A CHRISTMAS SPECIAL: AN ISSUE OF SYRIACOMMENT.COM FOR OUR READERS
With the permission of Professor Joshua Landis, we have a lovely Christmas present to offer: an entire issue of Syriacomment.com for our readers. The issue itself is one in which I think you will find most enjoyable and informative. And, much of what is discussed, especially about Saudi policy vis-`a-vis, both the USA, Iraq, and Syria, have been extensively discussed by ourselves in the recent past. However, not from so informed and high-level sources! What more could the intelligent individual ask for, in the way of a Christmas gift for this most joyous of all days. So, read and enjoy!
Could the US be Planning Covert Action in Lebanon and beyond?
Posted: 22 Dec 2006 12:11 PM CST
Could the US be Planning Covert Action in Lebanon and beyond? Some fanciful speculation. Read the leaked story from Swoop copied below. In effect it suggests that Elliot Abrams and associates at the NSC have been working with Bandar bin Sultan on a covert action operation involving support to paramilitary rivals of Hizballah in Lebanon, with Israeli foreknowledge and approval. The core of the story is in line with recent speculations I have been engaged in with some Middle East insiders. The speculation goes something like this: The NSC diehards and Bandar (with Israeli coordination) have been working on a covert action program, the purpose of which is to strike back at Iran through surrogates, with the arrangements made in such a way as to obviate the need for a Presidential Covert Action Finding, which in today's Washington could not be kept secret. The Saudis would play the role of paymasters and prospective unindicted co-conspirators in case the operation is exposed (which seems to be the likely outcome). The leaking of the Syria MEPI money story to Time Magazine and this story to Swoop suggest some Washington insiders are worried that Cheney and the NSC are up to a hairball scheme which would only sink the US into further Middle East troubles.
Here is the story leaked to a Swoop reporter.
Iraq and the Wider Middle East: The Administration’s Counter Attack Published on: December 22nd 2006 13:14:58, in Swoop
During his current consultations on the new strategy for Iraq, President Bush has told those advising him that he is not interested in any proposals that do not involve “success.” “Anyone who does not believe in victory should leave the room right now,” was how he began one consultation session. Top National Security Council officials are describing the Iraq Study Group as “discredited” and “dead and buried.” Instead a new policy is taking shape. Based on recent discussions between former Saudi Ambassador to Washington Prince Bandar bin Sultan and NSC Middle East Director Elliott Abrams, this policy foresees a central role for Saudi Arabia as a supplier of money and weapons to local conflicts involving Iranian surrogates. This is already happening in Lebanon, where anti-Hezbollah groups are receiving substantial Saudi help. Israeli intelligence officials are also encouraging these moves. “What we are seeing here,” a second NSC official commented, “s the Administration’s counter-attack to the ISG. Bush wants to negotiate from strength not weakness. He is trying to create new facts on the ground. This is an ambitious strategy. If it works, it allows us to recover much of the ground that Iraq has cost us. The opposite is also true. This strategy could double our losses. The key point here is that the Administration is still playing for a win in the Middle East. It is not leaving quietly.
It is too early to make predictions, but this could be another Iran Contra – a deliberate attempt to circumvent legal procedures for Covert Action.
There are a number of reasons to believe that President Bush and the Security Council are preparing covert action in Lebanon in order to regain the offensive in the Middle East.
The sudden unannounced departure of Saudi Ambassador Prince Turki suggests that Saudi Arabia will be the financier of this operation. Prince Bandar bin Sultan's return to Washington in the form of his young protégé, Adel al-Jubeir. Polished and American-educated, Mr. Jubeir, 44, once worked for Prince Bandar when he was ambassador to Washington. Over the past few months, we know that Prince Bandar has been visiting Washington frequently, staying at the Hay Adams Hotel and visiting people at the White House. He was not notifying Prince Turki of these visits, which has been a flagrant and insulting breach of diplomatic protocol, to say nothing of its personal discourtesy to his own brother-in-law.
Another curiosity has been the repeated rumors of a meeting between Bandar and some unidentified Israelis, time and place unspecified. (The strongest rumor was that one meeting took place in Amman last summer.) The rumors have been persistent, and deserve some credence.
