bombers.[39] The recruitment of suicide terrorists is complex. It requires psychological screening and indoctrination. If the Syrian government claims to be unaware of such activities in its own towns, cities, and mosques, then Syria's future stability cannot be assumed. It is far more likely that the Syrian regime chose to turn a blind eye to terrorist recruitment on its soil. Again, however, this Syrian blind eye should raise concerns about the country's future stability as it suggests a vulnerability to blowback should these same Islamist terrorists decide to return to Syria to take on the Asad regime.

The Syrian government's denials of facilitation for Islamist terror are less credible given the country's role as a transit point for radical fighters and arms. Almost all Saudis, Libyans, Egyptians, Algerians, Kuwaitis, Yemenis, and Moroccans transited Syria to reach Iraq. Syria is a police state. It is implausible that its government is unaware of the transit of large numbers of foreign nationals, some through Damascus International Airport, others across the border from Jordan and Turkey. Nor can the Syrian government simply blame spontaneous outrage at U.S. occupation of Iraq: Many of the foreign fighters who traversed Syria—and more than one-fifth of the Syrians represented in the Sinjar records—made cash contributions to Al-Qaeda in Iraq, often more than $1,000 and, in some cases, more than $10,000.[40] For an outraged jihadist to take a weapon and try to cross the border is one thing; to acquire information necessary to donate to Al-Qaeda and actually transfer the money takes more direction.

The underground railroad through Syria is lucrative not only to Al-Qaeda but also to many Syrians. Trafficking people across Syria's border with Iraq is a complex and lucrative business. Smugglers will bribe border guards and, depending upon the size of the operation, officials in Damascus. Taking individuals across the border requires false papers, and acquiring these depends on corruption in Syrian government offices. In order to smuggle sensitive cargo through border checkpoints, smugglers often require intelligence about shifts and rotations of personnel at the border. This, in turn, suggests the complicity of higher levels within the Syrian regime. Indeed, many Syrian intelligence officials accept money to turn the other way. While the Syrian government sought credit for the prevention of terrorist infiltration following the U.S. siege of Fallujah in the summer of 2004, jihadists and fixers established an elaborate network of safe houses on the Syrian side of the border to enable the flow of fighters into Iraq to continue.[41] After the capture of Fallujah, U.S. troops found photographs of the leader of the Jaysh Muhammad insurgent group meeting with a senior Syrian official. While officials refused to name the Syrian official, the Iraqi ambassador to Syria said that he had protested to the Syrian government.[42]

The Sinjar documents describe a network of Syrian coordinators who facilitate travel through Syria, receiving between $19 and $34,584 for their services, the differential apparently dependent both upon the nationality of the jihadis as well as the demands of specific Syrian fixers. Saudis paid, on average, $2,500. However, the different pricing schemes offered by various fixers suggest the parallel operation of multiple networks rather than a single, coordinated system.[43] While cross-border tribal links aided infiltration, so too apparently have security forces expelled from Lebanon. These latter augmented smuggling networks into Iraq in order to make up for income lost when Syrian forces withdrew from Lebanon.[44] Because the Syrian security forces are the domain of the 'Alawis, the involvement of the security forces in smuggling and in the "taxation" of smuggling suggests the direct complicity of the regime. Indeed on December 6, 2007, the U.S. Treasury Department designated seven individuals based in Syria as suppliers of financial support for the Iraqi insurgency. Six were members of the Syrian Baath Party.[45]

Matthew Levitt, a former FBI terrorist analyst and now a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, highlighted the case of an individual known as Fawzi al-Rawi. "The extent of the Syrian role in al-Rawi's activities is noteworthy," Levitt explained. "Al-Rawi was appointed to his position in the Syrian Ba'ath Party by Syrian president Bashir al-Asad in 2003." Levitt also noted that the Treasury Department found that Rawi "is supported financially by the Syrian Government, and has close ties to Syrian intelligence."[46]

 

