How Iran and Syria offered to help (after 911), but got rolled

by Mark Gaffney

01.05/05 "ICH"
-- In the period after 911 the governments of Iran and Syria supplied intelligence information to the United States about Al Qaeda and the Taliban, and in other ways supported the initial US response to the World Trade Center attack. Their cooperation was an important new development, and could have led to improved US relations with both of these countries––but it never happened. This paper will explore why this potential for positive change was not realized. It will also argue that US Mideast policy continues to reflect narrowly conceived interests that are not conducive to the long-term peace and security of the region.

At the start of President Bush’s first term in office, the troubled US-Iran relationship showed signs of new life. Positive statements by Secretary of State Colin Powell were reciprocated by Iran’s Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi. American oil companies were very much in favor of lifting US sanctions on Iran––for obvious reasons. The last great oil and gas fields on earth still awaiting full development are in Central Asia, in the Caspian Sea basin, especially in Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Azerbaijan. And by far the most direct and efficient route to get the oil/gas out lies through Iran, which already has an existing north-south network of pipelines. For this reason, during the Clinton years oil companies lobbied the White House to waive sanctions––as it turned out, unsuccessfully––so that they might reap immense profits from highly lucrative energy swaps. A swap of crude oil might work as follows: Iran would supply oil for export directly from its own fields in the Persian Gulf, while receiving an equivalent amount for its own energy needs from newly developed fields in neighboring Turkmenistan.1 By eliminating the need to transport oil over great distances, such swaps promised enormous savings to investors. Given the large number of officials in the Bush administration who had been plucked from the oil industry, there was every reason to think that the President would cater to these and similar proposals. Even VP Cheney, despite his hawkish views, was on record against sanctions. Back in 1996, while still the chairman of Halliburton, Cheney called sanctions against Iran “self-defeating.”2 His company was well-positioned to benefit. Halliburton had been dealing with Iran, despite the sanctions policy. In fact, the company was under investigation for violating it, and later even paid fines. The company also had business with Turkmenistan. Cheney’s remark reflected the cynical view that “business is business, so boys, let’s get on with enriching ourselves––and policy be damned.”

Common Ground in Afghanistan

After 911, there was a tremendous––and unexpected––outpouring of sympathy in Iran for America, including candlelight vigils in Tehran to honor the victims. Even more surprisingly, the Iranian government issued a strong condemnation of the WTC attack. At this point, US and Iranian officials suddenly discovered that they had some things in common, namely, their mutual staunch opposition to Al Qaeda and the Taliban, whose retrograde form of Islam was too extreme even for the Iranians. Among the Afghan factions opposing the Taliban, Iran supported two: an Uzbek warlord who was based in the north, Rashid Dostum, and a Shi’ite community of three to four million Hazaras in central Afghanistan.3 As the Taliban military forces spread out after 1995 from their southern Pashtun stronghold in Kandahar and gained control of non-Pashtun areas, the Taliban’s inflexible leadership showed no interest in broadening its base to reflect Afghanistan’s wide diversity of ethnic and religious groups. Wherever the Taliban went they imposed draconian rule, based on an extreme and rudimentary interpretation of Islam derived from Saudi Wahabbism. It is worth mentioning that, in this respect, the Taliban was a sharp departure from the more moderate and tolerant Islamic traditions that had prevailed in Afghanistan for centuries. The Taliban’s persecution of Shi’ites became intense. Shi’ites were given three choices: convert, leave the country, or die. A number of massacres followed, carried out by both sides, and the unfortunate result was an even greater polarization of a society already in an advanced stage of disintegration from two decades of uninterrupted war. The Taliban drew most of its military and financial backing from outside the country, as did the various factions that opposed it. The Taliban received vital assistance from Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, while its opposition, what would later become known as the northern alliance, received support from a longer list of neighbors, including India, Iran, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and even far off Turkey. After Al Qaeda’s major 1998 attacks upon US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, the Saudis came under increasing American pressure to withdraw their financial support for the Taliban. The aid continued, however––but covertly. The Taliban defied its critics and mystified many of its supporters by openly harboring the renegade scion of a wealthy Saudi family, Osama bin Laden, who during the 1980s had endeared himself to the Afghan resistance because of his connections and vast fortune, which he also used to spread Wahabbism.

