Yaron Ezrahi, a political scientist at Hebrew University, said: "The military and political leadership, which converges because they are all generals, is simply helpless in the face of terror.

"The attack (on Syria) was a kind of diversion. They realised getting Arafat would be too dangerous, and not practical. But if they are not going to get Arafat, then they thought the attack would calm the public, make it think the government is prepared to take big steps to fight terror.

"It's a frightening attack because it seems to be so influenced by the domestic political and psychological situation. They chose a target which is only symbolically related to the situation. It's like Bush: he couldn't get Bin Laden so he hit Afghanistan. We cannot get Arafat and we cannot really get Hamas, so we kick (Syrian President Bashar) Assad in the ass."

The Guardian, Oct. 7, 2003. Act of desperation or a cynical ploy?1

I have to admit, this incident surprised me. Not that Israel and Syria are hostile to each other; that's been permanent since Israel's creation. Syria remains the last adjacent country in a state of war with Israel.

We should keep in mind that that Syria has generally avoided military activity directed against the United States. That's not totally true, as the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut was almost certainly approved by the Syrian government. That incident occurred in the context of the Lebanese war. Since then, Syrian actions have been pretty much exclusively been against Israel.

Syria, always a wayward sort of state, has had a difficult time since the US invaded its neighbor. What has happened since April? The US has still cut off the oil which once flowed to Syria, endangering its fragile economy. Accusations that echo those against Iraq (WMD, support for terrorists, attacking the "peace process," hiding Baathist evildoers) have been levelled against Syria. The US government has made unprecedented public threats (quite different than diplomatic threats, and intended for a different audience) towards Syria.

A US "hot pursuit" mission plunged into Syria and attacked some gasoline smugglers, killing dozens of people and taking five Syrian border guards for a while. (naturally the Pentagon liked this more than the State Dept.) There are perhaps unsubstantiated rumors of massive electronic intelligence-gathering facilities under construction, facing Syria and Iran. Warriors continue to enter Iraq from Syria.

Background of Syrian-Israeli conflict

After Israel's war of independence, Syria was able to maintain a presence in the Golan Heights, from which it periodically shelled Israeli towns, killing more than a hundred Israelis. Syria itself underwent numerous coups which finally resulted in the Syrian leftist Baath Party takeover in March 1963, a month after Baathists seized power in Iraq. There was an internal battle in 1966, which provided more power to extremist elements, whose hostility justified to Israel a pre-emptive attack in 1967.

The timing of this Israeli bombing was suspiciously symbolic: we approach the anniversary of the Yom Kippur (Ramadan) war of 1973, where Egypt and Syria attacked Israeli positions in the Golan Heights and Sinai Peninsula. The stated objective of the Arab nations was not to eliminate Israel (as had been the Arab rhetoric before Israel attacked them in June 1967) but rather to recover the occupied territory. On one front, the Egyptians punched through the Israeli line and made it well across the Sinai. It was here that Ariel Sharon multiplied his fame, as he ignored direct orders and darted across the Suez Canal, neatly cutting off the Egyptian army. General Sharon had developed a defensive strategy we see re-implemented in the West Bank today: Sharon's matrix of fortifications built across the depth of the Sinai halted the Egyptian advance, and catapulted Sharon into the spotlight, where he joined the first national Likud government shortly thereafter.

The Syrians made it nearly to the crest of the Golan Heights, but the Israeli air force saved the day and destroyed the Syrian's Soviet tank forces. The road to Damascus was suddenly undefended, but the Nixon administration's diplomatic shuttling dissuaded the Israelis from marching on the oldest continuously inhabited city on earth. Israel and Syria reached a ceasefire which remains in effect, (until this week?) leaving Israel at the same position on the Golan.

The Golan Heights

On December 19, 1981, Israel signaled its intentions towards Syria by officially annexing the Golan Heights. This step was taken for several reasons: it is a strategic high point, which makes it a valuable position above Damascus or the Israeli lowlands. It also contains a great deal of water resources, (much like the site of the largest West Bank settlement, Ariel) which made the Golan a site of crucial resources for the growing Jewish state. The Knesset approved the resolution to annex 62 to 21, with both Labor and Likud support. MKs Itzak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Ariel Sharon voted to annex.

Today there are about 18,000 Druze Arabs, who are permitted to hold Syrian or Israeli citizenship, living in the Golan. There are also about 12,000 Jews living in small towns, kibbutzim and moshavim. Today the strategic use of the Golan is much less important: Israel's air force, as seen this week, is far more useful than long-range cannons. And Israel has reduced (though not eliminated) its dependence on Golan water by seawater processing.

