A Syrian Haven for Killers, Then and Now

By Dr. Rafael Medoff

The U.S. air raid on Al Qaeda forces in eastern Syria this week suggests the Bush administration may have decided to forcefully confront Syria’s policy of sheltering killers–a policy that goes all the way back to the 1940s.

At the end of World War II, thousands of Nazi war criminals were granted haven in South America and Arab countries, particularly Egypt and Syria. Damascus welcomed Nazis partly out of ideological sympathy for the Hitler regime, and partly because the fugitives were useful allies in Syria’s war to prevent the creation of Israel in 1948.

During the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, there were so many Nazi fugitives in the Syrian Army, including a number of commanding officers, that when the Haganah (soon to become the Israeli Army) defeated the Arab forces in Haifa, its terms for a truce included a provision that “European Nazis will be delivered to [the British] Military [authorities].”

During the 1950s and 1960s, the names of prominent Nazis living in Syria began to surface. One was SS Captain Theodor Dannecker, who had helped Adolf Eichmann implement Hitler’s genocide policy in France, Bulgaria, and Hungary. When the legendary Israeli spy Eli Cohen took up residence in Damascus in 1962, his Syrian acquaintances introduced him to Franz Rademacher, a senior Eichmann aide who had been involved in the mass murder of Jews from Belgium, Holland, Croatia, and elsewhere. After the war, Rademacher had fled to Syria and became an official in the Syrian Secret Service.

The most notorious Nazi granted asylum in Syria was another top Eichmann aide, SS Lieutenant Alois Brunner. After being convicted in France in 1954 of responsibility for the murders of more than 100,000 Jews, Brunner disappeared. Two decades later, the famed French Nazi-hunters Serge and Beate Klarsfeld tracked down Brunner in Damascus, where he was making a comfortable living as an adviser to the Syrian intelligence services.

U.S. government policy regarding Nazi war criminals was initially somewhat ambivalent. In 1942, President Roosevelt publicly pledged that Nazi war criminals would be punished. The following year, the Allies established the United Nations War Crimes Commission, and former diplomat Herbert Pell (father of future U.S. Senator Claiborne Pell) was appointed as the U.S. representative to the commission.

But Pell soon discovered, to his dismay, that the State Department claimed the U.S. had a legal right to prosecute only those war crimes that were committed against citizens of Allied countries–excluding atrocities committed against other civilians. That would have spared many Nazi killers of Jews. This approach was consistent with the mindset among some U.S. officials, as well as the British Foreign Office, that going easy on postwar Germany could help turn Berlin into America’s ally.

Because Pell favored prosecuting all Nazi war criminals, the State Department repeatedly tried to undermine him. State even sent a staff member to shadow Pell at commission meetings and secretly report back on what he was saying behind closed doors. Pell turned the tables by going public. His January 1945 press conference embarrassed the State Department into reversing its position and agreeing that Nazi killers of Jews –from all countries– should be prosecuted.

But after the war ended, many U.S. officials regarded the prosecution of Nazi war criminals as less of a priority than building relations with postwar West Germany. As a result, many of the less-prominent war criminals were let off with minor penalties or not prosecuted at all. In addition, some U.S. government agencies considered former Nazis to be potentially useful allies in the Cold War. A number of them, including some known war criminals, were hired for U.S. military and intelligence purposes in Europe or even brought to the United States.

In the aftermath of the U.S. war against Saddam Hussein’s regime, there were media reports that some Iraqi war criminals had found shelter in Syria. More recently, evidence has emerged of Al Qaeda forces finding haven in Syria. U.S. officials have estimated that ninety percent of foreign terrorists entering Iraq are arriving via the “uncontrolled gateway” of the Iraq-Syria border.

Yet the American response to Syria’s shelter-the-killers policy, then and now, has reflected a certain ambivalence.

After World War Two, the U.S. declined to use economic or diplomatic pressure to secure Syria’s surrender of Nazi war criminals for prosecution. Improving American relations with the Arab world was considered a higher priority than bringing Alois Brunner and company to justice.

In our own time, although U.S. troops have in some isolated instances crossed into Syrian territory while chasing terrorists, there had never been a large-scale raid comparable to this week’s, nor one involving aircraft.

And while on the one hand, the Bush administration has designated Syria a sponsor of terrorism and imposed the requisite sanctions, on the other hand Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and her aides recently met with Syrian officials to seek a “thaw” in relations between Washington and Damascus.

Does this week’s U.S. air raid demonstrate a rejection of the “thaw” approach–or does it simply reflect the latest bump in an ongoing tug of war within the administration over how to deal with Syria?

As in the 1940s, when the State Department wanted to go easy on some Nazi war criminals, and the 1950s, when the U.S. avoided the issue of Syria sheltering Nazi killers, American policymakers today find themselves at the crossroads where politics, justice, and national security collide.

(Published in the Jerusalem Post on October 30, 2008)

August 2008