Iran managed to keep the Hazaras in the war––just––with an intensive airlift of military and logistical support. However, in 1998 Tehran was itself nearly drawn onto the conflict when Taliban fighters entered the Iranian Consulate in Mazar-el-Sharif, located in northern Afghanistan, and murdered eleven Iranian officials. The incident touched off a storm of international protest after it was learned that several Pakistani intelligence officers (from ISI, the Pakistani CIA) were involved in the atrocity. Both Iran and Pakistan had opposed the Soviet presence in Afghanistan, but each backed different factions of the Afghan resistance. Iran’s response was to mobilize its regular army and conduct military exercises along the Iranian-Afghanistan frontier, involving as many as 200,000 Iranian soldiers. The Taliban massed a smaller force to repel a possible attack. The tense border standoff was defused only when UN-sponsored talks persuaded Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader, to release a number of Iranian prisoners. It was the first time that the reclusive and enigmatic Omar had ever met with an international official.4 

During the weeks after 911, as the US prepared to attack the Taliban, US-Iran relations blossomed. Iran provided the US with considerable information about conditions in Afghanistan, and other forms of support, all of which proved invaluable to US military operations.5 Whatever their deep distrust of the US, the mullahs in Tehran evidently made a decision to help the Americans oust the Taliban. For a moment it appeared as though the backdoor channel of mutual self-interest might evolve into a true rapprochement. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen. Irreconcilable differences suddenly emerged concerning Israel and the so called US peace process. 

The Axis of Evil and the dire consequences for the Palestinians

On January 3, 2002, the Israelis intercepted a ship in the Red Sea, the Karine A, loaded with military arms that had originated in Iran. The arms shipment was apparently en route to the Palestinians in Gaza, though some have said it was bound for Hezbollah fighters in southern Lebanon. The incident produced an immediate chill in the US-Iran dialogue that had held such promise. The Bush administration condemned Iran’s leaders for supporting terrorism, and for undermining the President’s Mideast peace process. The reality was rather different, however. By the start of 2002 there was no extant US Mideast peace process. Clinton’s Camp David initiative had long since fizzled. The second Intifada was underway. Arafat had been blamed for both––wrongly, as it happens.6 By the time of the Karine A incident, Israeli PM Sharon had rejected the idea of negotiations with the Palestinians, and was preparing a large new military offensive against them, which he unleashed in March 2002. Through the spring and summer of 2002, those Palestinians unlucky enough to live in the occupied West Bank endured a continuing nightmare of Israeli military incursions into their towns and communities. These included the leveling of wide urban areas with American-supplied Caterpillar bulldozers––this in addition to the usual helicopter rocket attacks, targeted assassinations, checkpoints, curfews, torture, and countless other forms of harassment. Sharon had declared open season on the Palestinians. Thousands were killed, and many more were wounded, arrested, or made homeless during this period. What was left of the West Bank economy also collapsed. Most of the population was reduced to bare subsistence, and became dependent on international food aid. For the first time, malnutrition became a serious problem. Many Palestinians lived on the edge, a meal or two away from starvation. During this period Israel reduced to rubble nearly all of the infrastructure (valued at hundreds of millions of dollars) that had been built-up during the Oslo peace process, including administrative and police buildings, radio stations, helicopter and port facilities, water utilities, electric facilities, schools, hospitals––everything needed to support a society, which was precisely the reason for the wholesale destruction: to erase the efforts of the Palestinians to create their own nation. The Israelis even stole or destroyed the Palestinian Authority’s computers and anything else they could get their hands on: administrative, legal and medical records, cultural materials, census information, and so on. The US press widely blamed the victims for the crackdown. The Palestinians obviously had brought this holocaust upon themselves because of their suicide bomber attacks on Israeli citizens, and also because of Arafat’s rejection of PM Ehud Barak’s “generous” peace offer. A more honest assessment, however, would have correctly placed at least an equal measure of blame at the doorstep of Israel and the White House. A more fair assessment would also have recognized the fundamental right of the Palestinians to defend themselves against Israel’s military attacks, which in many cases were carried out with advanced weapons supplied by the United States. 

Many years before, the UN Security Council had declared Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza––as well as the settlements––to be illegal, but the applicable UN resolutions had long become forgotten history, wholly irrelevant from the standpoint of the US and Israel.7 It mattered not that the UN resolutions were tantamount to international law. Nor did it matter that virtually the entire world, apart from the US and Israel, recognized them as legally binding. In fact, the US reaction to the Karine A incident should have surprised no one, because, despite the continuous litany of American rhetoric about supporting freedom and democracy, the plain truth is that, more often than not , the US has actively opposed grassroots democracy, especially the right of oppressed people to defend themselves. The de facto US policy has been a matter of record at least since December 1987, when a strongly worded resolution against terrorism was brought before the United Nations General Assembly.8 The resolution condemned terrorism in the strongest of terms, and called upon governments to cooperate to put an end to it. Not surprisingly, the resolution passed by a near-unanimous vote. Only one country, Honduras, abstained, and only two others voted against it. As it happened, however, those two were the United States and Israel. And why would the United States, the home of the free and the land of the brave, reject a UN resolution that condemned terrorism in the strongest of terms? At first blush, the US vote made absolutely no sense. Yet, the reason was simple: the UN resolution also included a paragraph that affirmed the fundamental right of people living under racist and colonial regimes, or foreign military occupation, to resist their oppressors, with the assistance of other states. In the 1980s President Reagan praised the Mujahedeen as “freedom fighters” for resisting the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. Reagan even compared them to the founding fathers. But the US was not prepared to afford the same respect to Palestinians resisting Israel’s military occupation and accelerating settlement activities in the Arab West Bank. The US vote in 1987 against the UN resolution reflected this attitude, and was meant to send a message to the Palestinians: “We will decide your fate. Place your blind trust in America. Meanwhile, stop throwing stones at Israeli tanks. Instead, meekly submit to the continuing home demolitions, land confiscations, and various other humiliations.” The US position––it is disgraceful to say––has essentially amounted to this. And it’s no wonder that in 2004 the US standing in the world community––for these reasons––has sunk so low. 