Syrians in the International Jihad

The Asad regime's support for Al-Qaeda extends far beyond the Iraqi theater of operations. Ryan Mauro, assistant director of intelligence at The Counter Terrorism Electronic Warfare and Intelligence Centre, has observed: "Many international Al-Qaeda plots have Syrian links." He has also recounted Syrian links to Al-Qaeda attacks in Jordan and Morocco.[47] For example, the cell of Abu Mus'ab az-Zarqawi, leader of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, was based in Syria.[48] Zarqawi's group was responsible for the October 28, 2002 assassination of U.S. diplomat Laurence Foley in Amman, Jordan,[49] as well as numerous killings of U.S. soldiers in Iraq.

It has been reported that at least one alleged bomber from the Groupe Islamique Combattant Marocain (a Moroccan Al-Qaeda affiliate that claimed responsibility for the May 2003 suicide attacks on restaurants, hotels, and the Belgian consulate in Casablanca) trained in Syria.[50] In 2004, foreign students enrolled in Islamic schools in Syria participated in terrorist bombings in Israel and Turkey.[51] Analysts might dismiss the attack on Israel as motivated by long-standing Syrian policies, but the attacks in Turkey occurred at a time when a sympathetic Turkish government was helping the regime in Damascus ease its international isolation. U.S. defense officials allege that Mustafa al-'Uzayti (Abu Faraj al-Libi), a senior Al-Qaeda official captured by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence on May 2, 2005, met several terrorists in Syria to plan attacks not only on the United States but also in Europe and Australia.[52] Jordanian authorities narrowly averted a massive chemical terrorist attack in downtown Amman, which the Jordanian authorities estimate might have killed 80,000 people.[53]

Following its 2005 expulsion from Lebanon, the Syrian regime used its connections to jihadists to attempt to destabilize the Lebanese government, sponsoring the Al-Qaeda affiliate Fatah al-Islam, which established itself in Nahr al-Barid, a Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon. According to Lebanese government interrogation reports, captured jihadists reported links with Syrian intelligence.[54] Jihadist cells in Iraq also spoke casually of Syrian veterans of the Jund ash-Sham (Soldiers of Syria) in Lebanon.[55] Until an October 26, 2008 U.S. raid from Iraq killed him, Zarqawi's deputy, Sulayman Khaled Darwish (Abu 'l-Ghadiya), continued to receive safe haven in Syria.[56] Following Darwish's death, Sa'd al-Shammari took over his foreign fighter facilitation network and continued to operate it from inside Syria.[57] The list is long enough to suggest that a Syrian link to Al-Qaeda is more the rule than the exception. By providing a safe haven, the Syrian government is as complicit in assisting the terrorist group as was the Taliban regime in Afghanistan.

 

The Duplicity of the Regime

There is a growing discrepancy between the image the Syrian regime seeks to convey—that it cooperates in the war on terrorism by cracking down on radical Islamists—and the reality, which is that senior Syrian officials coddle and protect radical Islamists and Al-Qaeda operatives. Ironically, reports from international organizations such as Amnesty International have provided the Syrian regime with unwitting international legitimacy by endorsing its claim to intolerance for radical Islamists. Amnesty criticized the regime for the arrest of twelve and for the incommunicado detention of ten alleged Islamists in Dayr az-Zawr and also complained about the imprisonment of an Islamist returned to Syria in a "suspected unlawful rendition to Syria by the U.S. authorities."[58] Such criticisms may be true, but without a proper context, they suggest that the regime exhibits complete hostility to Islamism.

In reality, Asad's position is more nuanced. The media plays its part in endorsing this carefully constructed image of the regime, which is accepted blindly by many journalists. The Economist, for example, cast doubt on the October 26, 2008 U.S. commando raid on a compound in Syria in which U.S. officials claim to have killed a senior Al-Qaeda figure. "What makes the raid odder still is that the Syrian authorities have themselves embarked on a nationwide confrontation with Al-Qaeda types in Syria,"[59] the magazine noted, apparently assuming the Syrian crackdown was more substance than show.

