Not a game

America has switched targets with startling swiftness. Confident with its results in Iraq thus far, it moved on to threaten Syria with ease comparable to flipping radio stations. Had it been up to Rumsfeld, Washington would have waged war on Syria by now, and advised Israel to take the opportunity to annex the Arab territories occupied in 1967. Rumsfeld does not even use the term “occupied territories”, but refers to “so-called occupied territories”.

But there are limits, even to US arrogance. The Americans seem to view the world as though it were a game of dominoes, with the pieces arranged vertically and so close that they would fall in quick succession once the first one is toppled. Perhaps some US administration pundits would prefer the world were a bowling alley, where it’s possible to hit all the pins with one well-aimed strike and then return to your beer.

Fortunately, things do not work this way, not even in the Arab world. Some see the world as a game of chess. I don’t know if this view is silly or funny, for it is definitely not applicable to the contemporary scene. There are no ground rules anymore, no guidebook for political behaviour. Beyond the boundaries of US imperial schemes, the only things that you can depend on are your own nerve, resources, and political savvy.

A military strike against Syria and Lebanon is out of the question for the time being, except by Israel. However, the possibility that the US will transgress Syrian borders — as it did in Yemen in specific instances cannot be ruled out now that the United States is in Syria’s vicinity. Yet, a full-fledged attack on Syria is just as unlikely as it is unacceptable. It’s true, however, that Washington, in the course of its so- called war against terror, has made a habit of ignoring national boundaries. Terror, the US tells us, recognises no sovereign boundaries.

Nevertheless, the United States would find it hard to justify an all-out assault on Syria. Some say that it does not need a justification, but it does. Without a justification, the US administration would have to tell its people and the world, on the eve of elections, that the United States will be living in an unending state of war.

It would be difficult for the US, try as it may, to put the Syrian president — and his father — in the same category as Saddam. Syria has paid a high price — even domestically — for Saddam’s policies in his lifetime (or political lifetime, since we still don’t know what happened to him). Would it have to continue paying for Saddam’s mistakes even after he is gone? Syria opposed Saddam’s long and bloody adventure against Iran. Rumsfeld, by contrast, was in contact with the Iraqi regime in 1983 and 1984, hence fully aware that the latter was using chemical weapons. This is the same Rumsfeld who now chastises Syria for its ties with Saddam. There are limits to what the world is willing to put up with — Great Britain and Spain included. Rumsfeld, a former Marine Corps wrestling champion, has gone too far.

US threats against Syria are an attempt to strike the political iron while it’s hot. Washington assumes that the aggression has convinced many of the futility of opposing US policies. If this is a correct assumption, then those who question US policies in the region have been enfeebled, and those who support the US unquestioningly have been empowered. Syria, the Americans think, must be desperate to stay on Washington’s good side.

The US’s Middle East agenda has three main items. One is Syria’s stand on Iraq. Washington wants to gauge the extent of Damascus’s willingness to cooperate or, alternatively, to side with those who are trying to foil US schemes in Iraq for reasons of their own. One should recall that Syria maintains good relations with a large section of the Iraqi opposition. Another is the situation in Lebanon, particularly with respect to Hizbullah. The current US administration subscribes to Israel’s view of Hizbullah as a group that encourages and inspires resistance. The third item on the agenda is Washington’s desire to impose US-Israeli conditions on the Palestinians and win the upcoming Palestinian government’s acquiescence to Israel’s demands. The obvious target here is the Palestinian opposition. However, the Americans clearly miss the point when they bring up the matter of Palestinian offices in Syria. The popular support Palestinian opposition groups enjoy is not related to the offices in Damascus, but to the continued occupation in Palestine. If a sovereign Palestinian state is established, these factions would be more than glad to open offices in their own country.

The debate about chemical weapons is nonsensical. The only context in which this issue now matters is the Syrian-Israeli one (not that of Kuwait, Iran, or the Kurds). And in this situation Syria is the one under military threat from Israel, a fact confirmed repeatedly by Israeli officials. The United States used as a pretext Iraq’s alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction because Saddam’s regime had occupied a neighbouring country, posed a threat to others and had used chemical weapons. When has Syria ever used chemical weapons? Syria is a country that suffers from occupation. And Syria is the one calling for the implementation of UN Security Council resolutions against its adversary, not the other way around.

The Americans want to convince the Palestinians that their case has been weakened by the war and that the only way forward is to accept Israel’s dictates. In other words, the Palestinians should learn from what happened in Iraq. What is truly alarming is that some people seem to concur with that view. The truth, however, is totally different. The Palestinian cause, its justice and legitimacy, has been strengthened by the course of recent events. Those who wanted to rally support behind Iraq used the Palestinian issue to make their cause. The Americans are well aware of the justice of the Palestinian cause, but they want to capitalise on fear by making additional threats. One wonders what they plan to threaten the Palestinians with — occupation?

The writer is a Palestinian Israeli and member of the Knesset.