July 19, 2003

The State of Syrian-U.S. Relations

The State of Syrian-U.S. Relations

Sy Hersh writing in the New Yorker. His basic thesis: U.S.-Syrian relations were improving post 9/11 as Syria provided Washington with high quality intelligence related to al-Qaeda. Such intelligence, in some cases, helped scuttle terrorist operations that would have cost American lives. Then, the story goes, Iraq loomed and Washington shifted gears viewing Damascus through a prism more focused on Syria's relative lack of cooperation regarding Iraq rather than her collaboration on al-Qaeda. Heavy-handedness from Rumsfeld helped sour the mood. The bilateral relationship was significantly wounded.

And remember the border incursion where some Syrian military personnel were detained by U.S. forces in Iraq before being repatriated to Syria? Hersh claims as follows in an account that I haven't seen before:

"In fact, according to current and former American military and diplomatic officials, the operation was a fiasco in which as many as eighty people—occupants of the cars and trucks as well as civilians living nearby—were killed. The vehicles, it turned out, were being used to smuggle gasoline. The Syrian government said little publicly about the violation of its sovereignty, even when the Pentagon delayed the repatriation of the injured Syrian border guards—reporters were told that the guards had not been fully interrogated—for ten days.

Weeks later, questions about the raid remained: Why had American forces crossed the border? And why had the Syrian response been so muted? An American consultant who recently returned from Iraq said, “I don’t mind so much what we did, but it’s the incompetence with which we did it.” A senior adviser to the Pentagon noted that the people who were killed had “put themselves into the gray area” by smuggling fuel across the border. “The troops were trying to work with actionable intelligence,” the official said. “You might make the same mistake.” This month, two retired veterans of the C.I.A.’s clandestine service, Vincent Cannistraro and Philip Giraldi, who now consult on intelligence issues, noted in a newsletter for their private clients that the attacks had been based on “fragmentary and ambiguous” information and had led to increased tension between Rumsfeld and the C.I.A. director, George Tenet."

If true, obviously a military miscalculation of significant proportions. As for why the Syrian response was "muted," doubtless Bashar may well have calculated that publically broaching the incident would have led to significant anger on the Syrian street and forced a more dramatic detioriation in U.S.-Syrian ties. .

I think Hersh is, to some extent, exagerrating the extent to which Washington, in the advent of war in Iraq and thereafter, completely changed its focus regarding Syria purely to how Damascus was handling the Iraq issue to the detriment of continued cooperation between the nation's two intelligence services on matters like al-Qaeda. Here's a recent example of how U.S.-Syrian relations are more complex than Hersh paints.

Meanwhile, it is also of interest to note some comments from long time Israeli Syria-watcher Itamar Rabinovich:

"Itamar Rabinovich, a former Israeli Ambassador to Washington, who headed the Israeli delegation during the ill-fated peace talks with Hafez Assad in the mid-nineties, acknowledged that he was aware of the key Syrian intelligence role in the war against Al Qaeda, but he made it clear that Israel’s distrust of Syria remains acute. Rabinovich wondered aloud whether, given the quality of their sources, the Syrians had had advance information about the September 11th plot—and failed to warn the United States. He said that under the elder Assad the Syrians had been “masters of straddling the line.” He added, “Hafez negotiated with us, and he supported Hezbollah. The son is not as adept as the father, who could keep five balls in the air at the same time. Bashar can only handle three—if that. He has good intentions, but he’s not in control. He can’t deliver.” For that reason, Rabinovich believed, Israel has urged Washington not to open the back channel to Assad. For the Syrians, he added, “the best channel is a back channel—it’s ideal. They are then not embarrassed in public and they buy themselves some time.”

I wonder if Sy Hersh is playing up any Rabinovich comments on whether Syria had some foreknowledge of 9/11. That's quite a charge indeed and Rabinovich is a professional diplomat and chooses his words carefully. Meanwhile, Rabinovich's comments about Bashar barely being able to keep three balls in the air are not too surprising. Few Middle East watchers doubt that if Bashar's father were still in power the Syrian role through much of the events sweeping the region in the past year or so would have been handled with greater skill better buttressing Syria's regional role and relationships with key actors like the U.S.

Posted by Gregory at July 19, 2003 11:26 AM
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