Lee Smith, a leading Syria analyst and scholar at the Hudson Institute, has speculated that any Syrian crackdown on foreign jihadists might be mere Machiavellian calculation. "Damascus has an important card to play against the Saudis, who fear that Syria is holding several hundred Saudi fighters in prison," he writes, adding, "Damascus could embarrass the Saudis by publicly announcing the existence of these extremists—or even worse, allow those jihadis to return home to fight the House of Saud."[60]

Asad's motivation may be multifaceted. Abdel Halim Khaddam, vice president under both Hafiz and Bashir al-Asad and now a leading opposition figure in exile, speculated that Bashir gambled that the popularity of enabling resistance outweighed the dangers of antagonizing the United States. "Fighting the Americans in Iraq is very dangerous … But it also makes Bashir popular. Under the banner of resistance, anything is popular."[61]

 

Conclusion

The 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran suggested that religious rule might be the wave of the future and not an ideal of the past. Three years later, Hafiz al-Asad's "Hama rules" (as columnist Thomas Friedman anointed the bloody crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood) were a wakeup call for Islamists. The fall of secular, nationalist governments rose to the top of their agenda, but the task would neither be preordained nor easy.

After Hafiz al-Asad reasserted his authority, the Syrian government quietly began to use religion to co-opt those who might otherwise be attracted to the Muslim Brotherhood and its message. The Syrian regime financed mosques, subsidized clerics, and broadcast more religious programming on the tightly-controlled state television.[62] Just as Saddam Hussein—once embraced in Western capitals for his staunch secularism and hostility to political Islam—found religion after his 1991 defeat in Operation Desert Storm, so, too, has the Asad regime cynically turned toward religion even as, like Saddam's regime, it seeks to maintain its image of hostility to radical Islam.

Speaking at a meeting of the Organization of the Islamic Conference's Council of Foreign Ministers meeting in Damascus on May 23, 2009, Bashir al-Asad endorsed the group's theme of "Promoting Islamic Solidarity," condemned the "ferocious campaign against Islam with the objective of tarnishing its image as a frame of reference in terms of the civilization and religion of our peoples," and beseeched the gathered Arab leaders to become more religiously conservative, declaring, "How can we defend a religion whose obligations we fail to carry out: these obligations of unifying our ranks and positions, stating the word of truth against the arrogant, and defending our honor and dignity against those who usurp them?"[63] Although Asad paid lip service to curtailing terrorism (albeit with rhetoric infused with moral relativism), his depiction of the threat posed to Islam by the West brought to mind the belligerent anti-Westernism of 'Abdullah 'Azzam, Osama bin Laden's intellectual mentor, more than it did the Arab nationalism of Gamal Abdel Nasser or Baath Party founder Michel 'Aflaq.

Syria is now behaving like Saudi Arabia did in the 1990s and early 2000s when it chose to export Islamist radicalism while denying its own culpability and its vulnerability to attacks from the same quarter. Asad should heed history, however. Just as an Al-Qaeda blowback struck Saudi Arabia in the end, so, too, could Damascus's coddling and support for jihad abroad come back to haunt Syria.

Indeed, this appears to be a possibility to which Al-Qaeda theoreticians are not blind. Among the documents found in the Sinjar cache was a lengthy and detailed tract examining the lessons learned from the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood's violent campaign in Syria. It found that the brotherhood lacked a comprehensive plan, was fractured into too many groups, failed to indoctrinate sufficiently, had weak public relations, and was too dependent on outsiders for resources.[64] Al-Qaeda blamed the failure of jihad in Syria up to Hama on failed Muslim Brotherhood leadership but found that "most of the base members, some of the mid level leaders, and maybe a few high level leaders are innocent and decent people … Those faithful were driven to the jihad with true resolve; they willed their leaders to act. Unfortunately all their efforts went in vain despite … the abundance of possibilities, and they set an example for 'Jihad Quality' by working diligently, persistently and silently, and by avoiding in-house and partisan bickering."[65] Al-Qaeda's analysts found the ground in Syria still fertile for jihad should Al-Qaeda spark a movement that had learned the lessons of the past.

