For any deluded mind still harbouring doubts that America’s policy in the Middle East is hostage to Israeli interests, the twists and turns in US-Syrian relations since the attacks on the WTC and the Pentagon present food for thought. The attacks have provided an opportunity to improve the cool relations between Syria and the US, but prospects for a complete thaw remain distant. The improvement in Damascus’s relations with Washington stemmed mainly from assistance lent by Syria to the US-led ‘war on terrorism.’ Yet Syria’s continued support for anti-Israeli resistance groups, such as Lebanon’s Hizbullah, as well as Palestinian groups like Hamas, the Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, seems to have sealed Syria’s destiny: to remain a charter member of the US state department’s list of “states sponsoring terrorism”.
Shortly after the attacks, President Bashar al-Asad sent a letter to his American counterpart, condemning the attacks and pledging support. But Syria’s cooperation in Washington’s ‘war on terrorism’ was not restricted to lip service. Its rhetoric has been followed up by concrete measures. Syrian authorities have cooperated fully in investigating al-Qa’ida and its associates. Syria’s foreign ministry moved to investigate all Syrian banks, which are state-run, for the existence of any bank accounts belonging to persons and organizations which Washington believes maintain links with al-Qa’ida.
Intelligence-sharing is the main part of Syria’s cooperation with Washington. Senior officials of the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) have reportedly held secret discussions with their Syrian counterparts. Among other things, the discussions are believed to have focused on Ma’mun Darkazali, a fugitive Syrian businessman who is believed to have served as a key financial conduit between the al-Qa’ida Hamburg cell and the network’s leadership. Information on Islamic activists suspected of being associated with al-Qa’ida, passed by Syria on to the CIA, is believed to have helped security agencies in Europe and the US identify, and sometimes arrest, many such suspects.
Despite denials by the Syrians, many press stories confirm that Syria has also allowed an agent of the FBI to visit Aleppo and question individuals who knew Muhammad ‘Atta during the two visits he made there in 1994 to do research for his masters’ dissertation.
On November 23, 2001, a statement issued by the Syrian Human Rights Organization reported the arrest of four Syrian nationals and an unspecified number of foreigners with alleged links to al-Qa’ida in the town of Deir al-Zor. Even when the Syrian authorities avoided arresting suspects, it is believed that they did so in order to monitor their movements and conversations, and share the resulting information with the US.
In June, it was revealed that Muhammad Haydar Zammar, a Syrian-born German citizen, a key figure in the September 11 plot, had been detained in Morocco and transferred to Syria for interrogation, with American knowledge. Although American security officials have not been granted direct access to Zammar, they have submitted questions to him through his Syrian interrogators.
In an interview with San Jose Mercury News, president Bashar Asad revealed that in the preceding three months, Syria provided the US with intelligence on an al-Qa’ida operation that, if successful, would have resulted in the deaths of “many American soldiers” (June 19, 2002). The operation was supposed to have taken place in Afghanistan. Syrian foreign minister Farouq al-Shara’a described Syria’s tipping the CIA on the al-Qa’ida foiled plot in Afghanistan as “a matter of principle.”
Beside intelligence-sharing, Asad has sent Washington other signals of his readiness to improve relations with the US. This was the message the Syrian president conveyed in January during talks with two congressional delegations and a string of American officials visiting Damascus. In May Asad dispatched a high-ranking delegation of Syrian officials, businessmen, academics and intellectuals, headed by Syria’s deputy foreign minister Walid al-Mu’allem, to hold discussions with a group of American business leaders, intellectuals, diplomats and officials, at Rice University in Houston, Texas.
Syria’s wary assistance to the ‘war on terrorism’ characterises the nature of US-Syrian relations, which tend to zigzag between cooperation tinged with circumspection and hostile tensions. But Syria’s cooperation in the fight against al-Qa’ida is rooted in large part in its view of violence ‘from below’ that makes a distinction between legitimate acts of resistance and terrorism. For decades Syria has been calling for a UN conference to combat terrorism in all its forms, basing its position on Article 51 of the UN Charter, which grants all peoples the right to struggle for independence with “all necessary means.” That position draws a clear distinction between terrorism and legitimate resistance. Accordingly, Damascus considers al-Qa’ida a terrorist group that poses a potential threat to the survival of its regime. Yet it views anti-Israeli groups as legitimate resistance groups fighting to liberate occupied Arab lands. Seven of the twenty-eight groups classified as ‘terrorist’ in the state department’s Patterns of Global Terrorism 2000 receive some level of sponsorship and support from Syria. In addition, a number of individuals classified by the US as ‘Specially Designated Terrorists,’ including senior Hamas official Mousa Abu Marzook and Dr Ramadan ‘Abdallah Shallah, the leader of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, live in Damascus. Syria has resisted all American demands to cut ties with anti-Israeli groups.
