After we take Baghdad, how about Syria?

Watching the war.
April 3 2003 5:00 PM

Road to Damascus

2 p.m: After Baghdad, what next? Here's an idea: Invade Syria.

Lebanese newspaper editor Talal Salman brought up the idea in an interview with Syrian President Bashar Assad, published on March 27. "It has been said that war plans against Iraq were hatched before 9/11," Salman asserted. "The list of countries included Afghanistan, then Iraq, Syria, and Iran. In the new plan of aggression, Syria is on one of the lists." Rather than demand evidence, Assad replied, "Even if they had not included Syria in this plan, the probability was always there. That means that we are not going to wait until they include Syria in the plan and declare that or not. … Some Arab capitals will stand beside Baghdad. When I talk about some Arab capitals, it does not make sense to exclude Syria."

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Was Assad pledging to fight the United States? On March 28, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld warned him, "We have information that shipments of military supplies have been crossing the border from Syria into Iraq, including night-vision goggles. These deliveries pose a direct threat to the lives of coalition forces. We consider such trafficking as hostile acts and will hold the Syrian government accountable for such shipments." When asked whether he was "threatening military action against Syria," Rumsfeld refused to answer.

Last Sunday, Rumsfeld predicted that after his warning to the Syrians, "My guess is that they'll be more careful." But on Thursday, when asked whether he had seen any signs of change, he replied, "Syria is continuing to conduct itself the way it was prior to the time I said what I said."

Last year, I noted that Syria met seven of the eight criteria cited by then-House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R-Texas, as reasons to invade Iraq. DeLay's speech, reportedly vetted by National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, essentially summarized President Bush's arguments for war. According to reports by the CIA, State Department, and other agencies, Syria supported terrorism, possessed weapons of mass destruction, violated human rights, thwarted democracy, had invaded its neighbors, and had violated a biological weapons treaty.

On Monday, the State Department issued a new report reaffirming Syria's status as an abuser of human rights. Syrian security forces operate "outside the legal system" and commit "serious human rights abuses," said the report. "Continuing serious abuses included the use of torture in detention; poor prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; [and] prolonged detention without trial."

I'm not advocating an invasion of Syria. I'd distinguish it from Iraq on three grounds: 1) Its worst offenses took place under the father of its current dictator; 2) it hasn't used its WMD in battle; and 3) it has evaded international WMD agreements far less extensively, flagrantly, and persistently than has Iraq. But I'd like to know whether Bush would draw the same distinctions—or, if not, how he would justify invading one country but not the other.

In his State of the Union message two months ago, Bush said of Saddam Hussein's torture methods, "If this is not evil, then evil has no meaning." That's a good way to put the Syrian question to Bush. If your doctrine of changing evil regimes doesn't apply to Syria, Mr. President, what meaning does your doctrine have?

Wednesday, April 2, 2003

8:30 a.m.: Jessica, Jessica, Jessica. In case you've been without electricity or human contact for the past 24 hours, I'm referring to Jessica Lynch, the U.S. Army POW who was rescued yesterday from Iraq. Last night on television, it was wall-to-wall Jessica. Today in the newspapers, it's yards of column inches on Jessica. U.S. Central Command trumpeted her rescue last night and played video of it at a briefing this morning.

I don't mean to be callous or unpatriotic, but why are we celebrating so loudly? Before this war began, Jessica Lynch was safe and unharmed. Now she's safe and harmed. She went into Iraq with a 15-member company. She came out alone. Her company didn't take its casualties while fighting for a bridge or an airfield. It took them because it made a wrong turn.

Worst of all, Lynch isn't one of the millions of Iraqis we're supposed to be liberating. She's one of the putative liberators. We've said this war isn't an invasion. We've said it isn't for us but for Iraq. And yet, while the average Iraqi's liberation gets no Pentagon fanfare and no air time, the liberation of Jessica Lynch is a 24-hour mediathon. We're celebrating her rescue for the worst of all reasons: because she's American.

2:50 p.m.: On Saturday, at a checkpoint near Najaf, Iraq, four American soldiers stopped a man who appeared to be a taxi driver. His car exploded, killing them all. Iraqi officials later said the man was an Iraqi military officer.

