Posted by Joshua on Sunday, November 2nd, 2008
This weekend Israeli Ronen Bergma, intelligence correspondent for Yedioth Ahronoth, Newsweek, and The London Times (Uzi Mahnaimi) are carrying the claim that Syria was complicit with America in the cross border raid. Here is how Uzi Mahnaimi put it (More copied below):
Sources in Washington last week revealed to The Sunday Times an intriguingly different background to the events in Sukariyeh.
According to one source, the special forces operation had taken place with the full cooperation of the Syrian intelligence services. “Immediately after 9/11, Syrian intelligence cooperation was remarkable,” said the Washington source. “Then ties were broken off, but they have resumed recently.”
I find this story unbelievable for several reasons.
First: Why would Syria agree to work with the Bush administration after all the bad blood between them and in its waning days?
Second: Why would Syria give permission for special forces to carry out a cross border raid? They could have helped the US to capture Abu Ghadiya on the Iraqi side of the border? It doesn’t make sense, unless the US was intentionally trying to embarrass Syria.
Third: It is imposible to believe the Syrians would give permission for a cross border raid that was guaranteed to make the regime look weak – even if a family of eight were not killed by accident – but who doesn’t plan for posible accidents on such a risky undertaking?
Forth: In May 2007 at Sharm al-Sheikh, Rice asked to send two US generals to Syria to restart intelligence sharing for better policing on the border. Syria asked that the US send back its ambassador in recognition or the cooperation and Syria’s positive role. Rice said no. Why would Syria now — in the final hour of the Bush administration — say yes? Especially as Bush has been very hostile to Syria in between, helping Israel to bomb it in Sept 2007, trying to get the AEIA to inspect, pushing the UN Hariri investigation forward, trying to get the Lebanese government to shut down Hizbullah and actively trying to stop Israel from re-opening peace negotiations with Israel. Trying to stop Sarkozy from visiting Damascus, etc. The US has been extraordinarilly hostile to Syria. Why would Damascus want to reward it for such hostile behavior? Syria is riding the Bush administration to its end. The frustration and even anger of Washington that Syria is doing quite well despite Washington’s best efforts to squeeze it economically, diplomatically, through international law through various international agencies, and by helping Israel to bomb it is probably closer to the reason for this parting shot. No doubt Bush is also eager to saddle Obama with a new aggressive military doctrine and practice that will be extremely difficult to stop.
Jihad Makdissi, the spokesman- Syrian Embassy London, has this to say in an email to Syria Comment this morning:
This is a nice try by the Timesto justify their raid. Syria, of course, wasn’t coordinating and the proof is the Syrian reaction to the attack: we aired the photos on Syrian TV the next day; we published the full names of the victims; and we also allowed the TV crew from Al-Jazeera to go film and interview people on the spot. I was approached in London by Senior British journalists who told me that this leak originated from so called Israeli experts and unnamed DOD sources. This would seem to clarify the real aim.”
Ahmed Salkini, the spokesperson for the Syrian embassy in Washington confirmed this: He writes:
I agree with Jihad. This is an absurd notion spun by certain circles in Washington to try to justify the attack.
To think that Syria would allow the US to undertake such an operation on its soil, taking into account the political context for the past few years is unreasonable. I would not waste my time if I were you, Josh
Here is more of the London Times story:
Abu Ghadiya was feared by the Syrians as an agent of Islamic fundamentalism who was hostile to the secular regime in Damascus. It would be expedient for Syria if America would eliminate him.
The threat to the Syrian government has made the regime of President Bashar al-Assad jittery. In September a car bomb exploded in Damascus near its intelligence headquarters. Many of the 17 victims were Shi’ite Muslim pilgrims at a nearby shrine.
The Washington source said the Americans regularly communicate with the Syrians through a back channel that runs through Syria’s air force intelligence, the Idarat al-Mukhabarat al-Jawiyya.
In the time-honoured tradition of covert US operations in the Middle East, this one seems to have gone spectacularly wrong. The Syrians, who had agreed to turn a blind eye to a supposedly quiet “snatch and grab” raid, could not keep the lid on a firefight in which so many people had died.
