Here is the first of several items about the growing geopolitical drama concerning Syria, Iraq’s neighbor to the west. Syria, of course, is on the PNAC’s list of nations whose leaders should be made to change their ways, or suffer the consequences. This goes back at least to their Letter To President Bush On The War On Terrorism, sent 9 days after the September 11th attacks. That letter is a five-item list of requests vis-a-vie the then-brand-new War on Terror(ism). Iraq is of course on that list, and, via the item “Hezbollah”, so is Syria. Here’s an excerpt:
We believe the administration should demand that Iran and Syria immediately cease all military, financial, and political support for Hezbollah and its operations. Should Iran and Syria refuse to comply, the administration should consider appropriate measures of retaliation against these known state sponsors of terrorism.
In December 2004 PNAC Chairman William Kristol, in his capacity as Editor of the Weekly Standard, wrote the following, in an article titled Getting Serious About Syria:
By Bush Doctrine standards, Syria is a hostile regime. It is permitting and encouraging activities that are killing not just our Iraqi friends but also, and quite directly, American troops. So we have a real Syria problem.
What to do? We have tried sweet talk (on Secretary Powell’s trip to Damascus in May 2003) and tough talk (on the visit three months ago by Assistant Secretary of Defense Peter Rodman and Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt). Talk has failed. Syria is a weak country with a weak regime. We now need to take action to punish and deter Assad’s regime.
It would be good, of course, if Secretary Rumsfeld had increased the size and strength of our army so that we now had more options. He didn’t, and we must use the assets we have. Still, real options exist. We could bomb Syrian military facilities; we could go across the border in force to stop infiltration; we could occupy the town of Abu Kamal in eastern Syria, a few miles from the border, which seems to be the planning and organizing center for Syrian activities in Iraq; we could covertly help or overtly support the Syrian opposition (pro-human rights demonstrators recently tried to take to the streets of Damascus to protest the regime’s abuses). This hardly exhausts all the possible forms of pressure and coercion. But it’s time to get serious about dealing with Syria as part of winning in Iraq, and in the broader Middle East.
I could find a lot more quotes, but suffice it to say, the neoconservatives in the PNAC have been agitating for action against Syria for some time. And now, their wishes may be coming true.
Officials: Syria Could Be Site of Next Struggle
By JAMES RISEN & DAVID E. SANGER
The New York Times
(Link to original story)
WASHINGTON — A series of clashes in the last year between U.S. and Syrian troops, including a prolonged firefight this summer that killed several Syrians, has raised the prospect that cross-border military operations may become a dangerous new front in the Iraq war, according to current and former military and government officials.
The firefight, between Army Rangers and Syrian troops along the border with Iraq, was the most serious of the conflicts with President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, according to U.S. and Syrian officials.
It illustrated the dangers facing U.S. troops as Washington tries to apply more political and military pressure on a country that President Bush last week labeled one of the “allies of convenience” with Islamic extremists.
One of Bush’s most senior aides, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the subject, said that so far U.S. military forces in Iraq had moved right up to the border to cut off the entry of insurgents, but he insisted that they had refrained from going over it.
But other officials, who say they got their information in the field or by talking to Special Operations commanders, say that as U.S. efforts to cut off the flow of fighters have intensified, those operations have spilled over the border — sometimes by accident, sometimes by design.
Some current and former officials add that the U.S. military is considering plans to conduct special operations inside Syria, using small covert teams for cross-border intelligence gathering.
The broadening military effort along the Iraqi-Syrian border has intensified as the Iraqi constitutional referendum scheduled for Saturday approaches, and as frustration mounts in the Bush administration and among senior U.S. commanders over their inability to prevent foreign radical Islamists from engaging in suicide bombings and other deadly terrorist acts inside Iraq.
Increasingly, officials say, Syria is to the Iraq war what Cambodia was during the Vietnam War: a sanctuary for fighters, money and supplies to flow over the border and, ultimately, a place for a shadow struggle.
Covert military operations are among the most closely held of secrets, and planning for them is extremely sensitive politically as well, so none of those who discussed the subject would allow themselves to be identified. They included military officers, civilian officials and people who are otherwise actively involved in military operations or have close ties to Special Operations forces.
In the summer firefight, several Syrian troops were killed, leading to a protest from the Syrian government to the U.S. Embassy in Damascus, according to U.S. and Syrian officials.
A military official who spoke with some of the Rangers who took part in the incident said they had described it as an intense firefight, although it could not be learned whether there had been any U.S. casualties. Nor could the exact location of the clash, along the porous and poorly marked border, be learned.
In a meeting at the White House on Oct. 1, senior aides to Bush considered a variety of options for further actions against Syria, apparently including special operations along with other methods for putting pressure on al-Assad in coming weeks.
U.S. officials say Bush has not yet signed off on a specific strategy and has no current plan to try to oust al-Assad, in part for fear of who might take over. The United States is not planning large-scale military operations inside Syria and the president has not authorized any covert action programs to topple the al-Assad government, several officials said.
“There is no finding on Syria,” said one senior official, using the term for presidential approval of a covert action program.
“We’ve got our hands full in the neighborhood,” added a senior official involved in the discussion.
Some other current and former officials suggest that there already have been initial intelligence gathering operations by small clandestine Special Operations units inside Syria. Several senior administration officials said such special operations had not yet been conducted, although they did not dispute the notion that they were under consideration.
Whether they have already occurred or are still being planned, the goal of such operations is limited to targeting insurgents passing through Syria and do not appear to amount to an organized effort to punish or topple the Syrian government.
What the administration calls Syria’s acquiescence in insurgent operations organized and mounted from its territory is a major factor driving the White House as it conducts what seems to be a major reassessment of its Syria policy.
With no clear or acceptable alternative to al-Assad’s government on the horizon, the administration now seems to be awaiting the outcome of an international investigation of the Hariri assassination, which may lead to charges against senior Syrian officials.
Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, issued one of the administration’s most explicit public challenges to Damascus recently when he said that “our patience is running out with Syria.”
“Syria has to decide what price it’s willing to pay in making Iraq success difficult,” he said on Sept. 12. “And time is running out for Damascus to decide on this issue.”
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