But Israel hardly feels the need to withdraw today: Israel's military power, particularly air power, far exceeds Syria's defensive capabilities. The Syrians are perfectly aware of this, and so seek unconventional means to contain and attack Israel and its forces.

However, in mid-2000, with the Israeli unilateral withdrawal from Lebanon, peace with Syria was extremely close at hand. PM Barak held negotiations which could have returned most of the Golan collapsed when the Syrians refused to accept the Israeli annexation of a few dozen meters on the Syrian side of Lake Kinneret. But let it not be said that Syria did not look for peace during the Oslo period.

Syria in Lebanon

Syria and Israel have sparred in Lebanon, much to the detriment of the Lebanese and Palestinian refugees. In essence, Syria sought to define itself as a regional power, a Soviet-backed counterweight to America's Israel. The Lebanese civil war was a complex and extremely bitter 16-year conflict, which pitted Israelis, Syrians, the PLO, and Lebanese Christians, Sunnis and Shi'a against each other.

Eventually Israel withdrew to a 'security zone' in the southern section of Lebanon. Here, Syria and Iran worked together to generate and sustain a Lebanese Shia nationalist uprising against the Israeli occupiers. This primarily took the form of the Hezbollah organization, a zealous group described as a 'terrorist organization' committed to Iran-style Islamic rule in Lebanon, as well as channeling weapons and providing support and training to Palestinian militants.

Is Hezbollah a terrorist organization? Yes, in the sense it is not a proper government, but a militia bound by ideology and a certain brutality towards civilians. Hezbollah will kill you if you cross them, and has never hesitated to institute a brutal order within the parts of Lebanon it controlled. As the only armed group in Lebanon, besides the official Lebanese army and the 25,000-strong Syrian occupation force, Hezbollah perches on the Israeli border with many rockets arrayed to fire well into Israel at a moment's notice. Hezbollah clearly is controlled via the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and offices in Damascus. It is also funded by drug activity and donations publicly collected across the Middle East.

To its credit, Hezbollah has mostly focused its violence towards practical goals, and basically avoided directly attacking civilians, including Israelis, after the Western powers abandoned Beirut. (The brutal bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires is a significant exception) Its primary objective was to reverse the Israeli occupation of south Lebanon, and in May 2000 it succeeded, while developing new tactics, such as suicide bombing military targets and broadcasting attacks on Israeli outposts live on its popular television station, al-Manar.

On the other hand, if you live on Israel's northern frontier, Hezbollah seems anything but a 'practical' military group. In the past year, whenever things become heated between them and Israel, Hezbollah tends to loose missiles and mortars upon northern towns like Kiryat Shmonah. If I recall, late last summer one teenage boy was killed there and several injured after they claimed that a Hezbollah-Iranian go-between was allegedly assassinated by Mossad. To live under the threat of Sheikh Nasrallah's tender mercies would be difficult for anyone.

The Israeli retreat under fire marked the first time an Arab force was able to decisively defeat Israel, and hence provided a long-sought psychological victory for the Arabs. As we reflect on Hezbollah's status, two questions should be considered (and usually aren't): Was it moral to attack the IDF in south Lebanon? Was it right for a militia to use whatever means necessary to drive Israel out of Lebanon?

Perhaps Hezbollah's form, as a proxy of Syrian and Iranian influence, arose naturally from a situation where the other side was so overwhelmingly powerful that the Islamic states had to band their efforts together to back up one robust military force, and organize that force along freelancing, Islamic lines, rather than the perpetually awkward, volatile and useless Arab state armies. Maybe Hezbollah's existence is immoral, but if you were South Lebanese, what would you have done to expel the Israelis?

Syria and the Palestinians

A state sponsor of terrorism. First sentence, yes, always. True. Terrorists develop state sponsors, and states harbor terrorists, when the political situation that the terrorists are attached to profoundly influences the 'corrupted' state.

But there is a political distinction to be drawn between different groups. This is not to excuse their actions, but it suggests that the level of violence each group causes is influenced by a political reality that other sides are a party to. Different terrorist organizations carry different rhetoric, goals, methods, targets, ideology, traditions, and alliances.

Then there's the dramatic problem of the morality of terror. Killing innocent civilians: wrong. Yes, we can agree. But when there is a military occupation, and the occupied population has no political voice within the occupier, the friction between occupied and occupier is of a necessarily different moral dimension than a between people in a normal state.