Here are some bits we know or think we know:
A European expert reports that the Israelis have been rearming Samir Geagea's "Lebanese Forces," for example. During the summer fighting they reportedly landed materiel on secluded beaches.
This is reminiscent of 1957-58 when the Beirut CIA Station handed out huge shipments of Czech and Swedish submachineguns to the PPS, the Chamoun forces (Na'im Mughabghab's bully-boys), and the Armenian Tashnak paramilitary. At the same time, the CIA also trained 300 Syrian PPS in the hills of Lebanon to make a raid into Syria in order to back up a coup planned in Damascus, which ultimately was uncovered and led to the indictment of many of Syria's Western leaning politicians. The result, as we all know, was that Syrian officials ran to Nasser for protection leading to the formation of the UAR.
Secretary Rice recently announced that the US was boosting its aid to Lebanon to 1 billion dollars in order to help strengthen the Lebanese Army in order to better deal with Hizbullah in the south.
2. Rice lobbies EU not to engage Syria: An EU Ambassador, who was present at both briefings, confided to a friend that shortly after the elections Condi met with the EU Ambassadors to pass the message that regardless of the Democratic victories nothing was going to change re US policy towards Iraq and the wider Middle East. A few days ago she basically repeated this message to the same group of EU Ambs., and although the Baker-Hamilton report was not mentioned, it was clear that she met with them to disabuse them of any hopes for changes. The source described her presentation as "very ideological." The Amb. also said that the USG had been actively discouraging and lobbying against any EU senior level contacts with Damascus, and of course, Iran outside of the context of the various SC res. that are aimed at these two countries. To judge from his comments, our EU friends are becoming increasingly resentful and restless with such US vetoes, particularly after the elections and the Baker-Ham report. In this respect, the Amb. said his Foreign Minister is going to Damascus soon to find out for himself what might be possible in engaging with Syria.
3. The US is moving additional naval power into the Gulf as a "warning" to Iran and Syria.
Here is the speculation of one Middle East hand. This is just the product of speculation, but sometimes it is worth engaging in such fanciful imaginations.
So I have been experimenting with the following hypothetical scenario:
1. The Saudi royal family, the Olmert regime in Israel, and the government of the United States all share in common some deep concerns over situations in the Middle East that none of the three parties seems capable of dealing with effectively on its own:
• An Iran that is becoming increasingly self-confident and confrontational — and seems destined to become a nuclear power in the foreseeable future; • An increasing likelihood that following U.S. failure in Iraq, the entire region could soon be dominated by, or certainly threatened by, unstable Shia Arab governments that are closely aligned with Iran; • Continuing instability in Lebanon, with the ominous prospect that the Beirut government will eventually be dominated by an alliance effectively controlled by Hizballah and thus under significant influence from Syria and Iran; • Dominance of the political and religious energies and emotions of the Arab “street” throughout the region by radicals, whether they be new-generation terrorists, traditional anti-Western Arab nationalists or religious fanatics of the Al-Qaeda, Hamas or Hizballah variety.
Furthermore, it strikes me that all three parties (Saudi Royal Family, Israeli hawks and neocon hard-liners in Washington) all share, at this moment in history, a common desperation to avoid embarrassing failure of their current policies, and a deep-rooted fear that history will portray them as bumbling incompetents. In all three cases, these anxieties are acute and urgent. Let’s consider for a moment the very significant (indeed, absolutely critical) advantages that would accrue to all three parties if the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad were overthrown and replaced by a weak and compliant government: • Split Syria from Iran, its Axis of Evil ally; • Cut off Syrian support for Hizballah and Hamas, and make Iranian aid to them much more difficult both politically and logistically; • Solve the Lebanon crisis decisively in favor of Beirut’s anti-Syrian alliance; • Deal the present Iranian leadership a humiliating political setback; • Enable friendly elements to control the Syria-Iraq border in the west; • Restore Sunni power in Damascus and move Syria dramatically toward popular democracy; • Eliminate the strategic threat on Israel’s northern border. (Many in Israel believe that they dodged a bullet in South Lebanon this summer. In time, with the addition of reliable guidance systems and possibly nuclear warheads, the Hizballah rockets would have posed a threat to the Jewish Homeland similar to, but much more menacing, than Soviet missiles in Cuba would have posed in 1962.) (And other variations of those general points, all of which are obvious.)
Let’s look at this picture first from the Washington prospective:
If the activists at the NSC wanted to support a regime change operation in Syria, they would want to do so in a way that would obviate the need for a Presidential Covert Action Finding, which would be impossible to keep secret in today’s Washington. That goal could only be accomplished by getting other parties to do the job for us — at arm’s length, and with plausible deniability (as Elliot Abrams and Ollie North and their group attempted to do, unsuccessfully, in the Iran-Contra case.). I suspect the NSC would be confident that they could avoid normal Covert Action legal and procedural formalities by making the Saudi Arabian Government the principal agent of the operation — with the added comfort of guaranteed political support from the Israeli Government and its friends in the United States in case of exposure. To "flip" Syria, in other words, the United States would need an Arab partner — to provide the money, to manage relations with the anti-Assad Syrian exile dissidents who would take over Syria, and to be the unindicted co-conspirator for legal "cover". The NSC would also want to have the concurrence and tacit support of Israel in advance, partly for the political protection that such an agreement would afford domestically, but also from a practical operational standpoint because there would be need for an Israeli contingency military intervention capability to finish off the operation in Syria if it should fail to accomplish its objectives of overthrowing the Bashar al-Assad regime quickly and cleanly. (To avoid the mistake made at the Bay of Pigs when the Cuban exile operation ran into trouble and Kennedy declined to intervene with US military forces; or to avoid the situation that developed in Iraq in 1991 when, after encouraging Kurdish and Shiite rebellions, the US failed to come to their assistance. Those were, at least in the perception of present neocon activists, errors of strategic judgment that the Bush 43 administration would be resolved not to repeat. So Israel would have to be included in the plan.)
Who is the one and only person capable of first conceptualizing, and then selling, the radical and shocking notion to King Abdallah that he could profitably ally himself with a friendly Bush administration and a desperate Olmert clique in a covert operation to unseat and replace a brother Arab government? Who else but Bandar bin Sultan enjoys the confidence of a small inner circle in Washington (especially Dick Cheney and NSC hard-liners)? Who has the private ear of King Abdallah, and might persuade HM of the absolute necessity of working with the Americans to split Syria from Iran? Who among the Saudis would be able to persuade his boss of the need to deal secretly with the hated Zionists to further such a critically important set of mutually advantageous objectives? Who among the Saudis has the personal traits of character (the audacity, the ambition, the fighter-pilot chutzpah)?
But then I began to think in more ambitious terms. If they could cooperate to overthrow Bashar al-Assad, why would these high-rollers stop there? Why not complete the job — of knocking out Iran’s nuclear facilities?
Consider these realities:
• All expectations of stopping Iran from acquiring nukes through multilateral diplomatic persuasion or economic sanctions seem doomed, while George Bush’s public commitment to thwart the obnoxious upstart Ahmedinejad deepens constantly. Furthermore, despite serious temptation, the United States, in a post-Rumsfeld atmosphere, seems to be losing its resolve to mount an air attack on Iranian nuclear targets in what would amount to another full-scale preemptive war; • Israel, however, still regards the Iranian nuclear threat as being of such existential magnitude that it might be willing to take the risk of doing the job itself — if the operational conditions for an air attack were substantially improved — like a free pass to use Saudi airspace; • Saudi Arabia views the prospects of a nuclear Shia superpower across the narrow Gulf as equally dire.
So why not go all the way? An Israeli air strike across Saudi Arabia with covert Saudi agreement in advance. While the downside risks of exposure are obviously horrendous, the long-term risks of doing nothing might nevertheless seem absolutely unacceptable in all three capitals, and thus a collaborative effort might appear to be the only practical option available. Although the Iranians and the rest of the world would certainly be aware that the Israeli Air Force had used Saudi airspace, the Saudis might reasonably assume that they could cover their complicity with howls of outrage. (Israeli violations of Arab airspace are nothing new; they happen regularly, even today, in Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia with complete impunity.)