Syria’s cooperation has so far been met with mixed reactions from Washington. A recent state department report highlights the fact that Syria has not been implicated directly in any acts the US labels as ‘terrorist’ since 1986. Yet the report also expresses concern that Damascus continues to support organizations on America’s growing list of ‘terrorist’ groups.
A number of US officials, including secretary of state Colin Powell, have credited Syria with preventing attacks on American forces in the Persian Gulf. Earlier this year, the state department revised the list of seven ‘state sponsors of terrorism,’ putting Iran, part of Bush’s “axis of evil”, at the top. Syria and Sudan, though still on the list, were both praised for taking steps to break their ties with ‘terrorism.’ The other members on the list are Iraq, Libya, Cuba and North Korea. Moreover, despite its reservations, the US did not contest Syria’s election as a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council.
Citing Syrian cooperation in the war on al-Qa’ida, the US government has opposed a congressional bill designed to impose further punitive sanctions on Syria. In a testimony he delivered in September at a hearing on the Syria Accountability Act David Satterfield, deputy assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, said: “The president has taken note of Syria’s cooperation in our struggle against al-Qa’ida. Syria’s cooperation in this regard has been substantial and has saved American lives.”
Yet, at the same time, Washington has scorned Syria’s cooperation in the US-led campaign against al-Qa’ida, and at times even sent implicit and explicit threats to Damascus. For instance, on the day of Syria’s election to the Security Council, John D Negroponte, US ambassador to the UN, wrote a letter to the Council, warning: “We may find that our self-defence requires further actions with respect to other organizations and other states.” Negroponte’s warning echoed Bush’s statement on September 20, 2001, that “our war on terror begins with al-Qa’ida, but it does not end there.”
Other signals to Syria were more direct and blunt. Deputy secretary of state Richard Armitage said on October 11, 2001, that while Syria shared “a great deal of” information with the US, its cooperation did not amount to membership in the anti-terrorism coalition. Armitage urged Syria to meet American demands for stopping its support to anti-Israeli groups.
Similarly, Senator Bob Graham, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee and one of the leaders of the congressional inquiry into the September 11 attacks, said that the US should consider air strikes if pressure on Syria to shut down what he described as “terrorist camps” does not work.
There are also other causes of friction between Damascus and Washington. The Iraqi question is one such source. Syria has been adamant in its opposition to a US-led military strike against Iraq. Washington’s increasingly shrill sabre-rattling against Baghdad did not dent the process of rapprochement between Syria and Iraq. In late June Ghassan al-Rifa’i, Syrian minister of economy and foreign trade, signed an agreement with Iraq to establish seven companies under joint control in such fields as land and sea transport and oil. On July 11, Iraqi deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz met Shara’a in Damascus. It was their second meeting in the Syrian capital since the beginning of the year, and came just four months after Asad had conferred with Iraq’s vice president ‘Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri.
US officials accuse Syria of evading UN sanctions against Iraq by the illicit importation of oil outside the ‘oil-for-food’ programme. In a letter to Bush dated July 27, 2002, congressman Robert Wexler and 14 co-signing congressmen accused Syria of “military, political and economic cooperation with Iraq.” The senators charged that Syria is involved in transporting conventional arms, including tank engines, armoured military trucks, jet engines, spare parts for military aircraft, air defence equipment, guidance systems and surface-to-surface and surface-to-air missiles, to Iraq.
Washington has also been raising Syria’s suspected acquisition of weapons of mass destruction. In a speech on May 6, undersecretary of state for arms control and international security James Bolton listed Syria, Libya and Cuba as “rogue states,” second only to states listed by Bush as part of an ‘axis of evil,’ “intent on acquiring weapons of mass destruction, particularly biological weapons.” He expressed US concerns over “Syrian advances in indigenous CW [chemical weapons] infrastructure,” and accused Syria of “pursuing development of biological weapons” and of having the ability “to produce at least small amounts of biological warfare agents.” Bolton said that Syria has stockpiled sarin gas and is engaged in the research to develop VX, a more toxic nerve agent. Bolton noted that Syrian missiles are within striking distance of three US allies: Israel, Jordan and Turkey.
The contradictory signals Washington has been sending to Damascus have irritated Syrian officials, who have expressed Syria’s frustration with America’s cocktail of hot and cold messages. ‘Adnan ‘Umran, Syria’s minister of information, expressed this frustration when he told the Christian Science Monitor: “What is really strange now in the American administration is that we hear many voices coming from different corners and a lot of contradictions. I wonder if this is a healthy sign especially when it comes to the policy of a superpower.”
But the Zionist focus of America’s ingratitude towards Syria was not lost on ‘Umran, who decried Washington’s “blindly prejudiced position and alliance with Israel” (May 14, 2002). So, as long as Syria remains supportive of anti-Israeli resistance groups, Syria will remain a potential target in America’s ‘war on terrorism,’ its cooperation against al-Qa’ida notwithstanding.