Editor’s note: In the wake of last week’s Israeli air strike near Damascus and a US House of Representatives committee vote for the Syrian Accountability Act, this is the first of two articles from Washington exploring the recent legacy of neoconservative efforts in Washington and Israel since the mid-1990s that recommend targeting Syria, among others, in the “war against terror.” Today’s article explores the institutions and individuals behind a 1996 report written for then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, titled A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm. Tomorrow’s article explores a 2000 document titled Ending Syria’s Occupation of Lebanon: The US Role?
WASHINGTON: The dramatic intensification of tensions between the right-wing government of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the administration of US President George W. Bush against Syria demonstrate that, despite their recent setbacks in Iraq, pro-Likud neoconservatives in Washington retain the upper hand in the ongoing power struggle over control of US Mideast policy.
Indeed, Washington’s one-two punch last week against President Bashar Assad first, Bush’s endorsement of Israel’s first attack on Syrian territory in 30 years as “self-defense,” and then the approval by the International Relations Committee of the House of Representatives of a long-pending bill to impose diplomatic and economic sanctions against Damascus was precisely what prominent neocon groups have sought since the mid-1990s.
Nor could anyone miss the fact that both steps were justified by many of the same charges that Syria supports terrorism, is developing weapons of mass destruction (WMD), and represses its own people used by the neocons in the run-up to Washington’s war against Iraq, a pattern that, according to some analysts, is designed to prepare military action against Damascus, too.
While most observers agree that war against Syria in the short term is highly unlikely particularly given the fears of Bush’s political handlers that a major new military engagement in the Middle East would only deepen the spectacular plunge since last May in the president’s approval ratings last week’s actions at the very least serve to distract media attention, if only for a little while, from Iraq, and move Washington closer to confrontation with a state that Israel has long considered its most steadfast regional foe.
That Syria has been a prime neocon target has been true for many years, but their rise to dominance over US foreign policy in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks has meant that they are in a position to translate their dreams into policy. Such was clearly the case with Iraq, and now, with Saddam Hussein out and over 120,000 US troops deployed there, they have made little secret of their vision of Syria and Iran as the next dominos in their quest to shift the regional power balance in favor of Israel and the US.
Even before Baghdad fell in April, neocons in and outside the administration suggested the US might take the war to Damascus, which they charged was sheltering senior Iraqi leaders and Iraqi WMD and permitting the infiltration of Iraq by “jihadis” determined to kill US troops.
“There’s got to be a change in Syria,” Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said in April, adding that the Assad government was a “strange regime, one of extreme ruthlessness.”
At the same time, another prominent neocon, former CIA Director James Woolsey, was quoted on television as saying that the “war on terror” should be seen as “World War IV” and must include as targets “fascists of Iraq and Syria.”
The targeting of Syria has been made increasingly explicit since 1996 in a series of writings by neocon and or neocon-dominated groups.
The first, A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm, amounted to a set of recommendations to incoming Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by seven “participants” in a “study group on a new Israeli strategy toward 2000” sponsored by a Jerusalem-based think tank called the Institute for Advanced Strategic and Political Studies, closely linked to the Likud Party. The task force was chaired by Perle, who is based at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) and included other notable neo-cons, including Douglas Feith, currently the Undersecretary of Defense for Policy who was in charge of post-war planning (and pre-war intelligence analysis) for Iraq; David Wurmser, who worked previously with Perle at AEI and now holds down a Middle East policy division under Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security John Bolton; and his Israeli-born spouse, Meyrav Wurmser, who heads Middle East studies at the Hudson Institute, another neocon think tank.
The main thrust of the six-page report, which is credited to Perle as the principal author but which was drafted by David Wurmser, is that Netanyahu should adopt a strategy designed to oust Saddam Hussein in partnership with the US, Jordan and Turkey, and return the Hashemite monarchy to Baghdad as part of a comprehensive effort to transform the balance of power in the region in such a way as not only to destroy the Oslo peace process and “secure the realm” (presumably including the West Bank and the Golan Heights), but to permanently replace the land-for-peace formula backed by Washington since 1967 with a “peace for peace” formula based on “the unconditional acceptance by Arabs of our rights, especially in their territorial dimension.”
Part of the strategy, according to the report, is described as “securing the northern border” where Israel should “seize the strategic initiative” by engaging Hizbullah, Syria and Iran as the principal agents of aggression in Lebanon, including by striking against “Syria’s drug-money and counterfeiting infrastructure” there, sponsoring attacks on Syrian territory by “Israeli proxy forces” based in Lebanon and “striking Syrian military targets in Lebanon, and should that prove insufficient, striking at select targets in Syria proper.
“Israel can shape its strategic environment, in cooperation with Turkey and Jordan, by weakening, containing, even rolling back Syria,” the report states, with the possibility of creating a “natural axis” between Israel, Jordan, a Hashemite Iraq, and Turkey that “would squeeze and detach Syria from the Saudi Peninsula. For Syria, this could be the prelude to a redrawing of the map of the Middle East which could threaten Syria’s territorial integrity.”
“Most important,” the task force writes, “it is understandable that Israel has an interest in supporting diplomatically, militarily and operationally Turkey’s and Jordan’s actions against Syria, such as securing tribal alliances with Arab tribes that cross into Syrian territory and are hostile to the Syrian ruling elites” a particularly ironic notion in light of current US charges that Damascus is not adequately patrolling its borders with Iraq.