Regime change in Syria

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Even though Syria is not listed among the three members of the axis of evil named by U.S. President George W. Bush in his January 29, 2002, State of the Union address, ... there is no doubt that the neoconservative faction which currently controls U.S. foreign policy aspires to replace the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad with one more amenable to the U.S. and Israel. What is unclear is only whether they are prepared to use military force to achieve this objective. [1]

Virtually as soon as the U.S. invaded Iraq in March 2003, reports began to surface in the international news media suggesting that Syria was next in line for invasion. Since 2003, much as it has also done with Iran, the U.S. has continuously denounced Syria on the slightest pretexts. During the invasion, it complained that Syria failed to close its borders to Iraqi insurgents entering or fleeing Iraq, while afterwards, when WMD's could not be found in Iraq, some U.S. officials went so far as to suggest that Syria had allowed Saddam Hussein to smuggle them across the border into Syria. The U.S. news media kept up a steady stream of reporting in an identical vein throughout 2004. The accusations of U.S. officials were reported uncritically, and the administration was never pressed for proof to support its inflammatory allegations.

On October 15, 2003, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act of 2003, which imposed strict sanctions against the Syrian government. Middle East analyst Stephen Zunes doubted that the Act would have any practical effect. "[I]ts real purpose may be to simply demonize a government whose main offense appears to be its refusal to support the Bush administration's foreign policy agenda in the Middle East." [2]

Regime change ahead for Syria?

The U.S. campaign to destabilize the Syrian regime moved to a higher level after February 14, 2005, when the former prime minister of Lebanon, corrupt billionaire businessman Rafik Hariri, was assassinated in Nejmeh Square in Beirut, in an explosion that claimed the lives of 22 other individuals.

Immediately following the assassination, the U.S. joined the anti-Syrian Lebanese opposition in attributing responsibility for the assassination to Syria. No evidence whatever was offered to support the allegation. Rather, it was simply asserted that Syria was the only party which stood to benefit from Hariri's death. This view was contradicted by most Middle East experts. Patrick Searle, author of Assad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East stated bluntly, "attributing responsibility for the murder to Syria is implausible." [3] Many took the view that Israel stood most to benefit, while investigative reporter Wayne Madsen fingered the U.S., claiming that Hariri had opposed "the construction of a major U.S. air base in the north of Lebanon." [4]

Whether or not Madsen knows something the rest of us don't, the Hariri assassination led to the realization of a longstanding neoconservative desideratum when Syrian troops departed Lebanon a few weeks later. But that was not the end of the story, and the U.S. successfully pressed the United Nations into launching an investigation into the assassination that would persuade world opinion of Syrian culpability. On April 7, 2005, the United Nations Security Council passed a motion, Resolution 1595, effectively taking the investigation into Hariri's murder out of the hands of Lebanese authorities. The Declaration called for "an international independent investigation Commission ('the Commission') based in Lebanon to assist the Lebanese authorities in their investigation of all aspects of this terrorist act, including to help identify its perpetrators, sponsors, organizers and accomplices." [5]

The United Nations investigating body was subsequently created and place under the command of German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis, a far from impartial judge with a history of attributing crimes to alleged rogue states like Libya and Iran. [6] [7]

By August-September 2005, many in the international community had reached the conclusion that a U.S. invasion of Iran could not be far away. Then, suddenly, the spotlight shifted back to Syria. "In his first major speech since assuming his diplomatic post two weeks ago, US ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad has announced that a seven-point plan has been reached with Iraqi leaders to address 'common efforts' toward building a democratic, secure Iraq," Asia Times Kathleen Ridolfo wrote August 4, 2005. "At the same time, Khalilzad identified Syria as a part of Iraq's problems. "The ambassador singled out Iran and Syria as states that were 'engaged in unhelpful activities' and were not doing enough to contribute to the security of Iraq, adding that the US intended to help shape a more favorable regional environment," Ridolfo wrote. "Regarding Syria," Ridolfo added, Khalilzad said "'Terrorists are moving into Iraq through Syria. Leaders of hardcore Ba'athist insurgents reside there. Terrorists and insurgents are trained in Syria and funding goes through Syria. Syrian government media are broadcasting anti-Iraq propaganda. The Syrian government must take action to halt these activities or risk new pressures.'"

