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Setting Sights On Syria
How to win in Iraq, and regionally.


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The carnage from terrorist attacks in Iraq is discouraging many, and unless we make some unexpected new move, no one expects it to stop, even after a successful election on January 30. The Islamofascists who are blowing us up and butchering Iraqis won’t quit, as long as they believe that if they keep it up long enough they can drive us out and gain control of the country. Our main attackers, after all, are Baathist thugs and Islamist jihadis. Together, branches of these two groups succeeded in driving us out of neighboring Lebanon in the pre-9/11 years. They control it still, and they boast that they will drive us from Iraq too.

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President Bush’s answer is that in the post-9/11 world, we must prove them wrong by staying the course, before and after the Iraqi election, doing more of what we are already doing, but doing it better, every day, making steady progress in spite of all obstacles–toughing it out until an elected Iraqi government commands Iraqi forces that are capable of maintaining their own security. Most of our troops agree. It’s the true-grit answer, and they see it as right and necessary for America’s long-term security. Despite their losses, morale remains high. Our guys are determined to defeat the Islamofascists in Iraq as they did in Afghanistan, pushing back the tide of terror that struck us on 9/11 until it no longer threatens our safety or the peace of the world. That’s the president’s basic plan; our troops support it, and in the long run, it’s what most Americans and Iraqis want.

But in the short term, what majorities in both countries want most is a more effective response to the ongoing carnage, some new action we can take that will seriously de-grade the enemy’s ability to kill and maim us. Is this just an impossible dream, or is there in fact some new move we can make that will weaken our enemies, sap their confidence in ultimate victory, and cut way down on our casualties?

A Regional War

Our Defense secretary thinks there is such a move, and he has been seeking a go-ahead to make it since at least mid-2003. But the camera-hogging chorus of Rumsfeld critics has no clue. More armor? The last few pieces were being hammered into place before the criticism started, and while they give our troops a slight defensive edge, they do nothing for the embattled Iraqi people. More troops? Wrong again, and chutzpah besides. Chutzpah, because the same congressmen who cut divisions from our military in the 1990s are berating Rumsfeld now for not overwhelming the enemy with those vanished divisions. Wrong, too–as active generals like Richard Myers, retired generals like Thom-as McInerney and Paul Vallely, military historians like Victor Davis Hanson, and intelligence experts like Herbert Meyer keep telling us–because the best defense is a good offense. The bottom line is that it’s not how many troops we have, but how aggressively we use them. And in its first term, the Bush administration was divided about the aggressive use of offensive military force.

Rumsfeld and others wanted to bring down Saddam Hussein’s regime without first spending months telegraphing our punches in the U.N. That would have given us the advantage of surprise, making it much harder for Iraq’s Baathists and jihadis to set up bases in neighboring countries and transfer billions of dollars and large loads of unknown weapons and supplies there before the war. Key players in the State Department and the CIA opposed the invasion of Iraq altogether, and passionately opposed doing it without U.N. approval. Tony Blair was also passionate about the U.N., and President Bush split the difference. He gave the go-ahead for General Tommy Franks’s daring shock-and-awe offensive for the liberation of Iraq, but not before he gave the U.N. every chance to take effective action first. When it came to running Iraq in the interim between the liberation and a new, elected, and empowered Iraqi government, control of American policy once again reverted, for the most part, to State and CIA. Key players there favored a long, slow transition, a major effort to woo hostile elements in both the Shiite and Sunni communities, and a conciliatory stance toward Iraq’s predatory neighbors. Threats to arrest Muqtada al-Sadr with no follow-through; the aborted attack on the Iraqi terror-center of Fallujah in April 2004; and the long resistance to imposing sanctions on Syria: All these are examples of State-CIA policy in action. At Fallujah especially, our troops chafed under it. It was the site of the first gross, triumphant, in-your-face public lynching of American civilians, and our fighting men did not want to negotiate with the lynchers’ frontmen. They wanted to crush them, to send the life-saving message: If you butcher Americans, you die. Their orders, instead, were to withdraw. In all these instances and more, Rumsfeld differed with his colleagues at State and CIA, and with a clique of military officers who agreed with them.

But perhaps the most important, least-recognized difference between Rumsfeld and his opponents has to do with our stance toward the countries that surround Iraq. Rumsfeld recognized, early on, that the terror war in Iraq is sustained by the critical support it gets from terror-sponsoring neighboring states, and he wanted to take offensive action against them, too. He focused especially on Iraq’s western neighbor, asking for approval to pursue terrorists across the border, into the heart of today’s terror network in Syria. Once again, major players at State and CIA were opposed, and they prevailed; we continued to fight what is, in fact, a regional war in one country only.

Bush’s Decision

That was then; this is now. After giving both camps a fair chance to show what their methods could accomplish, President Bush appears to have made a far-reaching decision. In November, he gave our military the green light to go back on the offensive against the terrorists in Fallujah and finish the job. Since then, we have stayed on the offensive inside Iraq, pursuing terrorists aggressively throughout Anbar province and in Mosul. Most of the top anti-offensive players at CIA and State are gone now, or about to go, and an offensive against Syria may be next, because now, evidence that Syria and Syrian-controlled Lebanon provide the critical support that sustains the terror war in Iraq is overwhelming.

