When the Bush administration began spewing ominous threats toward Syria a week and a half ago, peaceniks like me were in the awkward position of expressing outrage that our assessment of the administration’s priorities had been proven correct: war first, details and cleanup later. Before fighting had ended in the streets of Baghdad, Bush’s hawks were hissing their glee at the prospect of turning the tanks toward Syria next. Bush, joined by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, accused the Syrian government of harboring high-level officials from Saddam’s Ba’ath party; funneling weapons, night-vision goggles and volunteer fighters into Iraq; and — in case none of those charges stuck — of harboring chemical weapons. They promised retribution American-style if the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad did not shape up quickly.

While many Americans might have missed the escapade, united opposition in the halls of power to Phase II: Syria, especially from Tony Blair, sent these war-happy policy-makers back to their Beltway burrows for the time being. Two U.S. Congressmen recently traveled to hear Assad reiterate his denial of the administration’s accusations in person; Secretary of State Colin Powell is planning a visit himself within a few weeks; and after Syria sealed its 400-mile border with Iraq, President Bush announced over the weekend that Syria was “getting the message.”

Given the abatement in his administration’s tough talk, though, Bush appears to be the one who is “getting the message.” Attacking Syria would set a new standard for incompetent imperialism on the part of the U.S. government — and that’s not an easy distinction to come by. Yet given the solidification of Shi’i leadership and anti-American rhetoric inside Iraq in recent days, the Bush administration’s neo-conservative policy makers may yet get their wish. The magnitude of their error could not be greater.

Syria, though smaller and privy to far fewer oil reserves than its neighbors Iran and Iraq, is a deeply portentous center of Arab civilization and pride. Under the late Syrian president Hafez Assad, Syria campaigned actively to take the lead in a resurgence of Arab nationalism. Arabs who see ulterior motives behind American aggression towards Syria have ample evidence in support of their claim: despite Bashar Assad’s solidarity with Syrian’s “Iraqi brothers” during the latest U.S. war, his country’s anti-Iraq credentials make the Saudis look like Saddam’s lapdogs. Syria was the only Arab nation to back Iran in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s; it sided with the United States in the first Gulf War; and it backed U.N. Security Council Resolution 1441 in November, authorizing a resumption of weapons inspections in Iraq. To add insult to injury from the perspective of invasion-wary Syrians, the country has even cooperated in the hunt for Qaida operatives, detaining and interrogating suspected terrorists at the request of the United States. Whichever “Q” Bush is today claiming inspired the recent war — al-Qaida or Iraq — Syria has precious little to do with it.

What Syria does have, however, is ample exposure to a White House-led smear campaign engineered to distract Americans from the growing debacle being made of so-called reconstruction and nation-building in Iraq. Syria has been accused of harboring chemical weapons, and even under the young, British-educated Bashar — who took power following his father’s death in 2000 — its record on the accordance of human rights and civil liberties to its citizens is atrocious. But even more damning for Syrians, given the recent course of events inside Iraq, is the Syrian government’s connection to Shi’i extremists in neighboring Lebanon. Syria is on the U.S. list of State Sponsors of Terrorism because of its support for Hizbollah, the terrorist-political-social service organization hybrid begun in 1982 to drive the Israelis out of southern Lebanon. Hizbollah draws its main support — as much as $100 million a year, according to the Los Angeles Times — from Iran’s Shi’i government, but Syria, a vitriolic opponent of Israeli influence anywhere, has kept a hand in maintaining the group, ignoring international pressure to pull its troops out of Lebanon.

And it is for this reason that those who oppose an extension of the U.S. campaign in Iraq should not consider Syria to be out of the doghouse yet. Whether the United States willed it or not, the future of Iraq is taking shape today — not in the walled Baghdad compounds between which Ahmed Chalabi is shuttled by his American handlers, but in the mosques and streets of Karbala, where 2 million Shi’i Muslims have gathered to mark one of the holiest events in their religious calendar, the martyrdom of Imam Hussein in the year 680 A.D. The commemorative gathering was banned under Saddam Hussein, but the Iraqi pilgrims in Karbala do not regard their newfound freedom as sufficient justification for the continued presence of American soldiers in their country.

In the Language Center on Tuesday, my Arabic class watched a live broadcast of Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hizbollah, decry a new era of American imperialism in Iraq to a huge crowd in Karbala. Tuesday evening, a panel of Yale professors discussing the future of Iraq in Luce Auditorium agreed that a democratic government of Iraq would likely be religiously based, empowered by the country’s 60 percent Shi’i population to lead with Islam as at least a partial political guide.

What does this have to do with Syria? The answer, even in a close-knit region like the Levant, as resplendent in history as it is in natural resources, is not much. The issue appears clear: the Iraqi people must be permitted to determine the shape of their nation, including its form of government. Repressing representative leadership is not only counterproductive to the establishment of a stable, prosperous country, it is also against America’s stated goals for a post-war Iraq.

But that does not alter the lamentable fact that in the Bush administration, foreign policy comes in only two hues: with us gold, or against us dead. Religious leaders of any sort, and certainly those who demand America’s immediate withdrawal from our newly vanquished playground of Iraq, are likely to fall in the latter camp, according to the likes of Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz. In the absence of a nuanced acceptance of Iraqi and regional self-determination — and with Iran representing more war than even Rumsfeld wants to chew — the Bush administration may yet decide that the road to an appropriately docile Middle East runs through Damascus.

If that happens, we should all enjoy the placid views of the world’s oldest city that will appear on CNN, because afterwards Americans won’t be enjoying peace — or a warm welcome — in the Middle East for a long, long time.

Paige Austin is a freshman in Davenport College.