Talking Points Regarding Syria

by Stephen Zunes (Znet, April 15, 2003)


Recent statements by top Bush administration officials have accused the Syrian government of aiding senior Iraqi officials to escape, possessing chemical weapons, and committing "hostile acts" against the U.S. by allegedly supplying military equipment, such as night- vision goggles, to the Iraqis. On April 10th, Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz told Congress, "The Syrians are behaving badly. They need to be reminded of that, and if they continue, then we need to think about what our policy is with respect to a country that harbors terrorists or harbors war criminals, or was in recent times shipping things to Iraq.

People should keep in mind the following points in response to administration claims:

* Syria, despite being ruled by the Baath Party, has historically been a major rival of Iraq's Baath regime. Syria was the only Arab country to back Iran during the Iran-Iraq War. It was one of the only non- monarchical Arab states to have backed the United States against Iraq during the first Gulf War. Iraq and Syria backed rival factions in Lebanon's civil war. As a member of the United Nations Security Council, Syria voted this past November in favor of the U.S.-backed resolution 1441 that demanded full cooperation by the Baghdad government with United Nations inspectors, with the threat of severe consequences if it failed to do so. However, Syria--like most countries in the world-- has strongly opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

* Syria's long, porous border with Iraq has been the entry point of hundreds of volunteers from around the Arab world, many of whom are Iraqi exiles, who have come to fight what they see as the conquest of an Arab country by a Western power. There is no evidence that the Syrian government has been directly sending mercenaries or other soldiers into Iraq to fight U.S. forces. Allowing armed individuals to assist a neighboring state against an invading army is considered legitimate under international law.

* There is no evidence that Iraq has moved any weapons of mass destruction or related technology and raw materials into Syria. With open deserts, mostly cloudless days, and detailed surveillance by satellites and aircraft, the movement of such material would likely have been detected. The United Nations Monitoring and Verification Commission (UNMOVIC), empowered by the United Nations Security Council to verify the destruction of Iraq's WMD programs, disputes Bush administration claims that such proscribed materials have made their way out of the country.

* There is no evidence that Syria has developed chemical weapons of its own. While it certainly cannot be ruled out, Syria is no more likely to possess such weapons than Turkey, Israel, Egypt, and other regional powers, underscoring the need for a multilateral approach to arms control by the international community. Syria has never used-- nor has it ever threatened to use--chemical weapons or other weapons of mass destruction.

* The Bush administration has not presented clear evidence that large numbers of Iraqi leaders have escaped to Syria. Even if they have, Syria has no legal obligation to hand them over to U.S. authorities, given that the U.S. occupation of Iraq has not been recognized by the international community. Until an internationally recognized authority in Baghdad, the International Criminal Court, or other duly-constituted body makes such an extradition request, Syria is not obliged to turn over any suspects from the former Iraqi government.

* Syria, with less than half of Iraq's population and only a tiny fraction of Iraq's oil resources, was never as powerful militarily as was Iraq during the height of Baghdad's military prowess in the 1980s. Syria's military strength has declined since that period, as a result of the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, which had supplied the Damascus regime with large-scale military aid, including armaments, training, and other military assistance.

* According to U.S. State Department officials, the Syrian government has not been directly involved in any acts of international terrorism since the 1980s. Damascus has been the home base of a number of small and largely moribund radical Palestinian exile groups, some of which engaged in terrorism in the 1970s and 1980s.

* The United States initially supported Syria's 1976 invasion of Lebanon, which was authorized by the Arab League as a means of preventing victory by the radical Lebanese National Movement and its Palestinian allies in the civil war. Syrian forces have remained in Lebanon ever since and Syria exerts enormous political leverage over the Lebanese government, particularly regarding the country's foreign affairs. During much of Lebanon's civil war, Syria actively supported Amal, a militia based in the country's Shiite community that engaged in military campaigns against the Palestinian Al-Fatah militia, the Iranian-backed Hizbollah militia, and the Maronite Phalangist militia, among others. Since the end of the civil war in 1990, the Syrians have provided limited support to Hizbollah in its ultimately successful campaign to force Israeli occupation forces out of southern Lebanon, and is believed to continue to back the radical Shiite group's scaled-down militia today. There is still some periodic fighting between Hizbollah militiamen and Israeli occupation forces in the disputed Shebaa Farms area on the border between Lebanon and the Israeli-occupied section of southwestern Syria.

* Syria has agreed to grant full diplomatic relations with Israel, demilitarize border areas, allow for international peacekeepers, and provide other security guarantees to Israel, as part of a peace agreement where Israel would withdraw from Syrian territory seized by Israeli forces in the 1967 war. A peace agreement between Israel and Syria based upon this formula came close to fruition in the late 1990s until talks broke down over a relatively minor dispute on the actual placement of the border resulting from conflicting demarcation maps from the colonial era. Since then, a right-wing Israeli government has come to power and has rejected such a peace treaty, refusing to resume negotiations.

* Syria has an authoritarian government that has been charged by reputable human rights organizations with widespread and systematic human rights violations. The government has liberalized somewhat in recent years, however, both economically and politically. While still denying its people basic democratic rights, the current level of repression by the Damascus government is less than it has been in previous decades, less than that of Saddam Hussein's Iraq, and less than that of Saudi Arabia and other American allies.

[These FPIF Talking Points were compiled by Stephen Zunes. Zunes <> is Middle East editor for Foreign Policy In Focus, an associate professor of politics at the University of San Francisco, and author of Tinderbox: U.S. Middle East Policy and the Roots of Terrorism (Common Courage Press). A longer version of this article is available and will be periodically updated on FPIF's website (online at www.fpif.org)

US Warns Syria Not To Provide Haven For Wanted Iraqis

By Ben Russell, Political Correspondent published 14 April 2003 - Independent/UK


Syria faced renewed warnings from America not to provide safe haven for senior figures in Saddam Hussein's regime.

Colin Powell, the Secretary of State, increased the diplomatic pressure on Damascus while Donald Rumsfeld, the Secretary of de fence, extended his rhetoric against the Syrians, insisting that "there's no question" that some senior Iraqi leaders had fled to Syria.

"We certainly are hopeful Syria will not become a haven for war criminals or terrorists," Mr Rumsfeld said.President George Bush added to the pressure, saying: "Syria just needs to co-operate with the United States and our coalition partners, not harbour any Baathists, any military officials, any people who need to be held to account."

Speaking to reporters later, he appeared to threaten Syria with possible military action, by pointedly saying that Damascus held chemical weapons, and that the Iraq war showed that "we're serious about stopping weapons of mass destruction".

Asked by a reporter whether Syria could face military action if it did not turn over Iraqi leaders, Mr Bush said: "They just need to co-operate."

On Saturday a gunman who shot dead an American Marine guarding a hospital in Baghdad was found to have a Syrian identification card by US military officials. Marines shot and killed him.

Dominique de Villepin, the French Foreign Minister, who is visiting Lebanon, said the international community should focus on rebuilding Iraq and reviving Middle East peace efforts. Asked about American accusations against Damascus, he said: "The time is not correct. The time is to work together.

"His comments coincided with visits by Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, and Mike O'Brien, a Foreign Office minister, to Iraq's neighbours to discuss the future of the region.

Hawks in the Bush team have raised the prospect of action against Syria. Mr Rumsfeld warned that Syria would be "held to account" if it provided military equipment to Iraq.

General Powell, considered amoderate within the administration, joined the chorus of disapproval despite concern over deteriorating relations between Syria and the West. He said: "We think it would be very unwise ... if suddenly Syria becomes a haven for all these people who should be brought to justice who are trying to get out of Baghdad ... nor do I know why Syria would become a place of haven for people who should be subject to the justice of the Iraqi people."

General Powell told the BBC's Breakfast with Frost: "Syria has been a concern for a long period of time. We have designated Syria for years as a state that sponsors terrorism.

"We are concerned that materials have flowed through Syria to the Iraqi regime over the years. We are making this point clearly and in a very direct manner to the Syrians."

Mr O'Brien, who visited Tehran, the Iranian capital, yesterday, will raise the Allies' concerns with the Syrian authorities today. Mr Straw was visiting Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia to discuss the reconstruction of Iraq.

Lawrence Eagleburger, who was US Secretary of State under George Bush Snr, told the BBC: "If George Bush [Jnr] decided he was going to turn the troops loose on Syria and Iran after that he would last in office for about 15 minutes.In fact if President Bush were to try that now even I would think that he ought to be impeached. You can't get away with that sort of thing in this democracy."

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