International Papers

Is Syria Next?

The U.S. military’s entry into Baghdad Monday may have surprised few Iraqis, but most Arabic newspapers missed it because it started too late for their deadlines. Beirut’s English-language Daily Star took precautions against completely losing the big story by spreading a satellite photo of the Iraqi capital over two pages so armchair generals could track military advances.

The fast pace of the war meant papers were behind television in describing Sunday’s fighting in Baghdad, the British takeover of Basra, and a friendly-fire incident in northern Iraq where a U.S. plane bombed a column that included Kurdish military leader Wajih Barzani and U.S. special forces troops—an episode filmed by BBC television. Lebanon’s pro-Syrian Al-Diyar focused on Iraqi casualties, headlining a story, “Brutal Massacres Inflicted on Civilians in the Iraqi Capital.” The London-based Saudi daily Al-Sharq al-Awsat mentioned Baghdad and Basra in its headline and also wondered about two senior Iraqi officials: “Uncertainty Surrounds the Fate of ‘Chemical Ali’ and the ‘Disappearance’ of Izzat Ibrahim from Kirkuk.” “Chemical Ali” is—or was—Saddam Hussein’s brutal cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid, who led Iraq’s southern district. British sources insist he died in a Basra air raid. Izzat Ibrahim, the vice president of the Revolutionary Command Council—Iraq’s military leadership—and commander of the northern front, “disappeared from [Kirkuk] the day before yesterday after his location was targeted by intensifying American bombing.”

With the days of the Iraqi regime numbered, attention has shifted to U.S. postwar plans and how the balance of power within the Bush administration will determine who rules Iraq. In a front-page story, London’s Al-Hayat argued that the administration’s neoconservatives, who support “democracy by force,” will be the war’s real victors. The paper cited a London Sunday Times story suggesting the neocons have convinced President George W. Bush to distance himself from British Prime Minister Tony Blair on Iraq’s future. Blair and Bush met in Northern Ireland Monday amid signs of diverging priorities: Britain wants the United Nations to play a leading role in Iraq; a setup the Bush administration opposes. There are also differences over how long a U.S. civil administration should run the country. London’s Guardian reported, “Mr. Blair is hoping the temporary administration in Iraq, to be run by a retired U.S. general, Jay Garner, will last only two to three months, before the interim authority takes over. The U.S. deputy defense secretary, Paul Wolfowitz, suggested yesterday a longer time frame, of six months.”

Regional papers are now starting to wonder about the United States’ postwar relations with Iraq’s neighbors. The Lebanese press has kept a close watch on the Bush administration’s statements regarding a possible regime change in Syria. The Washington correspondent of Beirut’s Al-Safir, Hisham Melhem, filed a story Monday reporting Wolfowitz’s remarks on the Sunday talks shows advising Syria (which he described as “a strange regime … pretty brutal in itself”) to close its borders to anti-American fighters and stop shipping weapons to Iraq. Melhem highlighted Wolfowitz’s statement to the Fox network that “there’s got to be change in Syria,” which the paper played up in the story’s headline—though it was clearer in the body of the article that Wolfowitz was not necessarily advocating forcible change.

The tensions between Washington and Damascus have already had repercussions in Iraq. According to Kuwait’s Al-Rai al-Aam, last week a U.S. special operations unit blew up part of the Iraqi-Syrian pipeline that allowed Iraq to export oil to Syria outside the U.N. oil-for-food program. A day later, the paper published an intriguing and detailed story suggesting that Syrian officials, including President Bashar Assad, had met in February with Sharif Ali, the Hashemite pretender to the Iraqi throne, a leading opposition figure and a favorite of some Washington neocons. The Syrians have denied the reports, but if the story is true, it indicates Damascus is taking a pragmatic approach to preparing for a new postwar order in Iraq.

When the Syrians feel insecure, there tends to be a backlash in Lebanon. Saturday’s bombing of a McDonald’s restaurant near Beirut, which injured five people, may have been an instance of this. The Daily Star described the bombing as “a message against U.S. companies and products here,” though the franchise is entirely Lebanese-owned. The blast was caused by dynamite placed inside a bathroom, though police later found a large car bomb outside that had failed to detonate properly. Several papers, especially the French-language L’Orient-Le Jour, linked this to a recent spate of nighttime attacks against American-style fast-food outlets. However, the scope of the Saturday attack and its occurrence in broad daylight suggest something potentially far more serious, such as a response to U.S. threats against Syria.