For starters, leaders of both the Iraqi Baathists and the foreign jihadis use Syrian-controlled turf as a safe haven and base of operations. Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, the Iraqi general who directs the Baathist butchers, lives there; Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the Palestinian terrorist who runs the foreign jihadis, flits back and forth across the border. Both men rely on the terror-training camps in Syria and Syrian-controlled Lebanon, camps that have replaced the ones al Qaeda maintained in Afghanistan as the places hate-crazed Muslims go to learn to kill Westerners and moderate Muslims. Hezbollah, the Iranian-run terror group that killed 241 of our marines, still controls large parts of Lebanon and runs some of these training camps; Hamas, the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, the organization that assassinated Anwar Sadat and spawned al Qaeda and a host of other terrorist groups, runs other camps. Some, like Ain al-Hilwe, are heavily infiltrated by al Qaeda and Taliban terrorists. Iranian agents brought them there, after we defeated them in Afghanistan. Syria and Iran both control other, less-well-known terror groups and training camps. Whatever changing names they use, all of these groups act as proxies for Syrian and Iranian aggression against us and against Iraq. Only Hezbollah and Hamas are out front, hiding in plain sight, under a false flag that reads: We’re not a threat to America or the West; we have nothing to do with Iraq or al Qaeda–we only attack Israel.

Much of the money that sustains the jihadis’ war in Iraq–money from Saddam Hussein’s illicit oil-deals; from terrorist financiers in Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the Gulf states; and from terrorist drug gangs–is parked in Syria and Lebanon too. Every once in a while, when State Department diplomats turn up the pressure on Syria to stop being the terror world’s most convenient ATM, Syria turns a little of this money over to us, like a parent distracting a child with a sweet. But these little fiscal treats do nothing to change the fundamentals. Tougher sanctions? Even if we could get enough other countries to go along to do noticeable damage to Syria’s basket-case economy, Iran has already promised to compensate Syria, and the usual terror-financiers in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf will also pony up. All pay, because all have major stakes in the continued existence of terror-central in Syria. The rise of a Shiite-dominated Arab democracy in Iraq is a threat to all the region’s dictators and terrorists, Sunni and Shia alike, and Alawite-run Syria-Lebanon is the regional center, the place where all their interests merge and combine to wage and sustain the terror war against us in Iraq. Recruitment of terrorists to fight in Iraq is an open secret in Syria; and, although the volunteers come from all over the Muslim world, most of them get their training in these camps and enter Iraq from Syrian-controlled turf.

Syria, in sum, is terror central, not because it is the only Middle Eastern nation that threatens us or even the most powerful one–it’s the weakest–but because Syria rents space to them all, playing a critical enabling role for all of the Islamofascist terrorists who are attacking us in Iraq and threatening our interests in a host of other places. As long as we permit this terrorist mecca to operate unmolested, the terror war in Iraq can probably sustain itself indefinitely, taking its bloody toll, year after year. That’s why Secretary Rumsfeld has been arguing, all along, for cross-border attacks, and why the president is likely to approve such attacks soon. Pursuing terrorists across the border into Syria is the idea Rumsfeld expressed in mid-2003, but it is unlikely to be his only idea about how America should deal with Syria.

Handling Syria

My own idea for Syria was spelled out in NRO over a year ago, and it seems to me even more relevant now. I argued that we should pound home the message that diplomatic pressure failed to deliver by launching a sudden and new shock-and-awe campaign, aimed at demolishing all the terror training camps on Syrian-controlled turf. No ground troops would be needed because:
If ever a task was tailor-made for air power alone, this is it. Syria has no oil…and no significant air defense system. What it does have in places like the Bekaa Valley and the parts of Lebanon that Syria leases out to Hezbollah and its many subleasees is a super-abundance of terrorists from many groups, massed together in places where there are few or no innocent civilians. Here, we don’t have to limit ourselves to hunting down terrorists one by one, inevitably losing American lives and the lives of our friends in the process. Here, our bombs can take out large numbers of Islamofascist terrorists all at once, scoring another victory in the war against terror… a victory that will dry up the flow from Syria, and make Saudi Arabia and the mad mullahs who misrule Iran understand at last that they, too, must stop funneling terrorists into Iraq [and otherwise aiding the insurrection there]. It will give new hope to the millions of Iranians who are dying to overthrow the corrupt clerics who oppress them and dishonor their religion, and it will have a sobering effect on all those who harbor terrorists, anywhere in the world.

If President Bush decides to do this, it would, of course, be wishful thinking to expect all the carnage in Iraq to stop immediately afterwards. It won’t, but without a never-ending supply of money, training camps, fresh recruits, and safe havens, it is reasonable to expect that terrorist attacks inside Iraq will diminish significantly, along with terrorist morale, allowing Iraqi forces to establish control of their own security in a year or two, and allowing our troops and those of our Coalition partners to come home, leaving behind a freer Iraq and a safer world.

Will Turtle Bay and Brussels resound with denunciations of America’s reckless unilateralism? Of course, but not as loudly or with as much unity as professional doomsayers like Brent Scowcroft and Michael Moore predict. They won’t get the message, but it will be received, loud and clear, on the Arab street and in Arab palaces alike: Uncle Sucker is no more, and the price to pay for treating George W. Bush’s America like one is more than they can afford. As for opinion at home, whenever this president made a bold military move in the past, big majorities of Americans rallied around him, strongly. Americans don’t run from a battle, as long as we believe our leaders are clear about what it will take to win and determined not to stop short of it.

Barbara Lerner is a frequent NRO contributor.



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