The gripe between the UN and Israel focuses in no small part on this. International law loosens the bounds by which an occupied population can fight, while Israel constantly seeks to extend a legal and settlement framework of domination over the territories. This process puts the righteousness of what various Arabs and Jews running around the West Bank might do on a different continuum than the work of global ideological networks like al-Qaeda and its 'affiliates' and 'linked-tos.'

Syria openly assists Palestinian terrorist organizations, out of a sense of pan-Arab nationalism and opportunity. Everyone has known this for a long time. Was it always wrong for Syria to assist anti-Israeli military activity? That, naturally, is Israel's argument.

It is a much easier argument to accept if one suppresses the reality of the West Bank, and its rapidly changing topology. Day by day evidence grows of Sharon's revised matrix of control strategy, as the novel security fence dives deep into the heart of the West Bank, slicing off agricultural areas from towns, preventing villagers from reaching cities. The fence formally etches the political contours of the strangest, and most poorly understood, political concept currently on earth, the chaotic Israeli settlement program.

Syria supports groups which commit suicide bombings frequently. Another first-paragraph statement. Ugly, mad, pointless. Yet Syria assists this, and attacks are probably sometimes planned from Damascus. The purpose is to inflict as much cumulative pain on the Israelis as possible. Every bombing delays the day of peace that much more. But so does every meter of the fence across land captured in 1967.

The difference is that the suicide bombing is an instantaneous moment of impact, a slice which permanently scars. The occupation is a constant force which eats away at land and crushes society. The progressive process of the occupation is what is so difficult for most to understand, and the most carefully obfuscated by eloquent Likud backers like William Safire and Charles Krauthammer.

Even a Likudnik should be honest enough to admit that the annexation of the Golan Heights constitutes a valid casus belli against Israel.

Was it wrong for Syria to continue assisting Palestinian organizations? The only way to answer this is to come to a moral conclusion about the changed nature of the West Bank space since 1993. This is what must be sorted out, to understand the War on Terror.

Syria, Iraq and the War on Terror

America's primary target in the War on Terror is al-Qaeda, and here Syria's actions have been obscure, but actually extremely helpful. Syria's Muslim Brotherhood is attached to al-Qaeda. Both groups share the goal -- this is crucial -- of destabilizing and overthrowing secular Arab regimes, in particular Syria. Syria has been at war with al-Qaeda more intently than the US for a long time.

After Sept. 11, Syria fed lots of intelligence to the CIA pertaining to al-Qaeda, information which proved critical to foiling al-Qaeda attacks in the Gulf, as reported by Seymour Hersh in the New Yorker. The cooperation between the CIA and Syria antagonized the neoconservatives in the Pentagon, who naturally saw the Syrian support for Palestinians as the great mark of evil.

When the ramp up to attack Iraq came, the Syrians sensed a bad circuit in Washington's terror logic, and ceased helping the CIA. Forced into a situation they couldn't control, Bashar Assad, the only other nominal Baathist leader, ran Saddam arms and equipment, violating embargoes.

Syria also left the borders open, unlike other neighboring countries, which allowed (and probably encouraged) Arab nationalists and holy warriors to come in and defend Iraq, where they received the American media's label as 'terrorists,' with little further elaboration.

In a sense this was nearly an act of war against the US, but was it right or wrong? Was it wrong and fanatical for other Arabs to defend Mesopotamia from a foreign army? If you think so, why? Would you please reflect on that judgement for more than 15 seconds?

Then we should ask, how will the Iraqis react to this Israeli bombing? It will surely make Mr. Bremer sleep more easily at night, of course. The Israelis, our allies, would never do anything to jeopardize the Coalition Provisional Authority.

Is the force of Arab nationalism, which runs through Syria, the same as what we've been told is 'terrorism'? Is there any force, 'anti-Israeli' or 'anti-American,' which isn't 'terroristic?'

A Neoconservative strategy?

Bush administration officials reiterated their criticism of what the United States has long called Syria's role as a state sponsor of terrorism. "We've consistently told Syria that it must cease harboring terrorists, and make a clean break from those responsible for planning and directing terrorist attacks from Syrian soil," said Adam Ereli, a State Department spokesman.
NY Times: Oct. 5, 2003. U.S. Avoids Criticism of Raid, but Urges Caution on Israel2
Forcing a simple answer to this question is the central objective of neoconservatives, who believe that the West Bank settlement process is 100% moral, and the Arab nationalist counter-process is totally evil. Handily, this coincides with the American fundamentalist perspective that Jews settling the West Bank is a covenant imperative from God. (as a prelude to Armageddon, but let's avoid that field for now)

Sadly, people like Colin Powell and the CIA don't fully accept this moral perspective, which is one of the reasons that the anti-Arab folks in Washington hate them so.

