Re-Targeting Syria, the “Ho Chi Minh Trail of Terrorists?”

Just when it appears that Israel and Syria may be slowly inching their way towards peace talks with the help of Turkey and Qatar (although Israel’s new president, Shimon Peres, called for direct talks Friday), two hawks at the otherwise realist Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) are calling for the Bush administration to carry out punitive attacks against Damascus.

In an op-ed entitled “Trouble With the Neighbors” published by the Washington Post Friday, former Bush speech-writer and Christian rightist Michael Gerson complains that the administration’s military reaction to alleged subversion in Iraq by Iran and Syria has been “muted” but concedes that attacking Iran could be problematic. “Syria, however, is what one former administration official calls ‘lower-hanging fruit,’” writes Gerson who charges “Syria’s Baathist regime [with providing] a base of operations for its Iraqi Baathist comrades involved in the Sunni insurgency” and calls for “forceful action against Syria’s Ho Chi Minh Trail of terrorists.”

“…Recent successful operations in Anbar province were undertaken, in part, to disrupt the trail of suicide bombers passing through Syria. It might also make sense to pursue targets into Syria on this theory: The Syrians say they are powerless to stop the flow of murderers killing innocent Iraqis, so we should try.

“Increasing pressure of all types on Syria would demonstrate that being part of an anti-American alliance with Iran brings unpleasant consequences. And when that pressure builds sufficiently, it becomes possible to offer Syria a way out that separates it from Iran.”

“…In combination with the strategy of commander David Petraeus, these measures hold out the promise of something unthinkable a few months ago: America, once again, on the strategic offensive.”

No sooner had he read Gerson’s suggestion than his CFR colleague, neo-conservative Max Boot, seconded it in a blog post in “Contentions,” the on-line publication of ‘Commentary’ magazine. Boot, who reminded his readers that he has called for an attack on Syria for years, writes that, “[A]t a minimum, we should give our special operators the freedom to strike across the Syria-Iran [sic] border, if they think that will help stop the ‘ratlines’ over which an estimated 50 to 80 jihadis a month are entering Iraq. (I’ve talked to some of our commandos [he went on] who have told me they would be eager to get just such authority, but they have been blocked not only by cautious politicos in Washington, but also by cautious generals at Central Command.)

“If that doesn’t work, there are various stronger steps that could be taken. One possible idea: Hold Damascus International Airport – the entry point into Iraq for countless Arab radicals from countries such as Saudi Arabia and Algeria – hostage. We could announce that we will use our airpower to shut down the entire facility, Syria’s only international airport, until Bashar Assad cuts off the influx of terrorists into Iraq. This would be a relatively low-risk option from the American viewpoint, but it would impose considerable pain on Syria.”

Like Gerson, Boot allows that there may be some “political and diplomatic” downsides to carrying out such an operation, but “the American people might well applaud such vigorous action against those who have been killing American troops and our allies with impunity. And it might send a salutary signal of American toughness and resolve around the Middle East, where such qualities are more respected than they are in American and European foreign policy salons,” he adds, evoking not one, not two, but three ethno-cultural-sociological stereotypes dear to the hearts of neo-cons. (If Boot doesn’t believe that American toughness and resolve are respected in “American foreign policy salons,” perhaps he should give up his CFR post and burn his membership card in protest.)

While these two contributions to the public debate hardly presage an orchestrated campaign to attack Syria (and, in some ways, marks a refreshing diversion from the increasingly intense focus on Iran as a target for cross-border strikes, as recommended by Sen. Lieberman, or for a much broader attack against its nuclear facilities), they will undoubtedly be well-received in the White House which reportedly reminded Olmert during his visit to Washington last month that Bush’s opposition to Israeli-Syrian peace talks remained undiminished. After all, it was Deputy National Security Adviser Elliott Abrams – a good friend of both Gerson’s and Boot’s – who personally encouraged top Israeli officials to expand their war with Hezbollah last year into Syria. Indeed, the fact of Gerson’s close personal relationship with Bush himself may lead Assad to believe that an attack is a real possibility and that, in any event, this administration will never permit Olmert to engage in serious peace talks with him. You can also be assured that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s appearance in Damascus this week, where he met not only with Assad, but also with Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal and Hezbollah’s secretary general, Hassan Nasrallah, will be the source of numerous op-eds in right-wing and neo-conservative publications in the coming days affirming the growing menace posed by the revised axis of evil, as well as folly of anyone, least of all Israel, believing that any of its members can be trusted.

Three other points about the Gerson column, in particular, bear some comment.

First, Gerson quotes Tony Blair as telling him that, if Iran and Syria ceased their meddling in Iraq, the situation there would be “very nearly manageable.” Of course, that assessment contradicts the view of the February’s National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) that, while unhelpful, “…the involvement of these outside actors is not likely to be a major driver of violence or the prospects for stability because of the self-sustaining character of Iraq’s internal sectarian dynamics.”

Second, blaming Iran and Syria as the main, let alone exclusive, sources of external subversion in Iraq is becoming increasingly untenable, as noted just today by none other than the administration’s ambassador to the UN, and former ambassador in Baghdad, Zalmay Khalilzad. In a New York Times op-ed, he argued that the UN is, ‘’…uniquely suited to work out a regional framework to stabilize Iraq.’’ Several of Iraq’s neighbors – not only Syria and Iran but also some friends of the United States – are pursuing destabilizing policies.” If true, why don’t Gerson and Boot propose going after them?

Finally, Gerson’s allusion to “Syria’s Ho Chi Minh Trail” naturally evokes the fate of Cambodia after the May, 1970, “incursion” by U.S. troops to cut off the real Ho Chi Minh Trail, which was itself preceded by U.S.-backed “regime change” against Prince Sihanouk and the installation of Gen. Lon Nol. I may be overly squeamish, but given what subsequently happened to that nation, the analogy – and the casualness with which Gerson tosses it off — seems unfortunate, if not a little irresponsible.

Jim Lobe

Jim Lobe served for some 30 years as the Washington DC bureau chief for Inter Press Service and is best known for his coverage of U.S. foreign policy and the influence of the neoconservative movement.