Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Syria - Threat Assessment

Following is the Theat Assessment regarding Syria that was jointly written by myself, Marvin Hutchins of Little Red Blog, and Bill Rice of By Dawn's Early Light. An introduction and explanation of these "Threat Assessments" can be found in my post on the matter here.

Following is our assessment of the threat to the United States posed by Syria, as of June 2005


Syria concerns us for several reasons; it’is a military threat to the Middle East, it supports Islamic terrorism, it possesses weapons of mass destruction, and it continues to violate the civil and human rights of its own citizens. As such, it is likely that Syria only narrowly escaped inclusion in President Bush’s “Axis of Evil”. Syrian support for Islamic terrorists crossing the border into Iraq also represents a significant problem for the United States, for much if not all of our efforts in the War on Terror depends on success in Iraq.

Syria, however, also represents a great possibility for success. The Ba’athist regime of President Bashar al-Assad is relatively weak and could conceivably fall. Should this occur, the opportunity for the United States, Middle Eastern allies and the citizens of Syria to create a democracy is likely, although with caveats addressed later.


Syria is an ancient region, whose history stretches back thousands of years. Throughout time it has been part of many great empires, including those of the Canaanite, Hebrew, Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek, Roman, Byzantine, and most recently, the Ottoman Turk. Syria is significant in the history of Christianity, Islam and Judaism.

After the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in the wake of World War I, the region of Syria was charged to France under a League of Nations mandate. Following World War II, Syria was able to achieve its independence in 1946.

For the next fifteen years Syrian politics was marked by instability and a series of military coups. Syrian leaders eventually followed Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser's leadership, and in 1958 the two countries formed the United Arab Republic. The two countries failed to complete the merger and in 1961 Syria seceded from the pact.

In 1963 another coup was engineered, this time by the Arab Socialist Resurrection Party, who also called themselves Ba’athists. Ba’athism is a secular ideology that combines portions of Socialism, militarism, nationalism, and pan-Arabism. “Ba’ath” means “rebirth” in Arabic.

Various Ba’ath regimes have run Syria since the 1963 coup. In 1970, Minister of Defense Hafez al-Assad seized power in a bloodless coup. He ruled until his death in 2000, when his son, Bashar al-Assad was elevated to power.

The Assads are members of the Alawi sect of Islam, the largest religious minority in Syria at less than 15% of the population. 74% of the country is made up of Sunni Muslims, and the rest being Christian and Jewish. There is much speculation of the significance of the Alawi rise to power in Syria, as well of the significance of sectarian disputes in the daily governance of Syria. Much of it is no more than speculation and the application of generalizations based on broader Middle Eastern sectarian and ethnic disputes. [I’d rather not join in that speculation, aside from addressing the Kurd ethnic group, the rest of that debate is largely bunk with regard to Syria – (two of my best friends are political exiles from Syria and have shaped my view over the years). If you both prefer this remain as Tom originally worded it, I’ll gladly reverse my position – for the sake of Threats Watch at least.] [I think that reinserting Tom’s religious breakdown would be helpful, but we could agree to remove commentary from the numbers.]

Syria has been involved in all but one Middle-East war with Israel. And, as addressed in our Arab-Israeli Conflict assessment, remains a hindrance to the Middle East peace process. Arab armies, deployed from Syria, invaded Israel in 1948 shortly after the UN mandate to form Israel. In 1967, Syria amassed troops along its border with Israel, as did Egypt in the Sinai, and in the war that followed Syria lost the Golan Heights to Israel. In 1973 Syria along with Egypt attacked Israel again. Israel, once recovering from the attack, routed the Syrian and Egyptian forces. In Israel’s second offensive into Lebanon, in 1982, to destroy Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) forces, Syrian air forces engaged the IDF and were defeated.
Syrian policy towards Israel has been marked by continued hostility and support for the most extreme terrorist groups. Unlike Egypt and Jordan, who have signed peace treaties with Israel, Syria remains in conflict with Israel. Syrian support for terrorism goes back to the earliest days of Palestinian terrorist groups. These groups include Hamas, Hezbollah, Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC), Popular Struggle Front (PSF), Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP) and the Abu Musa Organization (AMO). Syria appears to have turned a blind eye at best to Al-Qaeda and Arab fighters traveling into Iraq. Al Fatah and the PFLP-GC received funding, arms, and training from Syria. Syria even established it’s own terrorist group, the PFLP-GC, which was led by a Syrian army officer who broke off from the regular PFLP. Today Syria supports to some extent all three of the Islamist Palestinian terrorist groups; Hizbollah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad, although most of its funding and attention goes to Hizbollah. The exception to Syria’s support for Islamic terrorist organizations has been the Muslim Brotherhood as exemplified by Assad’s attacks on the residents of Hama, where as many as 20,000 may have been killed to eliminate the Muslim Brotherhood and other opposition to Assad.

