I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Monday, July 31, 2006

Is Syria next -- either by accident or on purpose?

(updated below)

I obviously don't know whether there is a clear plan in the Bush administration to have this Israel-Lebanon war escalate by (a) military deploying U.S. forces directly in the conflict and (b) expanding it to include Syria, but there certainly are some strong indications that this option is being seriously entertained. Rich Lowry lays out -- and appears to advocate -- the most likely rationale for such an escalation:

Perhaps the situation can still be saved, but it's hard to get around this calculation: Hezbollah is going to survive, and there's no way it is going to disarm voluntarily. A meaningful international force will enter southern Lebanon only if Hezbollah is disarmed, and since it won't be, there won't be a meaningful international force. That means one of the linchpins of the Israeli post-war strategy is not going to come about. So Hezbollah wins.

At this point, around the Middle East, the Bush administration seems to have two options: admit defeat, or continue to raise the stakes. Here is a good suggestion about how to do the latter with regard to Syria.

There are numerous other indicia floating around which suggest that U.S. involvement in some sort of offensive against Syria is possible, maybe likely. We have the report that the U.S. is privately encouraging an Israeli attack on Damascus even though the Israelis (understandably) don't appear eager to expand the conflict. And then there is the President's increasingly belligerent and self-consciously war-invoking rhetoric, both yesterday (when he made clear he considers this part of "our war") and today (in which the used very clear and deliberate ultimatum language to instruct Syria and Iran to cease funding and otherwise supporting Hezbollah, something they obviously will not do).

Then there is the fact that so many of the White House's most reliable allies are itching for further conflict. And we have the always parmount fact that this is an election year and the best hope, by far, for Republicans to avoid electoral disaster is a nice "war against the terrorists" to keep their only perceived strength front and center. Combine all that with the fact that the only proposed exit for the war -- an empty proposal to have an international force monitor Southern Lebanon (something which can't happen while Hezbollah is still armed) -- is entirely implausible, and it is therefore much easier to imagine the conflict escalating than it is ending.

Perhaps the most significant impediment to escalation is the fact that the Iraqi Shiites on whose good will we are dependent for preserving the small amounts of stability left in Iraq are making clear that the price for escalation -- or even for our continuing to stand in the way of a cease-fire -- would likely be far too high for us to accept. But escalation is more often than not unintentional, or at least the by-product of recklessness rather than a deliberate choice. We are already widely perceived in the Arab world to be an actual combatant in the bombing of Lebanon. With the increasing belligerence coming from the White House, combined with the disappearance of all other exits, it requires little imagination to see how we could easily and quickly become an actual combatant in a wider war.

Ultimately, it seems we are painting ourselves into a corner. We continue to block a cease-fire and attach ourselves to the Israeli military effort on every level. But, as even neoconservatives like Lowry are acknowledging, it seems increasingly clear that the Israeli offensive against Hezbollah is not going to produce anything resembling a victory. Neither the U.S. nor Israel can afford to simply have this war peter out without having a credible claim to victory. So what are the realistic options other than escalation?

UPDATE: The Syrians apparently think that their involvment in this war might be imminent:

DAMASCUS (Reuters) - Syrian President Bashar al-Assad told the Syrian military on Monday to raise its readiness, pledging not to abandon support for Lebanese resistance against Israel. "We are facing international circumstances and regional challenges that require caution, alert, readiness and preparedness," Assad said.

And Haaretz reports: "Travelers from Syria have reported that some reservists have been called up for military duty - a sign that Syria is concerned the fighting in Lebanon could spill over." Perhaps this is the reason why: "Israeli air strikes have increasingly come closer, with repeated raids on the Beirut-Damascus highway that links Lebanon and Syria." I seriously doubt that Israel wants to expand its war to Syria, at least right now, but the combination of the anti-Syrian warmonger rhetoric combined with rising tensions can nonetheless trigger exactly such an expansion.

Speaking of an expanding war: "Israel's Security Cabinet has approved an expansion of the ground campaign against Hezbollah guerrillas in Lebanon, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's office announced early Tuesday."

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