The operation should have been fast and bloodless. According to the sources, Syrian intelligence tipped off the Americans about Abu Ghadiya’s whereabouts. US electronic intelligence then tracked his exact location, possibly by tracing his satellite telephone, and the helicopters were directed to him. They were supposed to kidnap him and take him to Iraq for questioning.
John Bolton on Friday in Daily Star
“linked his country’s phase of transition to instability in Lebanon. In an interview with the Al-Arabiyya satellite news channel, Bolton expressed fears for “stability and democracy in Lebanon” and “the government of Prime Minister [Fouad] Siniora.” These fears were rooted in the role Syria and Hizbullah may jointly play in Lebanon, he said. “This transitional period in the United States and Israel may have been difficult on the Lebanese state,” Bolton told Al-Arabiyya”. – The Daily Star
Syria and `the law of the jungle’
In `serving the interest of all parties,’ `People misuse their authority to do ugly things’
By Olivia Ward, Nov 02, 2008
Canadians Abdullah Almalki, Ahmad El Maati and Muayyed Nureddin are seized in transit and shipped to a Syrian detention centre – the same notorious prison where Canadian engineer Maher Arar was brutalized – interrogated and tortured.
The three, and Arar, then suspected by Ottawa and Washington of plotting terrorism, are later released and returned to Canada – collateral damage of the “war on terror” launched by the United States after 9/11.
Meanwhile, President George W. Bush lashes out against Syria as a “state sponsor of terrorism,” and the American Congress ratchets up sanctions against Damascus. The U.S. warns Israel against peace moves with an enemy it considers an adjunct to the axis of evil.
Last Sunday, the U.S. launches a helicopter attack on a Syrian border village near Iraq, killing eight.
The contradiction glares: How can Syria, a country earmarked as an ally of terrorists – and noted for its violations of human rights – end up as a dumping ground for people Washington wants interrogated to assist in the war on terror?
The release of former justice Frank Iacobucci’s report last month on the “rendition” of the three Canadians has thrown the dilemma once more into the public domain, highlighting the disconnect between Washington’s co-operation with Syria in violations of human rights and its fierce public opposition to the autocratic Damascus regime.
Canada, too, has condemned Syria’s human-rights record, though less stridently. But Ottawa’s criticism of Damascus pales beside that of its closest ally.
A 2003 U.S. State Department report written around the time the Canadians were held in Syria details some of the practices of Syrian intelligence services: beatings, electric shocks, rape, pulling out fingernails, and whipping prisoners bent onto a wheel-like frame. It’s a gamut of torture that tallies with widely available reports by international human-rights organizations.
“The only reason why you would deliver someone to Syria is because your country doesn’t have a record of torturing suspects, and Syria does,” says David Cole, a Georgetown University law professor and co-counsel for Maher Arar in his suit against U.S. officials.
“It’s the law of the jungle,” says Moshe Ma’oz, an emeritus professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem and an expert on Syria. “Strange as it seems, people misuse their authority to do ugly things. They look on it as serving the interest of all parties.”
That was true till 2003, when the U.S. invaded Iraq, to the chagrin of neighbouring Syria, which worried about a domino effect in the region, an American attempt to reconfigure the Middle East, and the possibility that it might be next on the U.S. hit list.
But the period between Sept. 11, 2001 and the March 20, 2003 invasion was a fertile one for Washington-Damascus co-operation, experts say. It was then that many of the “renditions” of terrorism suspects occurred.
“Right after 9/11, there was tremendous intelligence-sharing between Syria and the U.S.,” says Murhaf Jouejati, a Syrian-born professor of Middle East Studies at the National Defense University in Washington. “Syria may have been one of the U.S.’s closest partners in the war against al Qaeda.”
It was a period of strange bedfellows and common interests. The U.S. needed ears in the Middle East. Syria, a moderate Muslim country looked on as an enemy by radical Islamists, needed support in its efforts against al Qaeda.
