The nations that speak violence unto other nations

Deadly Connections - Inheriting Syria
May 19, 2006

The largest terrorist attack ever to target the US was the work not of any particular state, but rather of a non-state network - al-Qaeda. Whether al-Qaeda benefited in some way from the assistance, or sponsorship, of certain states is hotly debated. Indeed, the sponsorship of terrorist organisations, actual or perceived, lies at the heart of the US foreign policy agenda and the still-unfolding post-9/11 international relations scene. It is this theme that Daniel Byman takes up in Deadly Connections .

The book is in effect divided into two parts, with the first presenting a conceptual framework investigating definitions of "terrorism"

and "sponsorship", and examining why and how states sponsor terrorist organisations. This discussion is immensely valuable as it presents a much-needed method of understanding the inter-relationships between three concepts (terrorism, "the state" and sponsorship) that are, at best, ambiguous even when taken individually. None of Byman's definitions is particularly controversial. However, his addition to the definition of terrorism that such actions must "deliberately target non-combatants" may raise some eyebrows in US Government circles, particularly as this would discount the attack on the USS Cole and the targeting of US military personnel by insurgents in Iraq as acts of terrorism.

The empirical sections of Deadly Connections focus on the support given by Iran to Hezbollah in Lebanon, Syria's patronage of "Palestinian radical groups", Pakistan's sponsorship of Kashmiri organisations and the Taleban's hosting of al-Qaeda. These states are seen as showing intent in their sponsoring of terrorism. Recognising that the world of international relations and non-state actors is notoriously opaque, Byman continues his analysis by considering "passive" sponsors. Noting that "for many terrorist groups, a state's tolerance of or passivity toward their activities is often as important to their success as any deliberate assistance they receive", Byman investigates the passivity shown by Saudi Arabia toward al-Qaeda, Greece's failure to target November 17 and America's allowing the Provisional IRA to raise money on US soil.

These issues are exceptionally pertinent, particularly as al-Qaeda operated with few constraints across Europe before 9/11, and the recent bombings in London have given rise to the belief in some quarters that the UK is reaping the sorry product of its own previous passivity.

Despite this enlightened moment of appreciating the complex nature of global terrorism, however, the overall balance remains overwhelmingly focused on the Arab and Islamic world as being the primary crucible in which the state-terrorism nexus exists. For once, it is possible to judge the book by its cover - on which an AK-47-toting Fatah militiamen poses menacingly on the shores of the Mediterranean. Its message is all too clear - states that sponsor terrorism are in the Middle East and are Muslim. Of course, Byman has a point, but to present it in such a way without developing how other non-Middle-Eastern states have also intentionally supported organisations that others may deem to be of a terrorist nature runs the risk of being considered misleading by some.

Flynt Leverett's book Inheriting Syria casts a critical eye over the first five years of the presidency of Bashar al-Asad or, more accurately, over US policy formulation toward Syria. "For the Bush Administration," writes Leverett, "Syria falls into the particularly problematic category of states that simultaneously sponsor terrorist activity, pursue weapons of mass destruction and repress their people." But, he opines, "as President Bush enters his second term, the US still lacks a framework for dealing effectively with Syria in the absence of a Syrian track of the peace process". Inheriting Syria is therefore an attempt to bridge the gap between the analytical uncertainty about Syrian politics under Bashar and US policy options toward Syria.

Much has happened in the past five years for Bashar. From filling the very large shoes of his late father, Hafiz al-Asad, he has tried to work within a set of domestic and international frameworks created largely by the elder Asad. Indeed, the theme of the actions of Bashar being constrained by Syria's geopolitical situation on the one hand and guided by the "inheritance" of a substantive policy bequest from his father on the other act as deterministic leitmotivs throughout the book.

Leverett displays a certain sympathy for the position of both Syria and Bashar and argues convincingly against imposing more pressure on Syria via unilateral sanctions because this policy "has a long and essentially unproductive record". Similarly, coercive regime change is dismissed as an option because it is argued that it is not needed (as Bashar is seemingly willing to engage with the US), and the lessons of Afghanistan and Iraq show that it is far from guaranteed that a post-conflict Syria would become a US-friendly haven of stability. Instead, Leverett concludes Inheriting Syria with an impassioned plea for the opening of a "Syrian track" of the Middle-East peace process, bringing Syria into negotiations with Israel.

The authors of both these books come from the same Washington DC think-tank milieu (and, in particular, the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution), linking into the frenetic world of policy advocacy and promotion. Despite this environment, neither author has sought to sensationalise or over-simplify his subject; each makes considerable efforts to emphasise the nebulous nature of "terrorism" and the changeable nature of the interactions between the players in the War on Terror. Whether these arguments will be heard amid the cacophony of voices attempting to influence the direction of US policy remains to be seen.

Gareth Stansfield is reader in Middle East politics, Exeter University.

Deadly Connections: States that Sponsor Terrorism

Author - Daniel Byman
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Pages - 369
Price - £19.99
ISBN - 0 521 83973 4

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