There are many reservations to this scenario:
One correspondent wrote:
I doubt that the Saudis would be so stupid as to engage in any substantial "strategic planning" with Israel and the US — regardless of the dreams of people like Elliot Abrams — because (i) this is sure to leak, and (ii) as long as it does not leak, the Israelis could hold making it public as a club over the head of the Saudis — just too much potential for blackmail. Presumably, the senior Saudis would know this and conclude that the "cure" would pose greater domestic dangers to them than the illness.
Turkey will not be on board. Either to destabilize Syria or to allow overflights of its airspace for an attack on Iran. Here is what one Turkey hand wrote:
Turkey will want none of that, and nothing of a Syrian regime change operation either. Being seen as Washington's handmaiden is bad enough, but for the Erdogan government, being seen as Israel's handmaiden is exponentially worse, not so much abroad as in the domestic political context (parliamentary elections in November 2007). Turkey does have certain misgivings about Iran, and certainly does not want Iran to acquire nuclear weapons. But it is still heavily dependent on Iran as its #2 supplier of natural gas. (Russia is #1.) Iran, moreover, is closely cooperating with Turkey against the PKK, in marked contrast to the US. So there would be little enthusiasm for an air strike for which the Iranians could blame the Turks. On the other hand, the Turks gets along fine with Syria, which is buying Turkish goods and, like Iran, arresting PKK members and sending them back to Turkey in handcuffs. The US has already destabilized one country on Turkey's borders, with most unpleasant results for the Turks. (Surely the neocons are no longer so foolish as they were in Iraq to think that "regime change" promotes stability in a country that is inherently and endemically unstable? Or are they? "People who do not learn from the mistakes of the past," etc., etc.)
The US has no ability to carry off regime-change in Syria. The opposition is weak and fragmented. Even though Washington has been cottoning up to the National Salvation Front made up of ex-V.P. Abdul Halim Khaddam and the Muslim Brotherhood — meeting with Khaddam people twice last month and encouraging them to open an office in Washington — there is not much hope that they could be of assistance in a regime-change plan in Syria. Moreover, Israeli leaders announced during the Fall of 2005, when some speculated that the UN investigation into the Hariri murder might bring down the Syrian regime, that they were not in favor of destabilizing Syria. They feared that Iraq type chaos might be the result, leading to the emergence of radical Islamic groups in Syria, the Muslim Brotherhood coming to power, or a weak democratic regime emerging that would demand the return of the Golan from Washington in order to shore up its credibility. Israeli officials declared that all of these outcomes would be worse than Asad remaining in power. They suggested that a weakened Asad regime would be the best outcome.
What could make Israel reconsider? The Asad regime is not weaker, but has grown stronger due to America's failure in Iraq and Lebanon. There is a strong possibility that Syria will reassert itself in Lebanon. Most importantly, the Lebanon war this summer was a failure from the Israeli point of view. Hizbullah seems to be strengthened within Lebanon, even if its military room for maneuver has been limited due to the strengthened UNIFIL forces. It has been re-armed by Syria and Iran, according to Israeli sources. There is now both internal Israeli pressure and a major Syrian charm offensive designed to pressure Israel to re-engage Syria and give up the Golan, which many Israeli hard liners vow never to do. The Bush hawks have criticized Israel for not winning the war against Hizbullah and for not having attacked Syria — "the real enemy." Bush needs Israeli help to "win in Iraq," as he insists the US can still do. Israel may feel obliged to go along with this Lebanon-Syria part of a US scenario in order to secure US help in taking out Iranian nuclear facilities, which Israel fears more than anything else. All of these factors could play a role in Israel deciding to reactivate efforts to undo Hizbullah and possible actions against Syria.
Here is one Middle East hand who doesn't believe Israel would risk destabilizing Syria:
Your scenario for the success of a campaign for regime change in Syria seems to assume that a successor regime would be a secular Sunni regime. I wonder. The Assad govt., for all of its support of Hizbollah and cozy relations with Iran, is secular. And, we recall that the Islamists tried their hand at regime change in the early 1980s and the Bathis crushed them. Now with the Islamists growing in strength in the area, what are the chances that a successor regime in Syria would be Islamist? If no one has the answer to this question, would the Israelis risk this? (However, I'm afraid that in the never-never land of the current US national security environment we might well be willing to take this risk.)
