As Iraq crumbles, Washington turns its sights on Syria

By WARREN P. STROBEL | KNIGHT RIDDER Published: April 11, 2003

WASHINGTON — With the Iraqi regime crumbling, some officials in the Bush administration and Congress are turning their sights on neighboring Syria, demanding that it, too, end support for terrorism and halt weapons-of-mass-destruction programs.

Influential conservative foreign-policy advisers outside government publicly advocate using whatever means necessary — including military attack — to change Syria's behavior. That view is shared by some civilian officials at the Pentagon.

In a recent speech, former CIA director James Woolsey called Syria's "fascist" regime an enemy of the United States. American Enterprise Institute scholar Michael Ledeen wrote that "It's time to bring down the other terror masters," a reference to Syria and Iran.

Against a backdrop of rising international concern over where U.S. policy in the Middle East will go next, the White House and the State Department have been forced into the unusual position of denying that President Bush plans any more "regime changes" in the region.

"Iraq is a unique set of circumstances, and that's how the president treats it," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Thursday.

An attack on Syria would find even less international support than Bush's decision to invade Iraq. Unlike with Iraq, the United States couldn't say it was acting to enforce U.N. disarmament demands.

Still, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and other officials have charged that Syria has aided Saddam's regime by letting military goods and Arab fighters flow across the border, and by giving haven to members of the Iraqi regime and their families. The officials haven't detailed their evidence, which others describe as circumstantial.

Washington has threatened Syrian President Bashar Assad's government with unspecified consequences if, in the post-Saddam era, he continues supporting terrorist groups, many of which target Israel, and seeking chemical and biological weapons and missiles.

Syria's chemical-weapons program includes a stockpile of nerve agent, and it is able to produce small amounts of biological warfare agents, Undersecretary of State John Bolton charged last year.

Damascus hosts numerous violent Palestinian groups, and gives backing to Hezbollah, which uses bases in Syrian-dominated Lebanon to attack Israel.

While the United States and Syria have diplomatic relations, Damascus is on the State Department's list of terrorist-sponsoring nations and is under some U.S. sanctions as a result.

Secretary of State Colin Powell said recently that Syria faced "a critical choice."

Asked what new steps Washington might take, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Thursday: "There are international implications for any country in terms of what they decide, as well as a variety of steps the United States can bring to bear, to make very clear what our views are about these kind of activities."

Hard-liners in Rumsfeld's office argue that the United States should present Syria with an ultimatum demanding that Damascus halt all support for terrorist groups, destroy all its chemical and biological weapons and surrender all suspected terrorists and high-ranking Iraqi officials for trial in Israel, the United States or elsewhere.

More moderate officials in the State Department and elsewhere agree that the United States should use the leverage from the defeat of Iraq to demand that Syria hand over leaders of Iraq's defeated Baathist regime, who they say appear to have fled across the border with their families.

But these officials argue that an ultimatum such as the one being pushed by the Pentagon hawks would backfire, not only in Syria but also throughout the Arab and Muslim world, by confirming fears that the United States is bent on subjugating the Arab world.

Rumsfeld recently accused Syria of allowing military goods, such as night-vision goggles, to go to the Iraqi regime, and of helping Saddam's supporters flee the country.

But a U.S. intelligence official said the evidence that Syria is allowing military goods to flow to Iraq in violation of U.N. sanctions predates the war. Intelligence that it has helped fleeing Iraqi officials comes from multiple sources, but is unverified, said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Edward Djerejian, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria who is now director of Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy, said Syria had cooperated with the United States in the war on Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida terrorist network, providing tips that reportedly saved American lives.

Now, said one expert who follows the region closely and who asked not to be named, "The good will that the Syrians were accorded for some of their help in hunting down al-Qaida is expiring."


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