Cambodia All Over Again? - Syria
by Conn Hallinan
Foreign Policy in Focus, November
In the wake of a United Nations investigation
implicating a number of Syrian and Lebanese officials in the assassination
of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, the Bush administration
is calling for international sanctions, and leaking dark hints
of war. But the United States is already unofficially at war with
Syria. For the past six months, U.S. Army Rangers and the Special
Operations Delta Force have been crossing the border into Syria,
supposedly to "interdict" terrorists coming into Iraq.
Several Syrian soldiers have been killed.
The analogy the administration is using
for this invasion? Cambodia, which the Nixon administration accused
of harboring North Vietnamese troops during the war in Southeast
Asia. On April 30, 1970, American and South Vietnamese Army units
stormed across the border, igniting one of the great disasters
of all time. The invasion was not only a military debacle; it
led to the rise of Pol Pot, who systematically butchered some
two million Cambodians.
As in Vietnam, the American and British
line in Iraq is that the war is fueled by foreign fanatics infiltrating
from Syria and Iran. In an October talk to the National Endowment
for Democracy, President George W. Bush told the audience that
"Iran and Syria" have allied themselves with Islamic
terrorist groups; he warned that the "United States makes
no distinction between those who commit acts of terror and those
who support and harbor them."
According to the Financial Times,
the Bush administration is already discussing who should replace
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, with the White House leaning
toward sponsoring an internal military coup. National Security
Adviser Stephen Hadley - the fellow who brought us the Niger-Iran
uranium fairy tale - is in charge of the operation.
Flynt Leverett of the Brookings Institute
says the cross-border raids are aimed at encouraging the Syrian
military to "dump" Assad. A military coup was how the
United States helped put Saddam Hussein in power so he could liquidate
the Iraqi Left.
The White House, in fact, knows that foreign
fighters have very little to do with the insurgency in Iraq. The
conservative London-based International Institute for Strategic
Studies (IISS) estimates that the number of foreign fighters is
"well below 10 percent, and may be closer to 4 or 6 percent."
American intelligence estimates that 95 percent of the insurgents
The Bush administration has long had its
sights on Iran, which Bush calls "the world's primary state
sponsor of terrorism." These are sentiments recently echoed
in London, where Prime Minister Tony Blair accused Tehran of smuggling
weapons and explosives into Iraq to attack British troops in Basra.
In one of history's great irony-challenged moments, Blair said,
"There is no justification for Iran or any country interfering
The United States has been provocatively
sending unmanned Predator aircraft into Iran, supposedly looking
for nuclear weapons but most likely mapping Iranian radar systems,
information the United States would need before launching an attack.
According to Irish journalist Gordon Thomas, the United States
has already targeted missiles at Iranian power plants at Natanz
Some 4,000 fighters of the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq
(MEK), an armed organization that seeks to overthrow the present
regime in Tehran, have a base north of Baghdad near the Iranian
border. The United States has thrown a protective umbrella over
the MEK's soldiers and equipment, although the State Department
classifies the organization as "terrorist."
Most of the information on Iran's nuclear
weapons programs comes from the MEK, which has an uneven track
record for accuracy. In any case, there is a disturbing parallel
between the role the MEK is playing in developing information
on Iran's weapons of mass destruction and the prewar intelligence
on Baghdad's WMD programs cooked up by Ahmed Chalabi and the group
of Iraqi expatriates gathered around the Pentagon.
A major player in all this is Israel,
where the Likud and its U.S. supporters have long lobbied for
a U.S. attack on Iran and Syria. In a speech last May to the American
Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), Richard Perle, a Likud
adviser and former Bush official, said that the United States
should attack Iran if it is "on the verge of [developing]
a nuclear weapon." Along with David Frum of the Weekly
Standard, Perle co-authored An End to Evil, which calls
for the overthrow of "the terrorist mullahs of Iran."
An Israeli Proxy?
Vice President Dick Cheney has even suggested
that Israel might do the job. According to the Israeli daily Ha'aretz,
the United States recently sold Tel Aviv 500 GBU-27 and 28 "bunker
buster" guided bombs (although Syria would be a more likely
target for such weapons).
The Israeli Right has been spoiling for
a fight with Syria for some time. The Israelis bombed near Damascus
last year, and Cabinet Minister Gideon Ezra threatened to assassinate
Damascus-based Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal. Israeli Prime Minister
Ariel Sharon made a similar threat about Hezbollah leader Hassan
The Sharon government is just as belligerent
about Iran. When he was Israeli chief of staff, Lt. Gen. Moshe
Ya'alon said that he hoped international pressure on Iran would
halt its development of nuclear weapons, adding ominously, "If
that is not the case, we would consider our options."
One Israeli intelligence official told
the Financial Times, "It could be a race who pushes
the button first - us or the Americans."
What that official meant by "the
button" is not clear, but the logical candidate is a nuclear
strike. In 1981, the Israelis used conventional aircraft and weapons
to destroy the Iraqi nuclear power plant at Osirak, but an attack
on Iran's facilities would be another matter.
Following the 1981 attack, the Iranians
hardened and dispersed their nuclear infrastructure. Israel's
newly purchased "bunker busters" might do the job, but
distance is a problem. Iran is a lot further away from Israel
than Iraq, and Israeli aircraft would have difficulties making
a round trip to Iran without midair refueling. Israel has missiles,
however, plus several hundred nuclear weapons, and there are at
least some in Tel Aviv who wouldn't flinch from using them.
Last month, senior Pentagon analyst Lawrence
Franklin admitted passing classified information on Iran to Israel
through two AIPAC employees. Franklin used to work for former
Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith and has close ties to
neocon Michael Ledeen of the American Enterprise Institute, who
says, "Tehran is a city just waiting for us."
If all these names sound familiar, it
is because they are the ones who brought us the war in Iraq.
Prospects for Invasion: Cambodia Redux?
Would the United States (possibly allied
with Britain and Israel) actually attack Iran and/or Syria?
Iran seems a stretch. The country has
three times the population of Iraq, almost four times the land
area, plus lots and lots of mountains you really don't want to
Iran also has considerable international
support, demonstrated several weeks ago when Europeans said they
would not back U.S. efforts to bring Iran before the UN Security
Council for supposed violations of the Nuclear Nonproliferation
While a number of nations are nervous
about Iran's nuclear activities, the country is not seen as a
regional threat. Its military budget is only one-third what it
was in 1980, and, according to Middle East scholar Stephen Zunes,
Iran actually has fewer tanks and planes than it did 20 years
Some of that support is based on the fact
that Iran has the second largest oil and gas reserves on the planet,
reserves that Europe, China, and India simply cannot do without.
The Americans might bomb the hell out
of the place, but an invasion is doubtful, particularly given
the current disarray of the U.S. military. The Army failed to
meet its recruiting goals for 2005, and with the military already
overextended in Iraq, it is not clear if the United States could
even muster an effective invasion force.
One caveat could alter that: the U.S.
doctrines of preemptive war and first-use of nuclear weapons.
Would the White House really push the button? Not out of the question.
According to Secretary of State Condoleezza
Rice, if it does come to war, Congress has no say in the matter.
Asked if she agreed that the president would have to return to
Congress in the case of military action against Syria and/or Iran,
she told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Oct. 19, "The
president retains those powers in the war on terrorism and the
war on Iraq."
Syria is an easier target than Iran. With
the exception of its northern border, the country is a flat plain,
less than half the size of Iraq and with a population of only
16.7 million. It is also reeling from the UN investigation.
This may make Syria look like fruit ripe
for the picking, and an invasion would certainly divert attention
from the chaos in Iraq and Afghanistan. It would also be a logical
extension of the Bush administration's mythology that all our
troubles in the Middle East are caused by foreign Islamic terrorists.
For the outcome of such a strategy, see
the war in Southeast Asia.
Middle East watch