Next stop Syria?

America's tough talk over Syria is a displacement activity, fuelled by uncertainty over Iraq.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics World

This is a bit of random text from Kyle to test the new global option to add a message at the top of every article. This bit is linked somewhere.

Is Syria next on Washington’s hit list? As coalition forces swept through Iraq and took Baghdad, Bush officials turned their war talk on Syria, accusing it of stockpiling weapons of mass destruction and harbouring terrorists.

On 29 March, US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld claimed that ‘military supplies have been crossing the border from Syria into Iraq’ (1). On 12 April, secretary of state Colin Powell warned Syria not to offer haven to fleeing Iraqi officials (2). On 15 April, the hawkish Richard Perle called on Congress to pass a Syrian Liberation Act, to help ‘free Syria from the tyrannical rule of [President Bashir Assad’s] Ba’ath Party’ (3).

According to one liberal commentator, ‘the Bushies clearly aim to retake the Middle East, in shameless acts of colonialism’. Pat Buchanan, a conservative American writer who opposes US intervention around the world, writes: ‘This is the neocons’ hour of power, and they do not intend to lose this chance to remake the Middle East in their own image….’ (4)

So after Baghdad, are US forces on the road to Damascus, ready and willing to conquer the Arab world? Not quite. The tough talk over Syria seems to have come about, less as an expression of American ambition, than in desperate response to the uncertainties thrown up by the war in Iraq. As things got messy in and around Baghdad, Bush officials turned their ire towards Syria, in an attempt to give their war talk, at least, some semblance of certainty.

Many claim that the threats to Syria expose Bush and co’s ‘big plan’ for the Middle East. Yet when Rumsfeld first mentioned the S-word on 28 March, it took many in the Pentagon by surprise. According to one report: ‘Rumsfeld’s statements not only took Syria by surprise, but seemed to stun some at the Pentagon. “I was surprised”, said one senior military official…. So was the White House. “It’s fair to say he didn’t tell us this was coming”, said a White House official.’ (5)

The timing of Rumsfeld’s words of warning suggested that they had more to do with events in Iraq than with a desire to bomb Damascus. Rumsfeld first threatened Syria on 28 March, at precisely the time when some commanders and commentators were worrying out loud that the Iraqi war was spinning out of control. That was the week that The Times of London reported ‘the dawning of war’s harsh reality’, as coalition forces apparently ‘suffered jolt after jolt in their advance towards Baghdad’ (6).

It was also the week that Rumsfeld got a whole load of stick for his military strategy. Reports at the end of March claimed that leading US military officials were livid with Rumsfeld and his civilian advisers for trying to ‘micro-manage’ the war and for ‘repeatedly overruling military experts because they thought they knew better’ (7). What better way to deflect from the perceived mess in Iraq than by issuing tough-talk warnings to those other bad guys in Syria?

Then there was the content of Rumsfeld’s threats. His main accusation seemed to be that Syria had supplied night-vision goggles to Saddam’s forces, which could enable Iraqis to fight at night (even though they didn’t seem up for fighting during the day) and put coalition troops at risk. The claim that Syria had sent goggles of mass destruction to Saddam looked like an attempt to pin something, anything, on to Assad’s regime, rather than a thought-through plan for a ‘You’re Next’ invasion.

It was when coalition leaders saw things going amiss in Iraq, with their own sense of caution often blowing problems out of proportion, that their attention turned towards Syria. Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction may have proved so-far elusive, but at least coalition forces could release details about Syria’s alleged chemical, biological and nuclear ambitions. Saddam may have disappeared into thin air, but there was still Syrian President Assad, a real living, breathing bad guy, who America are ‘very worried about’.

In some ways, the warnings to Syria were like a displacement activity. Uncomfortable with some of the developments in Iraq, and with the general chaos that has followed the war, coalition forces are now heightening their focus on the alleged threat posed by Syria, in a search for some kind of clear focus to their intervention in the region. Things going wrong in Baghdad? Shout at Syria!

There is a big gap between mouthing off about Syria and actually launching a war against Syria – an act that would give rise to international divisions and tensions that, if anything, would be worse than those over Iraq. Yet the threats to Syria do illustrate the dangerous and out-of-control nature of America’s war on terror. And they show that, contrary to widespread belief, the USA’s post-9/11 interventions around the world, under the guise of fighting terrorism, were not secretly and specifically about finishing off Iraq. Rather, the amorphous war on terror is a rolling campaign, driven more by the insecurities of the US elite than by threats from ‘over there’.

The journey from the 11 September attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon through to Afghanistan, Iraq and soon, apparently, Syria, lacks any rational logic. First, we were told that America’s war on terror was about destroying al-Qaeda; then it became about toppling the Taliban regime and freeing Afghan women; then came the ‘axis of evil’ states, Iraq, Iran and North Korea, in January 2002, joined by a second instalment of axis of evil states (Cuba, Libya and Syria) in May 2002; then there was Bush’s claim in June 2002 that ‘up to 60 countries could be developing weapons of mass destruction’ (8).

President Bush argued that the war on terror was against a ‘shadowy enemy dwelling in dark corners of the Earth’, while some time in 2002 America’s emphasis shifted from Afghanistan to Iraq – via the six axis of evil states and those 60 alleged weapons of mass destruction states.

Many latched on to the Bushies’ Iraq campaign as a way of understanding this ever-shifting war. Commentators tried to get to grips with the weird war on terror through the issue of Iraq – arguing that the war on terror must have been about finishing off unfinished business in Baghdad all along. So in the past six months, reporters have revealed statements made in the hours and days after 9/11, by US vice-president Dick Cheney and the hawkish Paul Wolfowitz, about the need to attack Iraq and get rid of Saddam. As one journalist put it, it was called a war on terror, but ‘it was really a war on Iraq’.

Yet now, even while scrappy little battles continue in Iraq, US officials are turning their eyes to Syria, and issuing warnings to Iran and North Korea about learning the lesson of Iraq. This ongoing war talk suggests that the war on terror was not about Iraq, just as it wasn’t about Afghanistan, al-Qaeda, or the events of 11 September. Rather, the war is fuelled by America’s own uncertainties, not by real, tangible threats from the third world; by Washington’s desperate search for a means of asserting a sense of mission in the post-9/11 world, rather than by an old-style colonial agenda.

‘Where next?’ is a legitimate question to ask – not because America is out to retake the Middle East and remake the world, but because the war on terror is driven by domestic problems, and won’t be easily satisfied by ‘successes’ around the world.

Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

(1) The job’s not finished, World Net Daily, 11 April 2003

(2) US warns Syria not to provide haven for wanted Iraqis, Common Dreams, 14 April 2003

(3) Hawks recycle arguments against Syria, Pakistan Daily Times, 17 April 2003

(4) Hawks recycle arguments against Syria, Pakistan Daily Times, 17 April 2003

(5) Rumsfeld warns Syria, Iran, Sacramento Bee, 29 March 2003

(6) ‘Dawning of war’s harsh reality’, Tim Reid and Roland Watson, The Times (London), 24 March 2003

(7) Dissent grows over war strategy, Guardian, 31 March 2003

(8) See War against what?, by Brendan O’Neill

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