Three weeks after the seizure of the Karine A, George W. Bush delivered his “axis of evil” speech, which killed any last hope of improved relations with Tehran. The speech set the tone for the policy of vilification which has continued, since––a policy that bears the indelible stamp of Israel’s neocon supporters in the Bush administration, particularly Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense, who has frequently used the word “disputed” instead of “occupied” when referring to the territories.

The View from Israel

Now, let us explore the Israeli viewpoint. The Israeli government has viewed Iran as the regional threat since the period immediately following the 1991 Gulf War, which greatly weakened Saddam Hussein’s military power. No sooner had the dust from that conflict settled than the Israeli government shifted its focus away from Saddam, and launched a campaign to prepare the Israeli people for a future war against its new nemesis. According to the late dissident scholar Israel Shahak, all of the Hebrew newspapers in Israel joined “in the advocacy of this madness,” the lone exception being Ha’aretz, which, however, did nothing to challenge it.9 To my knowledge this war of words was not even reported in the United States. The matter of Iran also loomed large during Israel’s rancorous 2002 election campaign, in which the specter of a nuclearized Shi’ite theocracy became one of the most contentious issues separating the incumbent PM Ariel Sharon from his challenger, former PM Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu. Both candidates were hard-liners. On some issues Netanyahu was even farther to the right than Sharon. Nonetheless, their disagreement over how to deal with Iran was deep, and apparently was irreconcilable. The tone of the debate was bitter. Netanyahu took the position that it was too late to prevent Iran from going nuclear, and that Israel must accept this and come to terms with the new reality. But this only inflamed Sharon, who angrily accused Netanyahu of treason. Sharon evidently believed––no doubt he still believes––that Israel must go to any length to prevent the maturation of Iran’s nuclear program, even if this means war, which, in turn––notice––would require Israel to persuade, push, and, if necessary, to drag the Americans into it. As far as I know, the sparring of the two candidates over the question of Iran was never picked up and reported by the US media.

In the early 1990s the Israelis also launched a new offensive in Washington to persuade the Americans of the growing nuclear threat from Iran. By this period US-Iran relations had sunk to an all-time low. By 1995 President Bill Clinton was already outraged that Iran was opposing his Oslo Peace Process––with hindsight, Tehran’s reasons appear astutely accurate. The point, though, is that Clinton did not need much prodding by Israel. In May of that year Clinton hardened his containment policy by signing an executive order that imposed sweeping economic sanctions on Iran. Clinton even punished a dozen specified Russian companies for their nuclear and military trade, especially transfers of missile technology. The concern in Washington was not only with Iran’s developing nuclear program, but also with its continuing development of a delivery vehicle, namely, the Shahab-3 missile, which, according to experts will be capable of targeting US bases in the Gulf––and Israel. Clinton was much less successful persuading US allies to cooperate with his sanctions effort. No doubt, US unwillingness––already discussed––to confront Israel over its settlement policies had much to do with this, not to mention the US double standard regarding Israel’s own nuclear weapons program. The world looked to America for leadership, but instead saw hypocrisy. Throughout most of the 1990s the European Union’s policy toward Iran was one of “critical engagement.”10 