The War on Terror's key principle is that they are trying to draw a moral framework which finds Israel and the US as the only moral actors, and all the countercurrents of hostility towards Israel's and the US's policies are incomprehensible and committed to 'destroying civilization' or 'destroying Israel' or 'destroying our way of life.' Removed from discourse here is reflection on the legitimacy of Arab nationalism and the human dignity owed the Palestinians. All that remains is an image of crazy Arabs and their crazy talk and those horrible bombings. That's just how the neoconservatives like it.

As I noted back in April, hostility towards Syria has been an integral part of neoconservative philosophy for quite a while, and attacking Syria after Saddam's overthrow through any variety of fronts was almost certain.

If you haven't seen this document already, it might be helpful to go back and look at the 1996 neoconservative report to Benjamin Netanyahu, "A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm." The document, written by current Defense Undersecretary for Policy Douglas Feith and Pentagon Defense Policy Board cog Richard Perle, proposes that Israel can 'transcend' its reality by altering its strategic environment, via pre-emptive attacks and manipulating Arab states. Consider:

Syria challenges Israel on Lebanese soil. An effective approach, and one with which American can sympathize, would be if Israel seized the strategic initiative along its northern borders by engaging Hizballah, Syria, and Iran, as the principal agents of aggression in Lebanon, including by:
  • ...paralleling Syria's behavior by establishing the precedent that Syrian territory is not immune to attacks emanating from Lebanon by Israeli proxy forces.
...Israel can shape its strategic environment, in cooperation with Turkey and Jordan, by weakening, containing, and even rolling back Syria. This effort can focus on removing Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq - an important Israeli strategic objective in its own right - as a means of foiling Syria's regional ambitions.

This Israeli attack was not a 'practical' strike, strictly speaking. By all accounts, the camp was dormant. In fact, what was more important was its geographic location, about halfway between Damascus and the Syrian-Hezbollah 'heart of darkness,' the Lebanese Bekaa Valley, a precise jab at the center of 'Syria's regional ambitions.' Many people believe the strike was 'symbolic,' but they fail to see how: it was an essential symbolic act to construct what could be called the 'Israeli-American hegemon' over the Middle East.

This attack was intended to establish an Israeli precedent that Syrian territory is not immune to attacks. In international politics that's what aspiring hegemonic powers do: they set examples, or prevent examples, because existence is normative. Examples, brought into existence, define the rules of the game. Once Israel has hit Syria once and gotten away with it, they can do it again. And Israel is that much more free to do what it likes, because hegemony is freedom.

(You already see the legions of keyboard hawks around the Internet happily proclaiming their support of this hegemon they don't understand, screeching "SYRIA SUCKS! Every time there's a suicide bombing they should hit them back. What are those thugs going to do, charge with their rusty tanks! The IDF will bust their shit up and the 4ID will sweep in from the rear! Ha!")

Welcome to the Middle East, America!

Now, Ariel Sharon makes his characteristically grandiose move, only 14 miles outside the capital. As I'm writing this, the media reports that Hezbollah and the IDF are exchanging fire on the northern border. At least one hapless Israeli soldier is dead. This war, whatever we call it, and wherever it goes from here, has wandered into a new dimension. The outcome is not certain. The violence is. Osama Bin Laden chuckles.

Welcome to another ghastly, chaotic year, Israel. And America's voting public, I'd like to introduce you to Middle Eastern politics. You never know what crazy things happen when you listen to the wrong people here. A lot of folks will try to sell you snake oil and call it security.

On the other hand, maybe I'm wrong. Maybe criticizing Sharon's policy of settlement expansion is dangerous and foolish. And drawing conclusions from the fact that Douglas Feith's former law partner Marc Zell is a leading West Bank settler (as the Guardian recently revealed) is just not giving Mr. Feith a fair shake. Maybe, just maybe, all the falsified WMD and terror intelligence from Feith's branch of the Pentagon that provided the paper basis for the war, just sort of got pushed to the White House accidentally.

And maybe Moral Clarity isn't the biggest fraud we've ever had forced into our brains. If someone could please prove to me that these punks are on the level, I would sincerely appreciate it.

1. http://www.guardian.co.uk/syria/story/0,13031,1057465,00.html
2. http://www.nytimes.com/2003/10/05/international/middleeast/05CND-DIPL.html

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