On September 13, 2005, Khalilzad "said during a State Department briefing with reporters [that the] United States has ruled out no option, including military force, for dealing with the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad," USA Today's Barbara Slavin reported. Khalilzad maintained that "Syrian authorities 'allow youngsters misguided by Al Qaeda - from Saudi Arabia, from Yemen, from North Africa - to fly into Damascus International Airport,' attend training camps and then cross into Iraq," New York Times' Joel Brinkley wrote September 13, 2005. In the same NYT article, "Imad Moustapha, the Syrian ambassador to the United States, called Mr. Khalilzad's allegations '100 percent rubbish,' and said Syria had repeatedly invited American and Iraqi officials to discuss the problem and find solutions. But, he added, neither country had responded."

Following her September 16, 2005, meeting with "Iraq's planning minister, Barham Salih, Condoleezza Rice again accused Syria of supporting terror. To that she added an allegation Syria may also be providing financial support for insurgents, as well as 'allowing its territory to be used to organize terrorist attacks against innocent Iraqis'," the AP said. "Moreover, Rice said, Syria is supporting Palestinian rejectionists trying to undercut co-operation with Israel on a projected withdrawal from Gaza."

By mid-September 2005, therefore, it was clear to most observers that Syria, not Iran, was destined to be the next victim of U.S. foreign aggression. "The United States has not abandoned the option of regime change. This time, the objective is to oust the Bashar Assad regime of Syria, but by using 'other' means ... [which] includes a combination of old tactics used to topple Saddam Hussein, and also uses a number of new tactics aimed at ensuring that the European Union - or its major members, the ones that were derided in the past by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld as part of 'old Europe' - does not oppose it, and that even the United Nations Security Council goes along with it," Ehsan Ahrari wrote in the September 16, 2005, Asia Times.

Blaming Syria for Hariri's assassination

It was in the context of the renewed preoccupation with Syria that the United Nations body charged with investigating the Hariri assassination released its report in October 2005. [8] The U.S. clearly got what it wanted, for the Mehlis team laid the blame on Syria (and co-operating Lebanese). The case against Syria rests on four pieces of information which are apparently deemed incriminating:

1. The existence of tension between Hariri and 'senior Syrian officials, including Syrian President Bashar Assad' over the extension of President Emile Lahoud’s term which allegedly culminated at a meeting held on August 26, 2004.

2. The claim that, due to extensive Syrian intelligence capabilities in Lebanon, a 'complex assassination plot' could not have taken place in Beirut without Syrian involvement.

3. Allegations from persons claiming inside knowledge of Syrian involvement, above all, one Zuhir Ibn Mohamed Said Saddik, who claims to have been extensively involved in the assassination plot himself.

4. The claim that Syrian authorities refused to cooperate with the U.N. investigation. (As an example of non-cooperation, the report states that 'The letter addressed to the Commission by the Foreign Minister of the Syrian Arab Republic proved to contain false information.')

Critics of the report like investigative journalist Robert Parry and blogger Social Democracy Now noted that it contains no information of a forensic kind which would permit the assassination to be imputed to the Syrians. Although it states that the Mitsubishi Canter van used in the attack was stolen in Sagamihara City, Japan, in 2004, the report does not explain how the vehicle reached Beirut. The authors of the report seem only interested in building a case against Syria. However, the case against Syria depends critically on improbable revelations from unidentified individuals purporting to possess inside knowledge of Syrian activities. The only named individual professing inside knowledge is Zuhir Ibn Mohamed Said Saddik, a man who has since been revealed by German magazine Der Spiegel to be a convicted con man who was paid handsomely for his revelations, apparently by Syrian dissident Rifaat al-Assad, an uncle of President Bashir al-Assad, who opposes his nephew's regime. [9] What's more, the report only discusses the question of Syrian involvement. The involvement of Israel, which is widely seen in the Middle East as most likely responsible, is not even mentioned, let alone investigated.

The trouble with Syria

While the international community remains galvanized by the U.S. military debacle in Iraq and continues to study the reasons the Bush administration launched the war in the first place, the ground is currently being prepared for the invasion of Syria, perhaps as a means of distracting the public from the administration's proliferating domestic woes. The pretext is that peace and security will never come to Iraq until Syria ceases supporting the Iraqi insurgency. The assassination of Rafik Hariri, while it contributed to U.S. plans to establish effective control in Lebanon, is also being used to demonize Syria in the eyes of the world. In this respect, the Mehlis report is best understood as war propaganda. There is in fact no evidence implicating Syria in the assassination, just as there is no evidence suggesting that Assad's regime plays a role in supporting the Iraqi insurgency, which is essentially an independent national liberation movement. In short, the Mehlis report is an example of the extent to which neoconservatives seek to manipulate international opinion by means of disinformation.

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