Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Despite a temporary cease-fire between Israel and Hezbollah, Syria remains key to any settlement in what has become one big mess in the Middle East.

The U.S. looks upon Syria as a supporter of terrorism. That’s true, from Hamas, Hezbollah, al Qaeda to the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine General Command. Without Syria, Hezbollah cannot receive arms, missiles and other resources from Iran to wage war against Israel.

While we undertook regime change in Iraq by invading it, the U.S. cannot take similar action in every country it dislikes. However, there is good reason to believe recent U.S. policy toward Syria actually has driven it closer to Iran and Hezbollah.

This was no more apparent than just prior to U.S. action in Iraq in March 2003. Months prior to that , the Syrians sought to open a back channel with policymakers in the defense secretary’s office. The request came through my office.

In exchange, the Syrians requested U.S. assistance in economic infrastructure development. The Syrians even offered to stage U.S. troops to go into Iraq to look for weapons of mass destruction (WMD) as an unconditional basis to avoid a U.S. attack. Those offers were turned down.

By offering a back channel, the Syrians suggested there was information that would be shared with the United States that it would not provide publicly. Indeed, the Syrians were asked whether Iraqi WMD had been sent to Syria prior to U.S. action.

The response, from no less than one of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s top advisers, was that publicly Syria would deny their existence in Syria. However, if the back channel were created, “There would be a lot we could talk about.”

Sources with direct access to the Syrians say elements among them seek reform and are pro-American. The offer of a back channel suggested such a prospect.

However, the Bush administration never followed up on the offer. Instead, then Secretary of State Colin Powell in May 2003 visited Syria and publicly confronted and admonished Mr. Assad. Mr. Powell accused Syria of harboring Saddam Hussein’s escaped leadership and Iraq’s WMD.

The admonition received a Syrian response similar to what the U.S. received after publicly raking the Chinese over the political coals. The Chinese would refuse further discussion on topics of substance. Eventually, the U.S. sought quiet policy-level diplomacy with the Chinese, which produced some positive results.

The Syrian response to the Powell confrontation was predictable. Syria turned to Iran to improve its already good relations.

I’m not an apologist for Syria. In fact, an Aug. 31, 2004, Boston Globe article quoted two anonymous congressional committee sources as saying I was being investigated for trying to overthrow the Syrian government for my prewar efforts.

Unfortunately, U.S. policymakers in the days leading up to U.S. action in Iraq and afterward left to the Central Intelligence Agency any initiatives to Syria. The CIA jealously coveted its own exclusive back channel to Syria. So the CIA made every effort to scuttle the Syrian opening of a back channel to U.S. policymakers.

This became apparent when the CIA rejected a Syrian initiative months prior to U.S. action in Iraq to present Saddam Hussein’s unconditional terms. Once rejected, the CIA then subverted an eleventh-hour Syrian initiative to present the same terms to U.S. policymakers through my office.

The CIA was so upset with this attempt that it even accused a number of us in the office of the undersecretary of defense for policy of attempting to run a “rogue” operation to bypass the agency. That wasn’t true, since the CIA was informed of all steps. Informing the CIA, however, helped CIA elements more interested in damaging the Bush administration to scuttle that attempt.

Syrians interested in working closer with the U.S. saw for themselves the CIA’s scuttling efforts. In turn, the Syrians decided to close its own channel with CIA.

In October 2003, then-CIA Director George Tenet went to Syria to try to patch up the CIA-Syrian channel. This did not succeed.

In November 2003 Congress passed the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act of 2003, effectively imposing U.S. sanctions on Syria. On May 11, 2004, President Bush signed an Executive Order carrying out provisions of the sanctions. The whole idea was to get the Syrians out of Lebanon. It finally happened after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri on Feb. 14, 2005, in which the United States accused Syria of involvement. A U.N. investigation continues.

But that is where U.S. policy toward Lebanon ended. It failed to bolster the fledgling Lebanese government or back the Christian Lebanese who were always the Bush administration’s most ardent supporters. In part, U.S. inaction was due to the continued presence of Lebanon’s Syrian-backed Christian President Emile Lahoud.

Because the U.S. fixated on driving the Syrians from Lebanon, Iran quickly filled the power vacuum through its Hezbollah proxy. When you look at it, the net effect of U.S. policy from Iraq to Lebanon has been to enhance Iran’s Shi’ite role.

Nevertheless, the Syrians again have offered to help find a diplomatic solution. Perhaps we could inject some creative diplomacy. Call the Syrians on their offer. See if they will first wean themselves from supporting terrorists and Iran, and stop acting as a conduit of logistical support to Hezbollah and stay out of Lebanon.

If they can do all this, we offer the Syrians the badly needed economic infrastructure aid they sought from the U.S. in early 2003. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. This might just prevent a larger explosion in the Middle East.

F. Michael Maloof is a former senior security policy analyst in the Office of the Defense Secretary.

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