Like Iraq under Saddam Hussein, Hafez al-Assad pursued weapons of mass destruction, most notably chemical and biological weapons. Unlike Iraq, Syria still possesses them. Syria’s stockpiles of chemical weapons include the nerve agents sarin, tabun, and possibly VX. They also have produced mustard gas, a blister agent. Exact quantities are uncertain. Syria apparently has a biological weapons program but it is not known if they have produced significant quantities of any useable agents. There is no evidence of a nuclear program. Syria is known to possess older Soviet missile systems (including ballistic missiles) and North Korea redesigned Scuds missiles.

In 1976 President Assad sent his army into Lebanon, ostensibly to quell the civil war and to impose order. For the next twenty-eight years, Syria maintained some 16,000 – 20,000 troops in Lebanon, along with numerous intelligence personnel. In addition, perhaps a million Syrians work and/or live in Lebanon.

In recent months Syria has been forced to evacuate Lebanon as a result of public and world reaction to the assassination of Lebanese politician Rafik Hariri. Although the Syrian military has left Lebanon, the UN nor the US will assert that Syrian intelligence operatives have departed. .

Current Issues

Military – The Syrian military consists of some 400,000 troops. It is a conscripted force, with all Syrian men required to serve 30 months in the service upon 18 years of age. [Note: This is a part of the reason that my two friends and their families are exiled.] Historically, the modern nation of Syria received virtually all of its armaments from the Soviet Union. With the breakup of its chief supplier in 1991, the subsidized supply chain has been seriously disrupted. As a result, much of its equipment is now obsolete and in a poor state of maintenance due to lack of spare parts. It is a well-disciplined force, by Arab standards, although its officer corps suffers from the lack of initiative inherent in any Soviet-trained military.

While the Syrian military is not overly powerful relative to those of Israel or the United States, it is strong enough to cause trouble in the region. In concert with Egypt the Syrian military is and has been a threat to Israel. The Syrian army has also been used to dominate Lebanon and subjugate its citizens. Although it has recently pulled out of Lebanon, the possibility of a reinvasion bears watching. Lastly, like so many other authoritarian regimes, Syria uses its army to oppress its own citizens, sometimes with quite bloody results.

The Syrian military not only possesses chemical, and probably some limited amounts of biological weapons, but has the ability to deliver them through short-range missiles. The major part of their missile force is made up of Scud B, C, and D variants, with a range of 300km, 500km, and 700km respectively. Syria produces these missiles indigenously, having received technical assistance from China, Iran, and North Korea. While most of these missiles are fitted with conventional warheads, some of the longer-range ones no doubt have chemical or even biological warheads. Russia and Syria have discussed (in early 2005 the potential sale of additional arms including anti-aircraft missiles.

Terror – Syria is a direct sponsor of terrorism. Historically they have focused their attention on Israel, as outlined above. Since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Syria has been a major conduit for terrorists moving into Iraq. It is unclear how much of this is with the direct knowledge and support of the leadership of Syria, and how much with the support of “local leaders” or lower-ranking military officers acting independently. Regardless, given that the government has shown determined brutality in stamping out dissent, they certainly could end the infiltration of terrorists into Iraq if they were serious about a stable Iraqi government or making efforts at friendship with the United States.

As such, Syria must be counted as a major terrorist threat to the United States and the surrounding region, including Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine and Israel..

Economic – Syria is not an economic threat to the United States or any of our allies. Syrian oil revenue of some 60,000 barrels a day that were smuggled out of Iraq pre-war has now obviously come to an end, which was a good source of foreign income for Syria.

In May of 2004 the United States imposed sanctions on Syria under the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act. The purpose behind this measure was to pressure Syria into ending its support for terrorist groups, its occupation of Lebanon, its support of terrorists in Iraq, and its possession of weapons of mass destruction. The act prohibits the export to Syria of anything other than food and medicine, and also halts most civil and commercial air traffic to Syria by US carriers. Due to the power of the US economy, it will also in general discourage foreign investment in Syria,

Civil – Syria is ruled by a dictatorship that allows for no expression of dissent, and brutally crushes all opposition with force. The Ba’athist party, and that of President Assad, is ideologically opposed to pluralism and democracy. Torture and “disappearances” are common. Freedom of expression and association are non-existent.

Syria has maintained close ties with Iran since 1980, supporting it during the Iraq-Iran war. A "Higher Iranian-Syrian Joint Committee" was created, whose purpose was to enable the two countries to cooperate better in economic and scientific fields as well as in sharing military and intelligence information. The two countries both support Hezbollah, and have cooperated in operations in Lebanon and the West Bank.

In February of this year, Syrian Prime Minister Naji al-Otari visited Teheran, no less than one day after the assassination of the Lebanese politician Rafiq al Hariri. The purpose of the visit was to strengthen ties between the two countries, and to shore up Iranian support for Syria, in the wake of U.S. pressure on Syria to end it’s support of terrorism in Iraq.


While Syria remains a major threat to U.S. interests and our allies, it is our position that we are at a point where tremendous change in either the regime itself, or at least in the way that it behaves is required. Syria has recently been forced to evacuate its troops from Lebanon, and is thus on the strategic defensive. [should we include info about the Lebanese vote or is this too far off the path?] Many members of the Syrian military and government are likely dissatisfied with the rule of Bashar al-Assad, who has neither his father’s authority nor strategic sense. It is probable that he is currently occupied with attempting to shore up his power and stave off a coup from either the left or the right. A peaceful or democratic change in regime would dramatically reduce regional tensions and assist the development of a peaceful Iraq.