In November 2002, just weeks after George W. Bush had announced his new first strike policy of preventive war, PM Sharon openly called on the United States to bring about regime change in Tehran, after first dealing with Saddam Hussein.11 In April 2003, after the US invasion of Iraq, Sharon’s public statement was repeated again in more detail by Daniel Ayalon, the Israeli ambassador to Washington. Ayalon issued a statement to the press, in which he called for regime change in Syria and Iran, to be achieved by "diplomatic isolation, economic sanctions, and psychological pressure."12 The ambassador stopped just short of advocating a US-led war against Syria and Iran. This “softer” tone presumably reflected the perceived need to sanitize the message to insure its favorable reception by an American audience (one war at a time, if you please). Ayalon noted that while the overthrow of Saddam Hussein had created new opportunities for Israel, it was "not enough." "We have to follow through," Ayalon told a sympathetic conference of the Anti-Defamation League. “We still have great threats of that magnitude coming from Syria, coming from Iran." Ayalon criticized the European Union for encouraging commerce with Iran, and even appeared to advocate a suspension of diplomatic ties. “Governments should not allow visits by Iranian leaders such as President Sayed Mohammed Khatami and Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi, and foreign leaders should not visit Iran,” he said. "I don't think this is the way to deal with them, because the more the regime is isolated, the shorter its days...” In fact, the Iranian leaders cited by Ayalon were anything but radical Mullahs. Khatami and Kharrazi were both moderate reformers who favored improved ties with the West, especially the US. Ayalon went on to express a delusional hubris rivaling that of Rumsfeld and company in the case of Iraq: “...and, as I mentioned, there is fertile ground in Iran to have a regime change there. Seventy percent of the population [of Iran] are really ready for regime change. They have tasted, they have been experiencing, before, democracy and Western cultures and they are yearning for it.”

The Syrian Sanctions Bill

A large majority of the US Congress evidently shared ambassador Ayalon’s belief that harsh punitive action by the US would perversely strengthen the forces of democracy in the Mideast. In the Fall of 2003 both the House and Senate passed legislation to impose tough sanctions on Syria, in each chamber by overwhelming margins. Here, the numbers showed just how deep Ariel Sharon’s support was––is––in the US Congress. The bill’s final language gave President Bush considerable leeway to impose a wide range of sanctions against the Assad regime. Yet, as it happened, Congress was far out ahead of the Bush administration, which had not asked for the bill. Indeed, Bush initially had opposed it, and only began to support it on when its overwhelming passage became inevitable. Members of Congress described the legislation as necessary to punish Damascus; and they cited three reasons why Syria was culpable: 1) for allowing infiltration across the border into Iraq; 2) for pursuing weapons of mass destruction (notice, the same charge leveled against Saddam Hussein); and 3) because of Syria's military adventures in Lebanon and its support of terrorism. 

All of the stated reasons were bogus. Not a one of them withstood closer scrutiny. After the House vote the Washington Post ran a follow up story debunking the alleged infiltration across Syria's 300-mile border with Iraq.13 The Post interviewed US military commanders with the 101st Airborne Division, guarding the northern portion of the frontier, and officers with the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, currently watching the southern part of the line. The commanders flatly denied that any significant infiltration was occurring across the Syrian border with Iraq. They acknowledged that a 60-mile stretch of border north of the Euphrates River remained unpatrolled by US ground forces or Iraqi border police. However, they explained that under a project known as Operation Chamberlain the US military was constantly monitoring the line by air. The project apparently involves sophisticated Joint Surveillance Target Attack Radar System (JSTARS) planes––drones––that gather information about vehicle movements and relay this to US forces. Strangely, no one in the press––to my knowledge––asked the next logical question: If our own US military is in agreement that nothing of consequence is getting through from Syria to trouble US occupation troops in Iraq, why then did members of Congress cite border infiltration as a justification for sanctions? Why, indeed?

US Incursion into Syria

In fact, border violations have occurred, but not by the Syrians. On June 18, 2003 a US Special Operations team known as Task Force 20 crossed the Iraq border into Syria for the purpose of destroying a convoy of vehicles. Senior US officers believed the convoy was carrying high level officials from Saddam’s former regime who were escaping into Syria. The US task force, supported by helicopters and AC-130 gunships, penetrated more than 25 miles into Syrian territory. The raid resulted in a series of enormous explosions––fireballs lit up the night sky––and damaged a nearby housing complex. The incursion also triggered an intense fire fight with Syrian border police, after which, the US force withdrew. The Pentagon praised the operation, but other government sources described it as a fiasco that killed as as many as eighty innocent noncombatants—–the occupants of the cars and trucks, and civilians who lived in the area. High level US officials conceded that military intelligence had been faulty. In fact, the vehicles had been part of a smuggling operation and had no connection with the former Iraqi government. The convoy was carrying gasoline, which accounted for the explosions. Days after the incident, questions were still being asked about the source of the faulty intelligence, and why the Syrian government did not protest the flagrant violation of its sovereignty. In a moment, I will return to these questions. But first, let us complete our discussion of the sanctions bill.14 

The second justification for the bill, Syria's alleged pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, was also dubious, and was akin to the proverbial naked elephant lounging in the living room. It’s no secret, the world has known for many years that Syria possesses chemical weapons mounted on an aging Soviet-era missile force. Yet, none of the supporters of the House bill bothered to mention the obvious: that Syria's decrepit missiles are its markedly inferior deterrent to neighboring Israel's much larger and vastly more advanced arsenal of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.15 In fact, the current imbalance of military power between the two states is so heavily weighted in favor of Israel that to cite Syria's weaker deterrent as a justification for sanctions is laughable, or would be if the implications for the region were not so serious. The language of the bill says nothing about Israel's weapons of mass destruction, nor was the matter of Israel’s nukes ever mentioned on the House floor preceding the vote––facts that must have perplexed and dismayed the inhabitants of the Mideast, who live under the constant implicit threat of Israel’s nuclear weapons, and who, no doubt for this reason, follow US foreign policy decisions in Washington much more closely than do most Americans, and, I would add, with greater awareness.

But now let us consider the third and final reason given for the sanctions bill: Syria's military occupation of Lebanon, and its state support of terrorism. One of the problems here should have been obvious to anyone who follows the news. Ten days prior to the House vote Israeli war planes struck deep inside Syria, bombing a site near Damascus that Israel described as a terrorist training camp––a claim denied by the militant group, Jihad.16 The air raid was a flagrant act of war. Yet, in reporting it the US media did not portray it as terrorism. Why not? Obviously, because, by definition, whatever the US does––and this includes our ally, Israel––is not considered terrorism but justifiable counter-terrorism. Of course, the unlucky people on the ground in Syria who were bombed surely viewed the attack as a case of state-sponsored terrorism on the part of Israel. I certainly agree that Syria deserves to be held accountable for its military adventures in Lebanon, which have been ongoing since the civil war there in the mid-1970s. Syria should also be condemned for its support of radical Palestinian groups like Hamas and Jihad. But sanctions? Did the US impose sanctions on Israel after its 1982 invasion of Lebanon, during which Israel slaughtered as many as 20,000 people, mostly civilians? The answer is “No.” Though it was a massive case of terrorism by Israel, the US media portrayed it in the familiar way, in terms of self-defense. Yet, the invasion had not been provoked, as the Israeli military historian Ze'ev Schiff conceded in his war chronicle, Israel’s Lebanon War. Before Israel attacked, the northern border had been quiet for nearly a year. Indeed, it was so quiet that Israel had to stage a provocation to generate the pretext for the invasion it had planned for many months, and which was led by none other than General Ariel Sharon. As Schiff notes, Sharon not only deceived PM Begin and the entire Israeli cabinet about the scope and true purpose of his war plan, he even misled his own officers. The cabinet had approved an IDF incursion twenty-five miles into Lebanon for the purpose of creating a security zone.17 But the plan that Sharon actually carried out was much more ambitious: Sharon ordered the IDF to push north all the way to Beirut and there to link up with a Maronite Christian militia, known as the Phalange, which was allied with Israel. The Phalange commanded an enclave north of the city. Far from being defensive, Sharon’s purpose was to annihilate the PLO base in Beirut. He even ordered an attack on Syrian forces, threatening a wider war. And when, not surprisingly, his invasion plan turned into a bloody nightmare, did the US impose sanctions on Israel for its use of antipersonnel cluster bombs (supplied by the US) during the destruction of Beirut?18 ––or after the UN Security Council condemned the cold-blooded murder of one-two thousand hapless Palestinians at Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps?19 The killing was the work of the Phalange, whom the IDF had allowed into the camps. The answer, once again, is “No”, even though the US government had guaranteed the safety of those very same refugees during the negotiations that brought about the PLO’s departure from Lebanon. And notice, here, that by our failure to hold Sharon and Israel accountable for these great crimes we in the US became complicit in that horrible war and massacre. Later, an Israeli investigation determined that Sharon was personally responsible.20 This was the creature that George W. Bush later called “a man of peace.” Indeed, there were witnesses, including a Jewish nurse––even an American Congressman––who saw the ring of Israeli soldiers around the camps.21 And when Israel thumbed its nose at the UN Security Council by refusing to withdraw from southern Lebanon, even after PM Menachem Begin declared that “We do not covet one inch of your land...”, did the White Houses pressure Israel by threatening to cut off aid, to enforce the UN resolution? Israel continued to occupy southern Lebanon for the next eighteen years. No, of course not. The US “punished” Israel by opening the spigot of US aid even more––a trend that has continued. The current level of US support stands at more than $6 billion/year. Jewish Voice for Peace called it “the greatest transfer of wealth from one nation to another in history.”22 

Few Americans probably realize that the United States was not merely complicit in Israel’s 1982 war, but was, in fact, partly responsible for it, at least in a broader sense. Paradoxically, the Lebanon disaster was the logical outcome of the 1978 Camp David peace accord that Jimmy Carter brokered between Israeli PM Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. Unfortunately, the peace agreement Carter helped forge was seriously flawed, because it deferred resolution of the Palestinian question to some unspecified future time that never came. Carter would later say that Begin, the former terrorist, had cunningly deceived him.23 From the standpoint of the Palestinians, Israel’s separate peace with Egypt in September 1978 was a catastrophe. No sooner did Begin sign the peace accord, thus achieving the strategic objective of securing Israel’s southern border with Egypt, than Israel began to attack Lebanon along its northern frontier. During the years 1978-1982 the UN Security Council passed at least a dozen resolutions condemning Israel for these attacks, which killed hundreds of innocent Lebanese, and which culminated in the June 1982 invasion and occupation, already discussed.24 

Israel’s 1982 military adventure in Lebanon also had another fateful consequence that is relevant to our discussion––one whose effects are still playing out as I write. The US press never mentions this, but the fact is that Israel’s war and subsequent occupation was also the impetus that gave birth to Hezbollah, the radical Shi’ite group that has been implicated in terrorism, including the 1983 suicide attack on a US Marine barracks in Lebanon that killed 242 Americans. The homegrown Shi’ite militias based in southern Lebanon responded to Israel’s aggression in 1982 by reorganizing themselves for the purpose of driving the Israelis out. The result was Hezbollah, which eventually achieved its objective in the year 2000, when the IDF finally withdrew. Not surprisingly, almost from the beginning Hezbollah received political and military support from the capital of world Shi’ism, Iran. While I agree that Hezbollah should be condemned for acts of terrorism, it is worth remembering why it came into existence in the first place: as a direct result of Israeli terrorism, and for the purpose of homeland defense. If some foreign army––by some crazy fluke––managed to invade and occupy a portion of the United States, would American patriots not respond by organizing to fight and drive them out? Of course we would. And so would any people worth its salt. Which is why our leaders‘ refusal to recognize the fundamental human right to resist is disgraceful––unworthy of a great nation whose founding fathers had to fight for their liberty––our liberty.

Syria Offers to Help

The matter of Hezbollah is doubly relevant to this investigation, because after 911 the government of Syria, another supporter of Hezbollah, began to share its voluminous intelligence files on Al Qaeda with the CIA. According to Seymour Hersh, who covered the story for the New Yorker, this intelligence sharing was ordered by Syrian President Bashar Assad to improve his relations with the US.25 For many years Syria had been on a US State Department list of states that sponsor terrorism––and Assad wanted off the list. The intelligence sharing operation went well, and by early 2002 Syria was one of America’s most effective allies in the campaign against international terrorism. The Syrians had accumulated extensive files on Al Qaeda because of Al Qaeda’s close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, a radical Islamic group that the secular Syrian government had been fighting for decades. In the course of tracking the Brotherhood the Syrians had penetrated Al Qaeda cells in the Middle East, and also Arab exile communities in Europe. As a result, they were able to provide the US with dossiers about many of the 911 hijackers, and other Al Qaeda members, who had operated out of cells in Aachen and Hamburg. The quality of the intelligence was excellent. Flynt Leverett, a former US National Security Council adviser, told Hersh that its “quality and quantity exceeded the agency’s [CIA’s] expectations...”26 Another official from the US State Department described the channel as “top notch.” In one case the Syrians provided the CIA with information about an Al Qaeda plot to attack the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet headquarters in Bahrain, one of the Gulf states, a heads-up that enabled the US to thwart the terrorist operation and save American lives. Remarkably, the Syrians also allowed the CIA to undertake a sensitive intelligence-gathering mission inside their country––in Aleppo, near the Turkish border. The Syrians made it clear they were also prepared to do even more, for example, to provide the US with detailed information about controversial Saudi links to Al Qaeda. As Robert Baer, a former CIA field officer, put it: “The Syrians know that the Saudis were involved in the financing of the Muslim Brotherhood, and they for sure know the names.”27 Baer is the author of an important book, Sleeping With the Devil, in which he contends that the Saudis have given safe haven to Islamic extremists for many years, including members of Al Qaeda, and have also funded them to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. Baer also believes that the pipeline of cash continues to flow––post 911––for several reasons. One of these is protection. Saudi payoffs and gratuities from so called charities deflect Al Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood from attacking the royal family. As Baer points out, so far none of the terrorist attacks inside Saudi Arabia have been aimed at the playboy princes, or at the dysfunctional King Fahd, or at any other family members. Each and every attack so far has been aimed at American or foreign assets, which points to a tacit understanding.28 The terrorists have also refrained from attacking the kingdom’s vast complex of pipelines, refineries, and other oil-related equipment, all of which is extremely vulnerable to sabotage, but whose destruction, from Al Qaeda’s viewpoint, would at this time serve no purpose. Indeed, it would be self-defeating, because it would destroy the basis for the largesse that sustains the terrorists themselves. Consider also that chaos in Saudi Arabia would be an open invitation to the United States to intervene, which no one wants. 