The Obama administration may hope to cultivate Bashir al-Asad as a partner for peace, but diplomatic ambition should not trump reality. As Asad plays with fire, far more than Syria could get burned.

 

Michael Rubin, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is a senior lecturer at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School.

Copyright - Original materials copyright (c) by the authors.

 

[1] The New York Times, Feb. 16, 2005.
[2] Gary C. Gambill, "Syria after Lebanon: Hooked on Lebanon," Middle East Quarterly, Fall 2005, pp. 35-42.
[3] The New York Times, Mar. 20, 2005.
[4] UN S/RES/1595 (2005).
[5] The Times (London), Oct. 26, 2005.
[6] "Sen. Barack Obama Remarks on Iraq," Clinton, Iowa campaign stop, Sept. 12, 2007.
[7] Barack Obama, "Inaugural Address," The White House, Jan. 21, 2009.
[8] Al-Arabiya.net (Dubai), Nov. 8, 2008.
[9] Los Angeles Times, Mar. 8, 2009.
[10] Al-Quds al-Arabi (London), Apr. 22, 2009, BBC Worldwide Monitoring, trans.
[11] CNN.com, June 24, 2009.
[12] Agence France-Presse, July 28, 2009.
[13] Sen. Arlen Specter, "Why Congress Can and Must Assert Itself in Foreign Policy," Philadelphia Inquirer, Jan. 5, 2007.
[14] "The Truth about Syria," The Washington Post, Apr. 12, 2007.
[15] Seymour M. Hersh, "Syria, Israel, and the Obama Administration," The New Yorker, Apr. 6, 2009.
[16] Ibid.
[17] Ryan Mauro, "Has Damascus Stopped Supporting Terrorists?" Middle East Quarterly, Summer 2009, pp. 61-7.
[18] Gen. Richard Myers, chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff, Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, commander, Coalition Ground Forces, "Coalition Provisional Authority Briefing," Baghdad, Apr. 15, 2004.
[19] "Jihadist Blowback?" The Economist (London), Oct. 2, 2008.
[20] Brian Fishman, ed., Bombers, Bank Accounts & Bleedout: Al-Qa'ida's Road in and Out of Iraq (West Point, New York: Harmony Project, 2008), p. 6.
[21] The Los Angeles Times, Apr. 28, 2003, quoted in Matthew Levitt, "Foreign Fighters and Their Economic Impact: A Case Study of Syria and Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI)," paper presented at "Foreign Fighter Problem" conference, Foreign Policy Research Institute, Washington, D.C., July 14, 2009.
[22] Diane Sawyer, "A Rare Interview with the Syrian President," ABC News Now, Feb. 5, 2007; "Syria's President Assad Speaks about Chaos in Iraq," NBC News transcripts, May 7, 2007; "Interview with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad," CBS Early Show, Sept. 7, 2007.
[23] Juan Cole. "U.S. Sanctions on Iran," juancole.com, Oct. 26, 2007, accessed Aug. 7, 2009.
[24] Adm. Mike Mullen, Department of Defense briefing, Pentagon, Apr. 25, 2008; Frederick W. Kagan, Kimberley Kagan, and Danielle Pletka, Iranian Influence in the Levant, Iraq, and Afghanistan (Washington: American Enterprise Institute Press, 2008), p. 41.
[25] Doron Almog, "Tunnel-Vision in Gaza," Middle East Quarterly, Summer 2004, pp. 3-11.
[26] "Abu Sayyaf History," Center for Defense Information, U.S. Pacific Command, Mar. 5, 2002.
[27] Fouad Ajami, The Arab Predicament (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992), p. 215.
