Shortly after 9/11, the government received an extraordinary gift of hundreds of files on Al Qaeda, crucial data on the activities of radical Islamist cells throughout the Middle East and Europe and intelligence about future terrorist plans. These dossiers did not come from Israel or Saudi Arabia, whose kingdom appeared more concerned at the time with securing safe passage for members of the bin Laden family living in the United States, but--as Seymour Hersh revealed in the July 28 New Yorker--from Syria. One CIA analyst told Hersh, "the quality and quantity of information from Syria exceeded the agency's expectations." Yet, the analyst added, the Syrians "got little in return for it."
What they got instead was an unrelenting Washington-sponsored campaign of vilification. It began last year, when the "Axis of Evil" was expanded to include Syria, largely because Syria--a member of the 1991 coalition against Saddam Hussein--refused to support a pre-emptive war against Iraq. And it has culminated in the Syria Accountability Act, approved 33 to 2 by a House committee on October 8. If the bill passes, Syria will not be able to receive "dual use" goods unless it cuts all ties with Hamas and Islamic Jihad (neither of which is linked to Al Qaeda) and cracks down on Hezbollah (a guerrilla movement that enjoys wide popular support among Lebanese Shiites); withdraws its troops from Lebanon; and proves that it is not developing weapons of mass destruction. What's more, the President would be directed to choose from a menu of six additional sanctions, including a freeze on Syrian assets in the United States and a ban on US exports, except food and medicine.
The committee's vote came on the heels of Bush's endorsement of an Israeli airstrike on a Palestinian training camp outside Damascus, Israel's first assault on Syrian territory since 1974. Never mind that the apparently moribund camp belonged to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, not to Islamic Jihad, which claimed responsibility for the October 4 suicide attack in Haifa; or that Israel's attack threatened to widen the already explosive Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In Bush's words, "Israel must not feel constrained in terms of defense of the homeland."
The Syria Accountability Act is all but certain to destroy the fledgling cooperation between US and Syrian intelligence agencies, which have a common interest in combating Islamic extremism. To sabotage such a relationship would seem downright perverse, when America is in desperate need of Arab allies in the "war on terrorism." But a perversion of priorities is something we have come to expect from the Bush Administration, and from the influential neoconservative clique--many of them closely allied with the Israeli right--shaping policy in the Pentagon.
In an eerie replay of the buildup to the war on Iraq, the demonization of Syria has swelled to a chorus in Washington, whose members include not only Republicans but pro-Israel Democrats like Tom Lantos, the senior Democrat on the House committee that passed the act. The leading Democratic presidential candidates backed Bush's support for Israel's bombing in Syria. Only months ago we were told that the "road to peace in Jerusalem runs through Baghdad." As resistance to the US occupation of Iraq grows and the road map continues to crumble, the neocons are having a much harder time making that argument, so we are now being told that the twisted road to peace runs through Damascus.
Syria, to be sure, is hardly an appealing regime. A police state run by a tiny Baathist clique, it deprives its own citizens of the most basic liberties, maintains thousands of troops in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley …