Appointment In DamascusIn March I asked an old friend what he though would happen in Lebanon. 'It's not Syria's problem anymore,' he told me. 'We gave Lebanon to Iran.'By Robert Baer
Aug. 14, 2006 issue - In March I ran into an old friend in Damascus, a Syrian businessman close to President Bashar al-Assad. I asked him what he thought would happen in Lebanon. "It's not Syria's problem anymore," he told me. "You threw us out. We gave Lebanon to Iran."
I never thought forcing Syria out of Lebanon had been a good idea. The Lebanese government left in charge was weaker than the one that had been powerless to stop the civil war in 1975. Brutal as its rule had been, it was Syria that put an end to that war with the 1989 Taif accord. Syria kept Hizbullah in check, limiting its parliamentary representation in the 1992, 1996 and 2000 elections. With the Syrian Army gone, I feared, Lebanon would again become a divided and dangerous country.
To be sure, Damascus is hardly a benign influence. It arms Hizbullah and harbors violent Palestinian groups. Still, when Syria controlled Lebanon, Damascus was the closest thing America had to a return address for Hizbullah's terrorists. This was never clearer than during the 1985 hijacking of TWA Flight 847. When passengers were about to be executed on the tarmac of Beirut International Airport, President Ronald Reagan appealed to Syrian President Hafez al-Assad, who ordered his commanders in Lebanon to gas up their tanks and prepare to crush the militia. Hizbullah released the hostages.
There were other occasions. In 1987, after Hizbullah kidnapped ABC correspondent Charles Glass within sight of a Syrian checkpoint, the Syrian Army pulled Hizbullah members out of their cars and beat them. Glass was soon free. When the group kidnapped two U.N. employees in 1988, along with others, Assad threatened to arrest Muhammad Hussein Fadlallah, a cleric close to Hizbullah, and hang him. Hizbullah quickly let the captives go. In July 1982, a Lebanese Christian militia kidnapped the Iranian chargé d'affaires, two other Iranian diplomats and a Leba-nese journalist. In hopes of an exchange, Iran's Republican Guards arranged to kidnap David Dodge, the acting president of the American University of Beirut, and smuggle him across the border to Syria and thence to Tehran. Washington protested to Assad, who was furious. Unless Iranian authorities freed Dodge, he told Tehran, Syria would expel the Republican Guards from Lebanon. Needless to say, Dodge soon arrived unharmed in Damascus.
As I say, like Saddam Hussein in Iraq, it was the Syrians who kept the lid on Lebanon. So the idea of Damascus's handing its Lebanon portfolio to Tehran sounded like trouble. What happens next, I asked my Syrian contact. He shrugged, then dropped a bombshell. During Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's visit to Damascus in January, he claimed, the Iranian president had met a shadowy figure in the terrorist world named Imad Mughniyah, the man widely suspected of kidnapping Dodge and killing U.S. Navy diver Robert Stethem during the TWA hijacking, among other bloody episodes.
I'd heard this story before. The Mossad was big on it, but I've never quite believed it. The point is that my source did. Essentially, he was telling me he feared that Lebanon was spinning out of control—with dangerous consequences for everyone, including his own country. Freed from Syria's restraint, Hizbullah might soon be hijacking planes and kidnapping people again. If backed by Iranian radicals, it could go even further.
At the time I didn't imagine the full-scale war that has since erupted. But in retrospect, it's hardly surprising. Western diplomats may now seek a ceasefire and send in international peacekeepers. Israel may create an ethnically clean "buffer zone" along its northern border. But does anyone really believe the violence will stop? Will Iran prove a better safety valve than Syria? Not likely.
When the last Syrian tank rattled across the border last year, Syria fell back on a policy of trying to seal itself off from the chaos it could see building around it in Iraq and Lebanon. Bashar al-Assad especially fears the sort of crisis his father confronted in February 1982, when an insurrection backed by the Muslim Brotherhood broke out in Hamah. Assad senior contained it by flattening the town with heavy artillery. Combing through the rubble, the Syrians were astonished to find that the rebels' weapons had come from Lebanon. With no strong central government, it had become a failed state, an open arms bazaar and a haven for terrorists the world over. Today Syria sees history repeating itself, only worse.
Baer, a former CIA officer, is author of "Sleeping With the Devil: How Washington Sold Our Soul for Saudi Crude."© 2006 Newsweek, Inc.
From Washington ProFile:
In your book “See No Evil,” you write about a number of contacts you made with members of the Russian military during your time spent in Tajikistan. In the 90’s, do you believe it would have been beneficial for the U.S. intelligence community to work closer with the Russians? Would it have made a difference in rooting out dangerous terrorist organizations in Central Asia, for example?In reaction to this weeks events, MSNBC has this article:
Baer: Well, no, not really, because the Russians, first of all, don’t understand American politics. They don’t understand that Saudi Arabia is one of the biggest supporters of Chechnya, the whole resistance there. So it doesn’t matter who was in the Kremlin – whether it was Yeltsin, or Putin or Gorbachev – they looked and said, ‘now wait a minute, here’s America’s best ally in the Middle East and yet they are funding the Chechen resistance.’ And they knew that our interests didn’t coincide. The United States only cared about Saudi oil, getting it cheaply, and drawing on Saudi Arabia for money, and the Russians said that’s not exactly fighting terrorism.
Is there any residual Cold War effect going on?
Baer: The Russians pay much more attention to national security because they don’t have private interest groups that take over foreign policy. You look at the pro-Israeli lobby in this country, whether it’s evangelical Christian or Zionist, and the Russians don’t understand that, how a minority group can hijack a foreign policy. And they are very mistrustful. The Russians are very mistrustful about what’s happening in Syria today, because we are doing everything to unseat a secular regime, which ultimately will affect everybody’s interests in the Middle East. The Russians don’t understand why we attacked Iraq, where we unseated a secular regime, and essentially turned it over to fundamentalists…They don’t get it. Although there are some Russians that do, but in general, it’s an irrational foreign policy, so you could never have a close alliance between the Russians and the Americans.
Do you think that since 9/11 there has been any closer cooperation between the U.S. and Russian intelligence communities at all?
Baer: Oh sure. But they have different interests. Remember that during my days in the CIA, the CIA had nothing to offer on Chechnya. And that is a driving interest of Russia. So there’s not that much really to exchange. And the Russians don’t really care about Saudi Arabian royal family…
What about the Uzbek Islamic Organization…
Baer: The CIA doesn’t know anything about it. What are you going to trade the Russian government with? If they arrested some Uzbeks… I simply don’t know what’s happened since 9/11. You’ve got a coincidence of interests in some places, but… When I was in Tajikistan, the Russians just found it implausible that we knew next to nothing about the Arab fundamentalists in Afghanistan. Their attitude was: ‘look, they’re coming through Pakistan, that’s your ally, you guys sent them there in 1979, you paved the way for the crazies to come into Afghanistan to fight us, and now this is 1992 and they’re causing a civil war in Tajikistan, what do you mean you don’t know who they are?’ They don’t realize that there’s this sort of laissez-faire that the CIA carries out in intelligence. I mean, it’s true; I kept on asking questions when I was in Tajikistan: ‘what’s happening? Who is sending the rebels across the border and killing Russians?’ They weren’t our friends. And we got the answer: ‘we don’t know.’
UK Seen as a weak link by the US