by Nir Boms
“We are neither a great power nor a weak country, we are not a country without cards or foundations” said Syrian president Basher Assad in a recent interview as he planned to pull another card from his sleeve. “We are not a country that can be passed over with respect to the issues.” He continued with words, which may have been corroborated by Secretary of State Colin Powell that made Damascus one of his first stops after the fall of Baghdad, in spite of Pentagon opposition. Six months later, our “ally in the war against terrorism” remains a primary source and a transit point for the foreign terrorists working to destabilize Iraq. The failed Yemeni truck bomber detained last week in Baghdad holding a Syrian passport is not the first of his kind by a long shot.
A source at the CIA was quoted recently as saying that “Syria had emerged as one of the CIA’s most effective intelligence allies in the fight against Al Qaeda.” Syria’s apologists in the State Department and elsewhere argue that we can’t demand control of the country’s borders, which have long been ignored by local Bedouins. They argue further that it is unrealistic to expect too much from President Bashar Assad, whose grip on power depends on maintaining the support of his hard line ministers and old guard generals. They also point to the support given by Syria for the latest United Nations resolution on Iraq.
But the overall picture suggests a regime deeply hostile to U.S. interests in the Middle East. After the war, Syria made and broke a promise to close the terrorist groups’ offices in Damascus, which receive government financing, training and technical help. Syria holds recruiting offices and training camps in Syria and Lebanon for terrorists seeking to kill Americans in Iraq.
They are armed, transported, and probably subsidized by the Syrian government. The idea that Syria is “providing helpful” intelligence is negated by the fact that two ranking US soldiers, with Syrian connections, were recently arrested on charges of espionage and are being held in Guantanamo bay. Senior Airman Ahmad al-Halabi, a Syrian-born supply clerk, is charged with espionage and Army Capt. Yousef Yee, a Muslim chaplain who studied in Damascus for four years in Damascus is arrested for similar charges.
Syria is also responsible for the continuing forced involvement of Lebanon as terrorism-sponsoring country. Syria entered Lebanon in 1976 with the ostensible aim of settling its civil war. But the Syrians quickly became an impediment to attempts, especially by the U.S., to restore the Lebanese order. Syria began backing Hezbollah, which 20 years ago killed 298 in the Beirut Marine barracks bombing. The 20th anniversary of their deaths was last month. To date, it maintains a military presence of about 25,000 Syrian troops that tightly control the political and economic dynamics in Lebanon.
The U.S. subsequently pulled out, Syria stayed, and Hezbollah, the “A Team of Terrorism” vastly extended its power and influence, becoming the de-facto government in the south of the country with its own offices, TV station and official representation in the Lebanese parliament.
But whereas the Lebanese-Hezbollah channel is an old one, recent reports point to the Syrian mainland as a new source of terrorist recruitment. Reform Party loyalists on the ground in Aleppo report that Sheikh Ahmad Badreldine Hassoun, the overseer of the Rawdah Mosque located in the Sabeel district in Aleppo (and a close friend of Bashar Assad) has been working recently to support the “resistance” in Iraq. With the help of Sahib al-Shami, the director for Religious Affairs appointed by the Syrian government, he was seen collecting money following the Friday evening prayers. Later that evening, he helped distribute these funds as he greeted scores of fighters on their way to Fallujah and Tikrit.
This state of affairs remains a black eye for U.S. foreign policy and a source of encouragement to Islamic radicals everywhere. Southern Lebanon continues to provide them with training grounds and a safe haven. The war on terror will not be won until Lebanon has a legitimate government that reasserts control.
The old policy of winking at Syrian support for terrorism was perhaps tolerable before September 11. But with U.S. troops at risk in Iraq, and the cost of failure there so high, that status quo is damaging U.S. interests. President Bush has to convince Damascus that there will be consequences for its actions.