Syria is allowing terrorists and foreign fighters into Iraq. Short of an incursion into Syria, the US position is to conduct military assaults such as Operation Matador to decrease an organized threat and to send a clear message that foreign incursions will not be tolerated to the Syrian government. The editors of Threats Watch are aware that escalation to military confrontation may have unforeseen negative consequences. However, failure in Iraq is not an option and should be the driving focus of US foreign policy in the region. As such, if the flow of terrorists from Syria is not stemmed soon, stronger action must be taken.

Accordingly time is of the essence. If we do not act soon, Asad may be able to stabilize his rule, or if overthrown, equally odious Ba’athists or Islamist may take power. The potential also exist for civil war.


1. Infiltration of terrorists into Iraq from Syria must end immediately. This is not negotiable and is our highest priority. We must make it clear to the Syrian regime that we will not end our military actions at their border if they do not significantly curtail foreign fighters and terrorists into Iraq. The US retains the right to conduct strategic bombing attacks within Syria to route out safe houses and staging areas. If we are not able to quickly neutralize terrorists flowing into Iraq from Syria, we should take the following actions:
a. Our initial ultimatum to Syria should be made in private, to not humiliate or place in an untenable position Asad’s government. It should be made clear that our policy will be one of a carrot or stick, and that he can either chose the path of Ghadaffi of Libya or Hussein of Iraq. Confidence building responses would be met with an easing of trade restrictions on Syria.
b. Our military actions should come as close to the border with Syria as possible in conducting operations. If required, the US should consider limited strategic precision bombing missions within Syria against government command and control structures or foreign terrorist assets if intelligence proves actionable.

2. Syria must give up its weapons of mass destruction without condition. It must be made clear to the Syrian regime that their Baathist regime may go the way of Iraq’s if greater cooperation is not forthcoming.

3. The United States must make it clear that remnants of Syrian control of Lebanon must end. Syria must remove all intelligence assets from the country, and not be allowed to reassert even partial control by use of proxies such as Hizbollah. As such, it should be our policy to:
a. Encourage the formation of a Lebanese government that is truly representative of all its people. We must work with all relevant international institutions to effect this goal. Further, we should use a carrot-and-stick approach with regard to Syrian compliance, using all means at our disposal, economic and diplomatic
b. U.S. intelligence and diplomatic assets must pay close attention to Lebanon so as to judge Syrian compliance.

4. Human rights within Syria must be a part of U.S. policy. We must make it clear that we will only fully accept a Syrian government that is representative of its people, and that the one in power now does not qualify. To effect this a carrot-and-stick policy with regard to economic and diplomatic pressure should be applied as strongly as possible

5. As Israel is our strongest ally in the region, we must ensure that they have the necessary equipment to defeat Syria in a military confrontation. By doing so we ensure that the regime of Bashar al-Asad realizes that it cannot retake the Golan Heights by force.

6. Any negotiations with Syria over disputed territory or peace with Israel must be made with the condition that Syria must reform its government first to respect Western views of human rights. Once again, a carrot-and-stick approach should be used; first Syria reforms its government, then we will let them participate at the bargaining table.

(not part of the original assessment)

MEMRI reports that a second high-ranking Syrian official has "comitted suicide":

Ghazi Kan'an – Second High Ranking Syrian Official to Commit Suicide in Bashar Al-Assad's Presidency

Syria's minister of interior and "strongman" in Lebanon for more than a decade Ghazi Kan'an is the second high-ranking Syrian official reported to have committed suicide since Bashar Al-Assad became president of Syria. The first was prime minister Mahmoud Al-Zu'bi, in June 2000.

American-Syrian Fighting

The New York Times reports that American and Syrian troops have clashed after cross-border "incursions" American troops (hat tip Belmont Club and The Fourth Rail):

A series of clashes in the last year between American and Syrian troops, including a prolonged firefight this summer that killed several Syrians, has raised the prospect that cross-border military operations may become a dangerous new front in the Iraq war, according to current and former military and government officials.

The firefight, between Army Rangers and Syrian troops along the border with Iraq, was the most serious of the conflicts with President Bashar al-Assad's forces, according to American and Syrian officials.
Some current and former officials add that the United States military is considering plans to conduct special operations inside Syria, using small covert teams for cross-border intelligence gathering.

The broadening military effort along the border has intensified as the Iraqi constitutional referendum scheduled for Saturday approaches, and as frustration mounts in the Bush administration and among senior American commanders over their inability to prevent foreign radical Islamists from engaging in suicide bombings and other deadly terrorist acts inside Iraq.

Increasingly, officials say, Syria is to the Iraq war what Cambodia was in the Vietnam War: a sanctuary for fighters, money and supplies to flow over the border and, ultimately, a place for a shadow struggle.