On Sunday, a contract worker at a U.S. Army camp in Kuwait, allegedly having locked his colleagues in a trailer, drove a pickup truck into 13 American soldiers.

On Monday, at a second checkpoint near Najaf, a car approached a group of U.S. Marines. According to the Pentagon, the driver ignored warning shots. Fearing another suicide attack, the Marines fired into the car. Afterward, inside the vehicle, they found more than a dozen women and children, most of them killed by the Marines' weapons.

What's the moral of the story? Let's consult the expert, Aesop. In the Wolf in Sheep's Clothing, he wrote:

A wolf found great difficulty in getting at the sheep owing to the vigilance of the shepherd and his dogs. But one day it found the skin of a sheep that had been flayed and thrown aside, so it put it on over its own pelt and strolled down among the sheep. The lamb that belonged to the sheep, whose skin the wolf was wearing, began to follow the wolf in the sheep's clothing; so, leading the lamb a little apart, he soon made a meal off her, and for some time he succeeded in deceiving the sheep, and enjoying hearty meals.

In the Boy Who Cried Wolf, Aesop told a different tale:

A shepherd-boy, who watched a flock of sheep near a village, brought out the villagers three or four times by crying out, "Wolf! Wolf!" and when his neighbors came to help him, laughed at them for their pains. The wolf, however, did truly come at last. The shepherd-boy, now really alarmed, shouted in an agony of terror: "Pray, do come and help me; the wolf is killing the sheep"; but no one paid any heed to his cries, nor rendered any assistance. The wolf, having no cause of fear, at his leisure lacerated or destroyed the whole flock.

Separately, each fable makes sense: Watch out for wolves dressed as sheep, and don't commit serial deception, or people will stop believing you. But what happens when the two stories merge into one? What happens when the serial deception consists of wolves dressing as sheep? What if people begin to suspect not that every boy who cries wolf is lying, but that every sheep is a wolf in sheep's clothing?

That's what's happening in Iraq right now. According to multiple witnesses, many Iraqi soldiers are dressing as civilians, shooting from houses, traveling in civilian cars, using pedestrians as shields, and firing artillery from residential neighborhoods. In the first Najaf incident, they began to use a tactic that Iraqi officials promise to exploit further: disguising themselves as civilians to commit suicide bombings. They're making British and American soldiers afraid that every sheep could be a wolf in sheep's clothing. The danger raised by this serial deception isn't that the Brits and Americans won't believe it when a wolf is coming. The danger is that they won't believe it when a sheep is coming.

In the fable of the boy who cried wolf, the deceiver pays the price. But in the twisted version unfolding in Iraq, only the victims and dupes suffer. More civilians die, because U.S. and British troops have trouble distinguishing them from disguised soldiers. And outrage against the invaders grows, because nobody blames the wolves who dressed as sheep on Saturday or Sunday for the sheep who were mistaken for wolves on Monday. That's the moral of the story: When scrutiny is reserved for the other side, crime pays.

Monday, March 31, 2003

1:15 p.m.: On Saturday, Iraqi Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan issued the following statements about Iraqi military methods and targets:

1) "We will use any means to kill our enemy in our land, and we will follow the enemy into its land."

2) Arabs should "turn every country in the Arab world into a battlefield, not only against those who wear the military uniforms of the United States and the United Kingdom, but against all who support them."

3) "If the B-52 bomber can kill 500 people at one time, I am sure that our operations by freedom fighters will be able to kill 5,000 people."

At face value, these statements dispense with months of debate over covert, indirect Iraqi sponsorship of terrorism. Iraq, represented by its third-highest ranking official, now embraces terrorism openly and directly. Any regime that threatens to "use any means to kill," "follow the enemy into its land," "kill 5,000 people" at one time, and take the battle to "all who support" American and British troops—not just "those who wear the military uniforms"—is implicitly targeting civilians. By any definition, that's the essence of terrorism.

U.N. Security Council Resolution 1441, adopted unanimously last November, threatened Iraq with "serious consequences" based on Resolution 687 of 1991. Paragraph 32 of Resolution 687 required Iraq "to inform the Security Council that it will not commit or support any act of international terrorism … and to condemn unequivocally and renounce all acts, methods and practices of terrorism." Paragraph 33 stipulated that a cease-fire of the Persian Gulf War was contingent "upon official notification by Iraq … to the Security Council of its acceptance of the provisions above." In other words, if Iraq violated its pledge to renounce terrorism, it would void the cease-fire and renew the war.