At a panel sponsored by the Foundation for Middle East Peace yesterday (Thursday, December 21st), Daniel Levy, a brilliant liberal Israeli activist who was one of the principal promoters of the Geneva Accord and is here on a six month gig with the New America Foundation, expressed deep resentment that the U.S. seems to be more interested in conflict creation that conflict resolution in the Middle East, and views Israel as a military surrogate to do our dirty work, "fighting our wars right down to the last Israeli soldier." Daniel's father is Lord Levy of Liverpool, Tony Blair's Middle East advisor.
This is all speculation and seems quite over the top, but this administration has done over-the-top things before. The determination to reject the Baker-Hamilton advice and surge troops in Iraq suggests that the White House has some plans in the works to turn things around. Covert action of the type speculated on here would be a real recipe for disaster. The US would be entering into double or nothing folly. But it has been done before: think Britain and the Suez crisis, in which a beleaguered world power believed it could bring off regime-change in both Egypt and Syria at once. It ended badly. [end of speculation]
Here is the video clip ABC News showed of the US embassy attack two months ago. The claim that Syria had foreknowledge of the attack is wild speculation. The evidence used to back up this claim is that the 20 or so Syrian guards stationed outside of the embassy managed to kill the attackers. What else were they supposed to do? If they had failed to kill the attackers would the commentator have argued that this was proof they didn't have foreknowledge. I doubt it.
War by summer between Israel and either Lebanon or Syria is what a number of Middle East experts are now predicting.
In a recent article in the Israeli daily Haaretz, Amos Harel and Avi Issacharoff report that the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) are 'already undergoing an intensive process of preparation, which is based in part on lessons already learned from last summer's second Lebanon war. According to sources in the IDF, a major military incursion into Gaza is also likely.
'Lebanon and the Gaza Strip have left too many issues undecided,' Haaretz reports the sources saying, 'too many potential detonators that could cause a new conflagration. The army's conclusion from this is that a new war in the future is a reasonable possibility.' Training of reservists has been stepped up, and Israeli Defense Minister Amir Peretz told army radio that the country must prepare itself for fighting an 'unconventional war.' Peretz's comment suggests that the IDF is preparing to strike at Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, but recent remarks by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert suggest Syria might be the target.
In rejecting recommendations by the Iraq Study Group that Israel should consider negotiating over returning the Golan Heights, Olmert said 'In my view, Syria's subversive operations, its support for Hamas - which may be what's preventing real negotiations with the Palestinians-do not give much hope for negotiations with Syria anytime soon.' That position was bolstered by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who said, 'There is no indication that Syria wishes to be a stabilizing force. They are causing problems in Lebanon of extraordinary proportions.' Rice went on to charge that Damascus is undermining the 'moderate Arab states' and the 'road map' peace plan between Israelis and Palestinians.
In fact, the previous Sharon government and current Olmert government steadfastly maintained there was no 'Palestinian partner' to talk with, and opted for unilateral actions rather than negotiations. The 'road map' is considered largely defunct, particularly after the Bush Administration agreed with the Israeli interpretation that the plan did not require Israel to give up its large West Bank settlements.
Not everyone in the Olmert government is a fan of war with Syria. Amos Yadlin, the chief of Israeli Military Intelligence, recently argued that Tel Aviv should examine the possibility of peace negotiations with Syria, a position Peretz took shortly after the end of the Lebanon war. Peretz came under fire for his comments, and Olmert suggested that Yadlin was 'exceeding the bounds of his authority' write Harel and Issacharoff. There is little doubt that the IDF could smash up Syria's conventional army, but, according to Yadlin, Damascus paid close attention to the Israeli debacle in Southern Lebanon this past summer and is creating a military force modeled on Hezbollah. That would mean missiles and guerilla units armed with anti-tank weapons. Those anti-tank weapons were not only efficient in neutralizing Israeli armor in Lebanon, they served as short-range artillery pieces that had a devastating effect on IDF infantry.
If the Olmert government does decide to attack Syria, it will find that the Israeli public-at least for now- supports it. A recent poll by the Tami Steinmetz Center for Peace Research found that only 18 percent of Israelis thought that long-term peace with Syria is possible and 67 percent reject returning the Golan Heights in exchange for peace. Slightly over half think there will be another war with Syria.