Syrians Discover That Al Qaeda Does Bite the Hands That Feed Them
Scholar David Schenker writes in The Weekly Standard (www.weeklystandard.com) on Oct. 31 about the complicated relationship between Syria and Al Qaeda:
"When it comes to Al Qaeda, Syria gets it coming and going. On Sunday, Oct. 26, U.S. helicopters targeted an Al Qaeda operative on Syrian territory who shuttled terrorists into Iraq. Syria condemned the strike as a violation of its sovereignty and a 'serious aggression.' Earlier in October, a massive car bomb detonated in Damascus, killing 17. Even before the smoke cleared, Syria's Assad regime accused Sunni Muslim fundamentalists from abroad — i.e., al Qaeda — of perpetrating the attack. Meanwhile, regime spokesmen described Syria as a 'victim' of international terrorism.
"The characterization of Syria as 'victim' was ironic not only because Damascus has been a proactive member of the State Department's list of state sponsors of terrorism since 1979 — sponsoring Hamas and Hezbollah, among others — but because just one day before the attack, the U.S. District Court of the District of Columbia levied a mammoth civil judgment against Syria for 'providing material support and resources to Zarqawi and Al Qaeda in Iraq.'
"The verdict awarded $414 million to the families of two U.S. contractors — Jack Armstrong and Jack Hensley — beheaded in Iraq in September 2004.
"As the experiences of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan demonstrate, al Qaeda has a track record of attacking its sponsors.
"Since 2002, the Assad regime has facilitated the movement through its territory of al Qaeda fighters bound for Iraq, Jordan and Lebanon. It has allowed these insurgents to train in Syria and has provided sanctuary to al Qaeda-affiliated killers of Americans. By and large, this policy purchased Syria immunity from attacks. Along the way, however, these terrorists appear to have planted local roots.
"In the lead-up to the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, when it became clear that Syria was helping shuttle Islamist insurgents to Iraq, Washington warned Damascus of the folly of this policy. U.S. diplomats in Damascus repeatedly told the Syrian government that Islamists posed a threat to the secular nationalist regime.
"Damascus's logic was based on its opposition to the establishment of a pro-Western government in Baghdad. But the Assad regime failed to take into account the dynamic of Al Qaeda's relations with its 'friends.' In Pakistan, for example, the intelligence service long supported al Qaeda, but the state nonetheless remained a high-value target of the organization.
"In Al Qaeda's evolving strategy, targeting is not contingent on a state's political orientation or on the assistance it receives from governments. Basically, the organization has no qualms about biting the hand that feeds it, whether the patron is Pakistan, Saudi Arabia or Syria. In this regard, if the Syrians are telling the truth about who perpetrated the attack, it is a clear case of the chickens coming home to roost.
"Ultimately, Damascus' newfound problem with Al Qaeda may change the Assad regime's permissive attitude toward the group, but it's unlikely to have any impact on Syrian support for Hezbollah and Hamas. These longstanding relationships with Islamist terrorist organizations are closely linked to the 30-year strategic alliance between Damascus and Tehran.
"For the next U.S. administration, Syrian support for Al Qaeda should prove a cautionary tale about the limits of diplomatic engagement in curtailing Syrian support for terrorism. The Assad regime has trucked with Islamist terrorists for decades, and provides no indication that it would be willing to sever these relationships.
"Changing Syria's orientation would be of great benefit, but experience suggests it's not a realistic hope. While many excuse Syrian ties to Hamas and Hezbollah as 'cards' that will someday be traded during negotiations, the revelations about the ties to al Qaeda highlight just how inimical the Assad regime's worldview is to U.S. interests. Support for terrorism appears to be intrinsic to the regime. Given this dynamic, U.S. diplomacy with Damascus stands little chance of success."
Iran and the Palestinians May Well Test the Mettle of the Next President
Columnist Jackson Diehl writes in The Washington Post (www.washingtonpost.com) on Nov. 3 about the foreign policy tests that await the new president:
"Joe Biden's right: There will be an early international crisis to test the new president. There always is.
"Iran will definitely remain roguish even after Bush's departure. In recent months, the military fronts controlled by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard — in Lebanon, the Gaza Strip, southern Iraq and on the Persian Gulf — have been almost eerily quiet, though not abandoned. Israeli sources say long- and short-range missiles are pouring into Lebanon, despite a U.N. ban on arms deliveries to Hezbollah. Since a cease-fire began in late June, Hamas has imported, through tunnels from Egypt, an estimated 20 tons of explosives; and tons of metal, fertilizer and chemicals used to build the rockets aimed at Israeli cities. U.S. officials say the camps in Iran where the Guard trains 'special groups' for attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq are still busy.
"The question is when, not whether, this firepower will be put to use. By the spring, Tehran will be seeking the measure of not only a new U.S. president but also a new Israeli prime minister — who could be the hawk Benjamin Netanyahu. It will be preparing for its own presidential election, in which Mahmoud Ahmadinejad — health permitting — will seek re-election. Will the Guard — the most hard-line of Iran's competing factions — judge that a flare-up in Gaza, Lebanon, Iraq or the Persian Gulf is the best way to intimidate the new U.S. and Israeli leaders, undermine any move toward negotiations with Washington by Iranian doves, and bolster the campaign of Guard patron Ahmadinejad? Though Iranian moves are always hard to predict, that one would not be a surprise.
"Beyond the rogues are the regulars: the countries that depend on American attention to fuel their political cycles. There are Latin American demagogues, such as Hugo Chávez, who need a Yanqui enemy, and small Eurasian countries, such as Georgia, which need a U.S. shield against Russia. And there are the Russians themselves, still.
"Then there are the Israelis and Palestinians. At the annual Weinberg conference of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in September, two senior surrogates for the McCain and Obama campaigns agreed on one large point: that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would rank far down the new president's list of priorities.
"Don't bet on it. 'The Israelis and the Palestinians will want to elevate their issues on the agenda,' says Shibley Telhami, a Middle East scholar at the University of Maryland. One way to do that is to create a crisis — for example, a collapse of the Palestinian Authority or an Israeli strike on Gaza. Another is a positive surprise — maybe, an agreement by Hamas to a referendum on whether to accept a two-state solution. Either way, if the next president does not soon call on the Middle East, it will find a way to call him."