As permanent members of the council, France, Russia, and China voted for Resolution 687. So did Belgium, which held a rotating membership on the council at the time.

All of which raises two questions. To the government of Iraq: How can Vice President Ramadan's statements be reconciled with your obligations under Resolution 687? And to the governments of France, Russia, and China: If the statements can't be reconciled with the resolution, will you honor the resolution and rejoin the war?

Thursday, March 27, 2003

12:45 p.m.: The Gulf War second-guessers are back. Shiites in southern Iraq haven't welcomed U.S. or British troops as advertised, and the second-guessers think they know why. Shiites are "still aggrieved over then-President George H. W. Bush's encouragement of an uprising in 1991 and his subsequent refusal to support it," says the Washington Post. Robert Bartley of the Wall Street Journal claims we could have avoided the current mess by aiding the Shiites back then. London Independent columnist Donald MacIntyre argues that the Shiites are right to lie low, "given the US abandonment in 1991 of the uprising [Americans] had called for." Gerard Baker of the Financial Times asks, "How many of the Shias … watched as relatives and friends were taken off to be executed once their last US incited uprising had been quelled. And how many blame it on American perfidy?"

For those of you who don't play competitive Scrabble, perfidy means treachery. The charge is that the Shiites shouldn't trust us because we broke our promise. That's exactly wrong. The promise we made in the Gulf War was to stay out of Iraq, and we kept it. That's why people should trust us now when we promise to get rid of Saddam Hussein.

U.N. Security Council Resolution 660, adopted on Aug. 2, 1990, defined the objective toward which the Security Council subsequently authorized military action in the gulf. It demanded that Iraqi forces withdraw "to the positions in which they were located on 1 August 1990." No resolution prior to or during the war authorized the U.S.-led coalition to invade Iraq.

In March 1991, a few days after Saddam's troops fled Kuwait, U.S. Defense Secretary Dick Cheney was asked whether the coalition would go into Iraq to "stabilize" it. Cheney acknowledged the unrest in southern Iraq but warned,

We are reluctant as a government and as a coalition to get into the business of internal Iraqi politics. We could have set, as an objective of the coalition, the toppling of Saddam Hussein's government. We did not do that. … It would be very difficult for us to hold the coalition together for any particular course of action dealing with internal Iraqi politics, and I don't think, at this point, that our writ extends ... to trying to move inside Iraq and deal with their internal problems.

This wasn't just prudent, Cheney argued; it was a matter of trust. The coalition's mandate had been established months earlier in Resolution 660 and in discussions with King Fahd of Saudi Arabia about hosting the coalition's troops. As Cheney described it,

When the President offered to send forces, King Fahd agreed, and he did so on the basis that he knew he could trust the United States of America; that we would come, we would keep our word, we would bring enough force to be able to roll back Saddam Hussein's aggression, and that when we were no longer needed or no longer wanted, we would leave. ... It was that element, I think, of trust that played very prominently in the willingness of so many nations to tie their own circumstances and policies to those of the United States.

In view of that understanding, Bush had no business promising to send troops into Iraq to assist a Shiite uprising. And in fact, he didn't. Three weeks into the war, Bush observed, "There's another way for the bloodshed to stop, and that is for the Iraqi military and the Iraqi people to take matters into their own hands and force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step aside, and then comply with the United Nations resolutions." That was a fact and a suggestion, no less true or wise than an equivalent remark about the Cuban or Serbian people. But it wasn't a promise. We couldn't promise the Shiites we would enter Iraq, since we had already promised our coalition partners we wouldn't.

We made a deal. The deal was to limit the mission. Without that deal, we wouldn't have gotten U.N. support or possibly even an adjacent staging ground. You can't praise Bush in one breath for assembling that coalition and fault him in the next for not "going to Baghdad." You can't accuse the United States of treachery for staying out of the 1991 uprisings. And you can't say we'd have more credibility now if we'd gone in then.

Credibility doesn't come from doing what seems, on second thought, a nobler thing. It comes from doing what you said you'd do. Last time, we said we'd stop at the Iraqi border, and we did. This time, we said we'd finish off Saddam, and we will. Believe it.

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