Baer thinks a turning point for the worse occurred in 1995, when the reigning King Fahd suffered a major stroke that left him brain-dead. Fahd has lingered, ever since, in a semi-comatose state, neither fully dead nor truly alive, a condition of limbo that is symptomatic of the current malaise in the kingdom. The story is a tale of intrigue born of wickedness. After his stroke, Fahd’s four brothers went to great lengths to keep him alive, to forestall for as long as possible the ascension to the throne of Fahd’s named heir and successor, crown prince Abdallah, their half brother, whom they see as a threat. Almost alone in the royal family, Abdallah spurned riches and over the years maintained the old desert lifestyle of simplicity and traditional values. Abdallah also made it clear that he intends to curb the royal family’s many excesses when he does assume the kingship. The problem is that Abdallah himself is eighty-one. For now, Saudi Arabia remains leaderless and adrift.29 

The royal princes know that they are not well loved by their countrymen. Partly for this reason they have spent billions to refurbish their public image. For example, they funded an enormous construction project that has transformed the face of Mecca, the Holy City. The contractor was one of Osama bin Laden‘s own relatives. Their public relations efforts may only have succeeded in delaying the day of reckoning, however, that seems inevitable. Most Saudis regard the house of Sa’ud as hopelessly corrupt. If Baer is correct, the headless dynasty is now locked in a death embrace with the very terrorists it has spawned through its fateful patronage of Wahabbism, the virulently anti-western form of Islam that prevails in the kingdom. The monarchy’s fiercest critics are the same fundamentalist clerics whose mosques and madrassas (schools) the state built and has continued to lavishly fund over the years. The princes have a tiger by the tail that is certain to turn on them if they try to renege––yet one that also seems destined eventually to devour them. 

The corruptions of oil have flowed in both directions. Long ago, at the insistence of the US, the Saudis became America’s largest arms customer. Saudi Arabia spends a larger percentage of its GNP on weapons than any other nation, by far, and it does most of its purchasing from US companies. Not that the kingdom needs the weapons––the US military protects Saudi Arabia from foreign threats. Baer estimates the grand total of this payola, since the arrangement began in the 1960s, at something in the vicinity of $100 billion. Entire sectors of the US economy arose and have flourished simply because of the Saudis’ willingness to placate the US government. But the sustained high level of military spending has not been good for the country. Today, Saudi Arabia is an armed camp. One day, after the tottering house of Sa’ud has been swept away, the US may find itself confronted by militant warriors armed to the teeth with weapons and ordnance that came from the good old USA. 

The US also played another key role in the emergence of these same Islamic warriors. During the CIA’s largest covert operation ever, the “secret” war waged during the 1980s against the Soviets in Afghanistan, the US and its ally Pakistan passed over the more moderate Mujahedeen groups that might have become the nucleus of a future Afghan government. Instead, we armed and trained the most extreme elements.30 In this, the Saudis were only too happy to assist. They ponied up matching funds: $100 million at a whack. The radical Islamic recipients of this cash lifeline flourished, while more moderate groups passed into obscurity. Many of today’s Al Qaeda fighters received their training and arms during this period. The CIA never guessed that the same insurgents who helped bring down the mighty Soviet empire would later be emboldened to turn their gun sights in a different direction. The radicals Islamicists largely owe their Wahabbist faith to the Saudis, who supplied additional vast sums to establish and run thousands of madrassas across Pakistan’s wild West. There, in the autonomous border lands of mountain tribesmen, rampant smuggling, and the opium trade, a generation of orphans and refugees from war-torn Afghanistan were tutored not in math or science, nor even in their own venerable history, but learned instead a most extreme form of fundamentalist Islam. Wahabbism transmogrified became the Taliban.

All of this presents a conundrum of epic proportions for the United States, whose influence in Riyadh, and in the region, has steadily declined as the US addiction to Gulf oil has grown. But America’s troubled addiction is not limited to the gooey black stuff. An endless flood of Saudi petrodollars has greased American politics for so long that there is hardly a person left in Washington, liberal or conservative, who has not been influenced by it––if not corrupted. The Bush administration’s “see no evil, hear no evil” mantra regarding the Saudis merely reflects its own blind inertia and self-serving greed––a weird mirror image of the headless dynasty? Toss in Bush’s aggressive foreign policies, and the combustible mix, as I have tried to show, is likely to produce a history-shattering explosion. (Go to: <> ) When it finally goes off, no one should be surprised. The encryptions on the wall have been decipherable for years.

But back to the Syrian opening. When Hersh traveled to Damascus to interview Syrian President Assad, the two men discussed Syria’s past record of supporting terrorism. The Syrian leader drew a distinction between international terrorists like Al Qaeda and those Assad referred to as the “resistance,” groups such as Hamas and Jihad who are fighting for their land and their freedom. As I’ve noted, the world community, on occasion, as evidenced by the 1987 UN General Assembly resolution, has recognized the same distinction, at least in principle, even if the US government does not. Still, Assad indicated to Hersh that he was prepared to curtail Hezbollah’s activities in Syria in return for improved relations with Washington. 

