by M.A. Shaikh (Occupied Arab World, Crescent International Vol. 32, No. 13 2003-10, Sha'ban, 1424)
The Bush administration, apparently unable or unwilling to learn any lessons from its recent foreign policy debacles, is making the same charges against Syria as it used to justify the invasion of Iraq, which have been shown to be not merely exaggerated but patently false. John Bolton, undersecretary of state for arms control, told a congressional subcommittee on September 16 that Syria was "expanding" its weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and "state sponsorship of terrorism", and was allowing militants to slip into Iraq. And he could not resist adding the threat that "as the president has said, we cannot allow the world’s most dangerous weapons to fall into the hands of the world’s most dangerous regimes."
This threat and the false charges reflect the continuing US strategy of preventing Muslim countries from acquiring modern weapons technology, and making Israel - the only country in the Middle East that possesses nuclear weapons - the region’s dominant military power. But now they also provide the basis for Bush’s aggressive pre-emptive policy, which has led to Iraq’s occupation. Bush is also trying to intimidate other potentially powerful Muslim countries, especially Islamic Iran. The need to crush Islamic movements motivates both strategies.
Syria possesses no nuclear weapons, and targets Islamic groups at home. It also gives the US valuable information about the international activities of al-Qa’ida. In his testimony to the congressional subcommittee, Bolton also admitted that there "is no information that Syria has transferred any unconventional weapons to terrorist groups or would permit such groups to acquire them" and that US is unable to confirm reports that Iraq secretly sent unconventional weapons to Syria. And while Syria "permitted volunteers to pass into Iraq to attack and kill our service members during the war" and was continuing to do so, he added that "Damascus [has] increased its cooperation regarding Iraq since the fall of the Iraqi regime." This explains Bolton’s statement to the subcommittee that Washington was not seeking to impose sanctions on Syria and would allow "delicate and intensive diplomatic discussions" being conducted with Damascus by secretary of state Colin Powell to produce the desired results.
But Syria supports Hizbullah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine, because Israel occupies the Golan Heights, and the Islamic groups are Israel’s most obdurate adversaries. Hence Bolton’s threats against Syria despite Powell’s diplomatic discussions with it. He said that "stronger measures" had to be kept ready for possible use against Syria and other "potential enemies of Israel and the US." He went on, "If the language of persuasion fails, these states must see and feel the logic of adverse consequences... The pursuit of WMD and ballistic missile delivery systems, especially by state sponsors of terrorism, must be neither cost-free nor successful." By this, The US means Muslim countries, such as Iran, that support the Palestinian cause and are engaged in acquiring nuclear power by means of technical agreements with Russia. The US in known to oppose Russia’s contact with Iran on nuclear issues, and Bolton said that the US is watching Syria’s dealings with Russia.
Some members of the subcommittee – notably the chairwoman, Representa-tive Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican from Florida – were even more outspoken than Bolton. She said that since 1989, "Syria has increased, and indeed diversified, its weapons of mass destruction programmes to present a serious threat to our allies and our interests in the region." This makes it plain that targeting Muslim countries deemed to be current or potential enemies of Israel or the US is not only the Bush administration’s strategy but also enjoys the support of the institutions of the state and of the ruling elite; it does not seem to matter that the excuses being used to justify targeting them are plainly untenable. On the day that Bolton was addressing the subcommittee, the US vetoed a UN resolution that denounced Israel, even though it was backed by 11 members of the Security Council. The US was alone in opposing it, protesting unconvincingly that it failed to condemn Palestinian "terror groups." Three countries – Britain, Bulgaria and Germany – abstained from the vote.
Syria’s response to the US’s charges was immediate but mild, saying the same day that it rejected accusations that it supported terrorism but that it was prepared to meet "any reasonable" US request for assistance in the war against terrorism. However, it called for "greater American understanding of Syrian and Arab realities." Farouq al-Sharaa, the Syrian foreign minister, said in Damascus on September 16 that "the Americans are now our neighbours, and they should care for their neighbours and take into consideration the sensitivity of the Syrians and Arabs"; by "neighbours" he meant theat they are the occupiers of Iraq. He confirmed that his country was open to "any realistic demand" and prefers dialogue to "handle all of the stagnant problems in bilateral relations."
The Syrian government’s mild response risked being misinterpreted as a weakness that could invite greater demands, but Arab governments and media have generally bwelcomes it as a sign of pragmatism. But Damascus might have felt relieved that Washington had not commented on its repressive internal polices, despite the strong campaign of Syria’s human rights organisations and the US’s claim that it invaded Iraq to bring democratic rule to Arab countries. In August, Syrian human rights groups launched a comprehensive campaign against president Bashar al-Asad because of his failure to reform the country’s repressive political and judicial systems, and for allowing the country’s dismal human rights record to deteriorate even further. In a joint statement published on July 2, five groups also took the regime to task for its treatment of its Kurdish minority.
But Asad knows that president Bush will not miss a night’s sleep because of his repression of his people. He should also know that "pragmatism" in the face of undisguised aggression is usually read as weakness. The best way he can indicate his strength and pragmatism to Uncle Sam and his zionist neighbour is to halt his repression of Islamic activists in the country and to stop treating Islam as a threat and a danger.