Israeli leaders did not push the Bush Administration to put its crosshairs on Syria before March 2003, because they were too busy pushing for war against Iraq. But once Baghdad fell in mid‐April, Sharon and his lieutenants began urging Washington to target Damascus. On April 16, for example, Sharon and Shaul Mofaz, his defense minister, gave high profile interviews in different Israeli newspapers. Sharon, in Yedioth Ahronoth, called for the United States to put “very heavy” pressure on Syria. Mofaz told Ma’ariv that, “We have a long list of issues that we are thinking of demanding of the Syrians and it is appropriate that it should be done through the Americans.” Sharon’s national security advisor, Ephraim Halevy, told a WINEP audience that it was now important for the United States to get rough with Syria, and the Washington Post reported that Israel was “fueling the campaign” against Syria by feeding the United States intelligence reports about the actions of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
Prominent members of the Lobby made the same arguments after Baghdad fell. Wolfowitz declared that “there has got to be regime change in Syria,” and Richard Perle told a journalist that “We could deliver a short message, a two‐ worded message [to other hostile regimes in the Middle East]: ‘You’re next’.” In early April, WINEP released a bipartisan report stating that Syria “should not miss the message that countries that pursue Saddam’s reckless, irresponsible and defiant behavior could end up sharing his fate.” On April 15, Yossi Klein Halevi wrote a piece in the Los Angeles Times entitled “Next, Turn the Screws on Syria,” while the next day Zev Chafets wrote an article for the New York Daily News entitled “Terror‐Friendly Syria Needs a Change, Too.” Not to be outdone, Lawrence Kaplan wrote in the New Republic on April 21 that Syrian leader Assad was a serious threat to America. Back on Capitol Hill, Congressman Eliot Engel (D‐NY) had reintroduced the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act on April 12. It threatened sanctions against Syria if it did not withdraw from Lebanon, give up its WMD, and stop supporting terrorism, and it also called for Syria and Lebanon to take concrete steps to make peace with Israel. This legislation was strongly endorsed by the Lobby—especially AIPAC—and “framed,” according to the Jewish Telegraph Agency, “by some of Israel’s best friends in Congress.” It had been on the back burner for some time, largely because the Bush Administration had little enthusiasm for it, but the anti‐Syrian act passed overwhelmingly (398‐4) in the House; 89‐4 in the Senate), and Bush signed it into law on December 12, 2003. Yet the Bush Administration was still divided about the wisdom of targeting Syria at this time. Although the neoconservatives were eager to pick a fight with Damascus, the CIA and the State Department were opposed. And even after Bush signed the new law, he emphasized that he would go slowly in implementing it. Bush’s ambivalence is understandable. First, the Syrian government had been providing the United States with important intelligence about al Qaeda since 9/11 and had also warned Washington about a planned terrorist attack in the Gulf. Syria had also given CIA interrogators access to Mohammed Zammar, the alleged recruiter of some of the 9/11 hijackers. Targeting the Assad regime would jeopardize these valuable connections, and thus undermine the larger war on terrorism. Second, Syria was not on bad terms with Washington before the Iraq war (e.g., it had even voted for U.N. Resolution 1441), and it was no threat to the United States. Playing hardball with Syria would make the United States look like a bully with an insatiable appetite for beating up Arab states. Finally, putting Syria on the American hit list would give Damascus a powerful incentive to cause trouble in Iraq. Even if one wanted to pressure Syria, it made good sense to finish the job in Iraq first. Yet Congress insisted on putting the screws to Damascus, largely in response to pressure from Israel officials and pro‐Israel groups like AIPAC. If there were no Lobby, there would have been no Syria Accountability Act and U.S. policy toward Damascus would have been more in line with the U.S. national interest.
Hopefully this will help in understanding why we are in the mess we are in