In the end, though, Assad’s offer and the promising Syrian intelligence channel came to nothing. The CIA’s backdoor link with Damascus came under fire from the Defense Department, i.e., Donald Rumsfeld, who accused Syria of supplying arms to the Iraqi insurgents. Former officials of the US intelligence community dismissed the charge; but, no doubt, it did accurately reflect the pro-Israel pandering mood current in Congress. Rumsfeld even suggested that Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction had been smuggled into Syria before the war––a charge we now know was ludicrous. Rumsfeld’s hard line added to his tensions with the CIA, which for obvious reasons wanted to maintain the intelligence conduit with the Syrians. But in the end Rumsfeld got his way. Early in 2003 he demanded Syrian participation in the operational planning for the invasion of Iraq––then imminent. Although Bashar’s father, Hafez Assad, had joined the US-led coalition against Saddam at the time of the first Gulf war, Bashar wisely declined to follow in his father’s footsteps. With the onset of the war in March 2003 the CIA’s intelligence channel with Syria passed quietly into oblivion.31 

Yet, it’s a safe bet that Donald Rumsfeld was not the only person in Washington who had actively opposed it. The first UPI report about the June 18, 2002 US incursion into Syria––already mentioned––made note of the frustration of some in the US intelligence community who believed that the Israelis were actively involved in an attempt to undermine the dialogue with Damascus. One former senior CIA official indicated to UPI correspondent Richard Sale that Israel was the source of the faulty intelligence that had prompted the US to undertake the ill-fated June 18 incursion, which resulted in the deaths of 80 innocent people. The same official noted that for months the Israelis had been telling anyone who would listen––including Rumsfeld, perhaps?––that Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction were being stashed in Syria. Did the Israelis feed phony intelligence to the US to create a border incident likely to provoke outrage in Damascus––and undo the intelligence sharing? It would not be the first time that such a thing has happened.32 

There is another no less intriguing question: Were there others in Washington who also opposed Assad’s overture––others who had reason to fear that it might succeed? Think about it. If the Syrians made good on their promise to provide names and detailed information about terrorism, they might open a Pandora’s box. Where would it end? By exposing the faces of terrorism and its promoters, the Syrians could have implicated members of the royal Saudi family. Imagine the outraged emotions that such revelations would stir up across the American heartland! Imagine too the panic that would ensue in Washington among US policymakers if angry housewives in Peoria and janitors in Kalamazoo in sufficient numbers rang up their Capitol Hill representatives to angrily demand immediate action. What then? Someone inside the Beltway might have to do something about the Saudis. But what, exactly? How do you hold accountable the men who have greased your own political career, and the careers of so many others in Washington? How do you confront the foreign leaders whose cash floats the US economy, the same men, incidentally, who finance much of George W. Bush’s profligate military spending so that he can fulfill his sacred mission to spread democracy and freedom everywhere the wind blows? My, what a tangled web we weave.

In the end the Syrians received nothing for their trouble. Yet, according to a Defense Department official involved with Iraq policy, despite being snubbed, the Syrians continued to show good faith by keeping Hezbollah on a tight leash during the US invasion of Iraq. The official told Hersh, this was “a signal to us, and we’re throwing it away. The Syrians are trying to communicate with us, and we’re not listening...” 

Right. So what else is new?

On November 11 2003 the Senate version of the Syrian sanctions bill passed by a lopsided 89-4 margin. Before the vote on the floor, one of the few who dissented, Robert Byrd, explained that even though he was a critic of the Syrian government he could not support the bill. The West Virginia Democrat then uttered this prophetic warning: 

This bill speaks of 'hostile actions' by Syria against U.S.-led forces in Iraq. [But] I have not seen any evidence that would lead me to believe that it is the government of Syria that is responsible for the attacks against our troops in Iraq. Such insinuations can only build the case for military action against Syria, which, unfortunately, is a very real possibility because of the dangerous doctrine of preemption created by the Bush administration. A vote in favor of sanctions could too easily be used to imply congressional support for preemptive military action.... [Therefore,] I will vote against this bill because of the dangerous course that it may portend.33 

Three other courageous Senators stood tall with Byrd. Their names are Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.), Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), and James Jeffords (I-Vt).

In December 2003, without fanfare, George W. Bush signed into law HR 1828: the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act of 2003.

Mark Gaffney’s first book, Dimona the Third Temple?, was a pioneering study of Israel’s nuclear weapons program. Mark’s latest, Gnostic Secrets of the Naassenes, released in May 2004, is a best-selling reappraisal of early Christianity. Here’s a link for the curious: 

(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. Information Clearing House has no affiliation whatsoever with the originator of this article nor is Information Clearing House endorsed or sponsored by the originator.)

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