[28] Eyal Zisser, "Hafiz Al-Asad Discovers Islam," Middle East Quarterly, Mar. 1999, pp. 49-56.
[29] Agence France-Presse, July 25, 26, 2005.
[30] Associated Press, June 16, 2006.
[31] Associated Press, Sept. 28, 2008; "Jihadist Blowback?" The Economist.
[32] Agence France-Presse, Feb. 5, 2006.
[33] Abu Musab as-Suri, "The Confrontation between the Sunni population of ash-Sham against An-Nasiriyah, Crusaders, and Jews," June 22, 2000, p. 11, Harmony Database, Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, document ID: AGFP 2002-600966.
[34] Ibid., pp. 24-6.
[35] Ibid., p. 62.
[36] Fishman, ed., Bombers, Bank Accounts & Bleedout, p. 3; Joseph Felter and Brian Fishman, "Becoming a Foreign Fighter: A Second Look at the Sinjar Records," in Fishman, ed., Bombers, Bank Accounts & Bleedout, p. 32.
[37] Felter and Fishman, "Becoming a Foreign Fighter," p. 36.
[38] Ibid., pp. 40-1.
[39] Ibid., pp. 45-6, 56-7.
[40] Ibid., pp. 47, 53.
[41] Anonymous, "Smuggling, Syria, and Spending," in Fishman, ed., Bombers, Bank Accounts & Bleedout, pp. 86-7, 90, 91.
[42] The Christian Science Monitor, Dec. 23, 2004.
[43] Felter and Fishman, "Becoming a Foreign Fighter," p. 48-9.
[44] Anonymous, "Smuggling, Syria, and Spending," p. 85.
[45] Levitt, "Foreign Fighters and Their Economic Impact."
[46] Ibid.; "Treasury Designates Individuals with Ties to Al Qaida, Former Regime," U.S. Treasury Press, Dec. 6, 2007.
[47] Mauro, "Has Damascus Stopped Supporting Terrorists?" p. 62.
[48] Secretary of State Colin Powell, remarks to the United Nations Security Council, Feb. 5, 2003.
[49] Jane's Security News (Surrey, U.K.), June 16, 2003.
[50] Emerson Vermaat, "Madrid Terrorists Possessed an Important Al-Qaeda Manual," Militant Islam Monitor, Feb. 20, 2007.
[51] Alfred B. Prados and Jeremy M. Sharp, "Syria: Political Conditions and Relations with the United States after the Iraq War," Congressional Research Service Report for Congress, Jan. 10, 2005.
[52] "Summary of Evidence for Combatant Status Review Tribunal—Al Libi, Abu Faraj," U.S. Department of Defense, Feb. 8, 2007.
[53] The Jordan Times (Amman), Feb. 16, 2006.
[54] Ar-Ra'y (Amman), June 8, 2007.
[55] "Husayn Cell/Network Status Update Report," Aug. 11, 2007, Harmony Database, Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, Document #NMEC-2007-658086.
[56] Mauro, "Has Damascus Stopped Supporting Terrorists?" p. 62.
[57] Levitt, "Foreign Fighters and Their Economic Impact."
[58] "Syria," Amnesty International Country Report, 2009.
[59] "A Puzzling Raid," The Economist, Oct. 30, 2008.
[60] Lee Smith, "Damascus's Deadly Bargain," The New Republic, Nov. 14, 2008.
[61] Ibid.
[62] Prados and Sharp, "Syria."
[63] "Speech of President Bashar al-Assad," Council of Foreign Ministers, Organization of Islamic Conference, Damascus, May 23-25, 2009.
[64] "Chapter One: Observations on the Jihad Ordeal in Syria," AFGP-2002-600080, Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, trans., accessed Sept. 22, 2009.
[65] "Chapter Two: Lessons Learned from the Armed Jihad Ordeal in Syria," AFGP-2002-600080, Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, trans., accessed Sept. 22, 2009.

 

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