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Syria, the next target?

Paul Rogers
16 December 2004

Washington hawks, undeterred by problems in Iraq, are intensifying their hardline attitudes towards Iran, North Korea, and Syria.

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The reporting of the Iraq insurgency in the western media fell away almost to nothing with the end of the United States assault on Fallujah in November 2004 , only to be revived for a brief moment on 13 December when the first anniversary of Saddam Hussein's capture fell due. The withdrawal of embedded reporters, combined with the difficulties faced by western correspondents outside protected zones, make independent reporting now very rare.

Despite this, the interplay of three factors makes the reality of the situation in Iraq apparent. The first is the availability of reports from Iraqi journalists - some working for international press agencies such as Agence France Presse and Reuters, others feeding through to regional outlets such as al-Jazeera. These reports now include graphic accounts of the experience of civilians in Fallujah that suggest high levels of casualties across the city.

The second factor is the continuing high rate of US casualties. Forty American troops were killed in the first two weeks of December; even more remarkable, 152 soldiers and marines were seriously wounded in the first week.

The third factor is the accumulating evidence of continuing violence, both from the insurgents and coalition forces. The persistent recent attacks on US forces and (especially) Iraqi security forces have included multiple attacks on police and army units, and car bombings right up towards the perimeter of Baghdad’s “green zone”. The city is currently experiencing the worst fuel shortages for many months, with black market petrol costing up to fifty times the normal price. The authorities say this is due to insurgent actions against oil facilities, but electricity shortages are responsible too.

Elsewhere, the situation is equally dire. Iraq's third largest city, Mosul, is effectively without a police force as a result of repeated attacks and intimidation by insurgents. United States responses to the overall insurgency have included air strikes on several urban clusters, including bombing raids on targets in Fallujah. The original assault on the city that began on 8 November involved around 15,000 troops, almost all American, with the aim of expelling insurgents and enforcing control by provisional government forces aided (if necessary) by US forces. The reality, over five weeks later, is that fighting continues in the city; Fallujah is not "under control", and one consequence is that over 200,000 of its residents are still refugees surviving elsewhere.

The failure to subdue the city means that US forces have to be maintained there in much larger numbers than expected, meaning that fewer are available for counter-insurgency operations elsewhere. This helps explain the decision to boost the US military presence by an additional 12,500 (see last week’s column in this series, “Losing control”), but this in turn is being affected by other countries’ moves. The Polish government is reducing its troop levels from 2,400 to 1,700; Hungary plans to withdraw its force of 300; Ukraine may do likewise with its force of 1,800 troops. These numbers are not large, but they are symbolic of wider concerns, and help to explain the recent efforts by Colin Powell to convince Nato states to increase their commitment to Iraq.

The interplay of these three factors serves as a reminder that, six weeks after the re-election of George W Bush, the situation in Iraq is deeply problematic. This raises a key question: will the result be a changed United States policy towards Iraq in particular and the region in general? The first few months of a new presidential term are often a honeymoon period when major policy shifts can be undertaken with relative ease. Is there any possibility of this, or does the dominance of the neo-conservative security community in Washington mean that a hardening of attitudes is more likely?

The next Iraq

The short answer is that, amidst what amounts to indifference to the crisis in Iraq, the American administration is becoming more hardline in almost every respect. Three countries are at the centre of this trend – Iran, North Korea and, most recently, Syria. Of these, Syria is the clearest indicator of longer-term neo-conservative intentions.

Towards Iran and its alleged nuclear ambitions, there are two distinct indicators of United States intransigence. The first is a near-total unwillingness to embrace Europe’s diplomatic approach. French, German and British negotiators believe they have made substantial progress with Tehran in agreeing a curb on Iran's nuclear plans, but readily concede that this is a temporary measure whose success depends on it being extended to other areas like human rights.

These diplomats also believe that any further progress with Iran needs a US commitment to follow the European approach. European states, separately or together, do not have carry sufficient weight to broker further agreements with Iran, and their capacity to resolve problems is handicapped by deep and persistent opposition to their policies in Washington.

The second indicator of US intransigence over Iran is its determination to force from office the director of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Mohamed ElBaradei. Many neocons would like to see him leave immediately, because he was considered to be too independent in relation to Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and is now equally untrustworthy on Iran.

There is virtually no support for such action among other IAEA members. Thus, the next-best option for Washington would be for ElBaradei to leave at the end of his second term of office in 2005. (IAEA directors routinely serve two terms, but this is not a fixed rule and ElBaradei would be widely supported if he wished to continue).

A second neocon target is North Korea. They regard the first Bush administration (as well as its Clinton successor) as having been far too soft, especially in relation to South Korean "appeasers". The main current aim is to enforce a much tougher policy in advance of more stages in the six-party talks involving China, South Korea, the United States, Japan, Russia and North Korea itself (see Jim Lobe "Hawks push regime change in N Korea", Asia Times, 24 November 2004).

The neo-conservative Project for the New American Century (PNAC) has just issued one of its rare policy statements demanding a tougher line on North Korea. Nicholas Eberstadt has expanded on this in a key article in the neocon Weekly Standard ("Tear Down This Tyranny", 29 November 2004).

In the context of the Bush administration these are likely to be centrist views. PNAC’s signatories include several Bush administration personnel - Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Dick Cheney and his influential chief of staff, Lewis Libby. Eberstadt's opinions, meanwhile, may mirror those of the state department’s John Bolton.

In addition to his weekly openDemocracy column, Paul Rogers writes an international security monthly briefing for the Oxford Research Group; for details, click here

Both Iran and North Korea, then, are likely to be on the receiving end of a singularly tough approach by the re-elected Bush administration. But serious as they are, it is Syria that presents the most significant immediate policy challenge for the United States. The US view of Syria as a rogue state its own right is now supplemented by its alleged role as a conduit for paramilitaries moving into Iraq. The targeting of Syria thus serves a threefold purpose – punishment for its role in America’s Iraq predicament, aid to Israel's more open confrontation with Damascus, and emphasis on Iran’s involvement in parts of Lebanon nominally under Syrian control.

An indication of how far the neocon faction in Washington would like to go is provided by William Kristol's article in the current issue of the Weekly Standard ("Getting Serious About Syria", 20 December 2004). In concentrating on Syria's alleged role in Iraq, he comments on some of the available options: "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…". There is more, but Kristol’s overall point is that "it's time to get serious about dealing with Syria as part of winning in Iraq, and in the broader Middle East."

Washington, then, is adamant about maintaining its stance on Iran, in clear opposition to Europe’s approach; its neo-conservative commentators want a much tougher line on North Korea; and a view is developing that Syria is increasingly integral to the Iraq imbroglio. For the moment, there is little chance of any fundamental rethink. With George W Bush back in office, the likelihood over the next period is a greater reliance on military options, including pre-empting potential threats. Syria could well be the first example.

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