The U.S. pushes ‘regime change’ at its peril

Neither the recently legislated Syria Accountability Act’s draconian anti-Syrian measures, nor the implied threat of forcible “regime change” in Damascus, advocated since the mid-1990’s by some neoconservatives, are likely to change how the Damascus regime of President Bashar al-Assad does business. A better way to deal with today’s Syria would be to learn lessons from the past and engage in meaningful diplomacy with Damascus.

John K. Cooley IHT
Tuesday, November 18, 2003

ATHENS President George W. Bush’s neoconservative advisers, supported enthusiastically by most of Congress and somewhat more hesitantly by Colin Powell’s State Department, are drastically jacking up U.S. pressure on Syria, suspected of supporting the guerrilla and terrorist insurgency against U.S. troops next door in Iraq.

Neither the recently legislated Syria Accountability Act’s draconian anti-Syrian measures, nor the implied threat of forcible “regime change” in Damascus, advocated since the mid-1990’s by some neoconservatives, are likely to change how the Damascus regime of President Bashar al-Assad does business. A better way to deal with today’s Syria would be to learn lessons from the past and engage in meaningful diplomacy with Damascus.

A good beginning would be to acknowledge Syria’s post-Sept. 11 gift to the United States of hundreds of files on Al Qaeda and other anti-Western terrorist individuals and movements throughout the Middle East, many of which targeted Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and others besides the United States. Such acknowledgement might open the door to the closer Syrian cooperation in blocking insurgent infiltration into U.S.-$ occupied Iraq, as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other U.S. officials have been demanding.

Instead, the Syrian Accountability Act, which was passed by Congress last week, is set to halt most of the modest U.S. trade with Syria and make it difficult, if not impossible, for U.S. oil companies and exporters to do business there.

Much of the neoconservative rhetoric in the United States implies – and sometimes states outright – that the anti-Syrian sanctions road now being taken in Washington (and being explicitly shunned by European allies) leads to “regime change.” This could mean a U.S.-backed military coup, of the type the CIA tried so awkwardly in the mid-1990’s in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, with disastrous results for the Iraqis involved. Or it could involve an invasion of Syria, which Bush administration spokesmen have publicly assured us is not in the cards.

I covered one Syrian coup d’état in 1966. The fanatical regime that came to power encouraged the Palestinian guerrilla raids into Israel that helped to bring on the 1967 Arab-Israel war and so changed the map of the Middle East for years.

The coup of 1966 was not U.S.-inspired. It was, however, one of a rapid-fire sequence of others, which were.

A British historian, Matthew Jones, recently exhumed some of the private papers of Duncan Sandys, British defense secretary in Prime Minister Harold MacMillan’s Conservative government in the late 1950’s. The Sandys papers include a plan drawn up by a secret Anglo-American working group in Washington in September 1957, approved by MacMillan and the administration of President Dwight Eisenhower, as reported recently by The Guardian. To prepare for forcible pro-Western and pro-Israel regime change in Syria, it recommended assassination of the three strongmen who mounted a coup in 1954.

My late friend Miles Copeland, a former CIA officer, sketched out in his book “The Game of Nations” the role he played for the CIA in Damascus in 1949, as the United States and the Soviet Union competed for influence. Over coffee in a Cairo hotel room in 1968, Copeland reminisced that while U.S. diplomats were preaching democracy to the Syrians, whom they didn’t understand very well, he had manipulated Syrian elections by bribery, giving them a veneer of honesty by importing American voting machines.

Copeland and another former CIA operative, Wilbur Eveland, agreed that Colonel Husni Zaim’s “pro-Western” coup of March 1949 was CIA work. It initiated a time of great instability and political violence.

Each successive coup brought to power a regime more anti-Israel and anti-Western than the previous one.

In today’s Iraq, Bush administration strategists are now learning the hard way that if you meddle in internal Middle East politics, you’d better have sterling quality intelligence information before you start. And you must still be prepared to deal with Murphy’s Law: Whatever bad things can happen, will happen.

The writer has covered the Middle East since the late 1950’s. His most recent book is “Unholy Wars: Afghanistan, America and International Terrorism.”

Copyright © 2002 The International Herald Tribune | www.iht.com

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