And with its own Middle Eastern interests to defend – including occupation of Lebanon and backing of the Lebanese militant faction Hezbollah – it had much to gain by joining the U.S-led “war.”
“It was a matter of preserving its own interests by fighting fundamentalism, and at the same time trying to show the U.S. the distinctions it makes between al Qaedaas an international terrorist organization and others which are fighting Israel – like Hezbollah and Hamas – and which Syria considers national liberation movements,” Jouejati says.
Washington turned a blind eye to those distinctions. But it, too, benefited from the Syrian intelligence partnership: among other things, getting early warning of a pending al Qaedaattack on the headquarters of its Bahrain-based fifth fleet, and information that helped to bust the Hamburg terror cell that was the base for the 9/11 attacks. The FBI was also given approval to open a station in Aleppo, where mastermind Mohammed Atta once lived.
It was at that time when Syria opened its arms – and torture cells – to suspects delivered by Washington’s “rendition” program for interrogation – a program so secret that no dates, numbers of suspects or results are known.
But the cozy relationship chilled with the 2003 Iraq invasion.
“When America attacked Iraq, the Syrians were very displeased,” says Joshua Landis, an authority on Syria.
“They started supporting the opposition. But they were relieved to see that the opposition was quite healthy inside Iraq, and that America would be bogged down there. That allowed them to move back toward America, and they tried to resume intelligence-sharing.”
The turnabout suited Washington’s beleaguered security services, which badly needed information on the ground. But the Bush administration gave a cold shoulder to Syrian overtures.
“It was very different from the days of George Bush senior and (President) Bashar Assad’s father, Hafez,” says Landis. “In the first Gulf War, they came to a happy understanding. They divided up the Middle East, with Hafezagreeing to support the effort to liberate Kuwait from Saddam Hussein and saying, `You can have the Gulf if we get Lebanon.’ So a deal was struck.”
The deal included American tolerance for Syria’s occupation of Lebanon, where it supports the Shiite Islamist faction Hezbollah, a sworn enemy of Israel. As a result, Washington avoided using the “o” word, and spoke of a Syrian “presence” in Lebanon. It regarded the country as Damascus’s sphere of influence.
Syrian-American co-operation survived Hafez Assad’s death in 2000, and the ascendancy of his son. “In his father’s time, Syria sent troops to the first Gulf War coalition and participants to the Madrid conference,” says David Lesch, a professor of Middle East history at Trinity University in Texas, and author of a Bashar Assad biography, The New Lion of Damascus. At the 1991 conference, Israel was in face-to-face talks with Syria for the first time.
But although the younger Assad signed up for the “war on terror,” he would not follow his father’s example by joining a new war against Iraq. And when insurgents began to infiltrate the Iraqi border from Syria, relations with Washington skidded to their lowest point.
“By 2005 and 2006, relations had deteriorated so much that the Bush administration was trying to isolate, if not overthrow, the Syrian regime,” says Lesch.
The 2005 assassination of pro-Western former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri brought new accusations against Syria. And the 2006 war between Syrian-backed Hezbollah and Israel in Lebanon boosted tensions – while Damascus saw the result as victory for Hezbollah.
The kind of co-operation that had oiled the wheels of Washington’s rendition program was long gone. But in the dying days of the Bush administration, there have been tentative attempts to revive the diplomatic relationship – in spite of last week’s helicopter raid.
“There was some communication at the UN General Assembly meeting between (Secretary of State) Condoleezza Rice and the Syrian foreign minister,” says Lesch.
With other Western countries interested in normalizing relations with Syria – including France, whose President Nicolas Sarkozy travelled to Syria – “Bashar Assad has successfully broken out of his isolation,” Lesch says.
Turkish-mediated, indirect talks with Israel have also begun, without the encouragement of the U.S. But, Lesch adds, with a new American president in office next year, there is a potential for Syria to once again play “a more central role” in the international community.
Whether the new chapter in American politics will lead to a rethink of the war on terror – and its widely publicized violations of human rights – is still to be decided.
As is the role that Syria might play in it.