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U.S./Syria: What's Behind Washington's War Of Words?

  • Jeffrey Donovan

Despite calls from the European Union and elsewhere to cool off its rhetoric, Washington continues to lob verbal attacks at Syria, prompting concern that Damascus may be next on its list of military targets.

Washington, 15 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- What's behind the American war of words against Syria?

For days now, the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush has lobbed precision-guided rhetoric straight at the heart of Damascus and the government of President Bashar al-Assad, which it accuses of backing Palestinian terrorist groups.

As Washington has slammed Damascus for allegedly harboring members of Saddam Hussein's toppled regime and allowing fighters and military equipment to flow into Iraq, some have speculated that the war in Iraq will soon turn toward Syria.

U.S. and British officials say there are no such plans, and analysts agree that extending the war to Syria is unlikely. Still, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer, calling Syria a "rogue nation," told a briefing yesterday that the U.S. is taking no options off the table.

"Syria needs to seriously ponder the implications of their actions in terms of harboring Iraqis who need not and should not be harbored," Fleischer said. "They should think seriously about their program to develop and to have chemical weapons. I think it is time for them to think through where they want their place to be in the world," Fleischer said.

Syria has vehemently denied charges that it has arms of mass destruction and is sheltering Iraqi leaders. But it has said nothing of U.S. charges that it has allowed fighters to flow across its border into Iraq.

Fleischer's comments followed a barrage of remarks by U.S. officials over the weekend, including from Bush, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Powell and Rumsfeld, as well as Condoleezza Rice, the White House national security adviser, added their voices to the fray again yesterday.

Rumsfeld accused Syria of testing chemical weapons in the last year or so and said Damascus had allowed fighters to flow into Iraq, where they have engaged U.S. troops.

Powell threatened "economic and diplomatic" measures against Syria. But in a message heard often from other officials, including Bush, the secretary of state reminded Damascus that it should consider the "new situation" in the post-Saddam Hussein Middle East. "We have a new situation in the region, and we hope that all the nations in the region now will review their past practices and behavior," Powell said.

Analysts say the U.S. rhetoric against Syria is unprecedented. Raymond Tanter, a professor at the University of Michigan and an expert on rogue regimes, told RFE/RL: "The president, the vice president, the secretary of state, the secretary of defense, the national security adviser and the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff have all issued threats and warnings to Syria over the last week. This is unheard-of with respect to U.S.-Syrian relations. Never before have those high-level officials made those kinds of statements."

But their actual intention has analysts guessing.

Asked about the meaning of the message to Syria, Fleischer referred reporters to a speech Bush made days before the start of the war. In it, the president told a gathering of conservative intellectuals that toppling Hussein could unleash a wave of democratic reform and peace in the Mideast.

Some analysts say the U.S. verbal assault on Syria is actually aimed at furthering that vision by helping to secure concessions from Damascus on the Mideast peace process ahead of the upcoming release of the "road map," a new formula for Arab-Israeli peace drawn up by the U.S., United Nations, the European Union, and Russia.

The road map is due out as soon as a new cabinet is confirmed under reformist Palestinian Prime Minister-designate Mahmoud Abbas. But Syria is seen as a key supporter of Palestinian radical groups Hizballah and Hamas, and could jeopardize the new push for peace.

Addressing that issue, Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom told reporters yesterday in Ankara: "We know very well what a major role Syria is taking in letting those terrorist organizations to increase their activities. Unfortunately, they are not doing anything in order to prevent it."

Murhaf Jouejati, a former adviser to the Syrian government, is a professor at George Washington University in the U.S. capital. Jouejati told RFE/RL that Syria is unlikely to back the road map, which he says makes no mention of the Golan Heights, a strategic area it lost to Israel in 1967.

"What it comes down to is that the United States does not want to see any opposition to the road map by anyone," Jouejati said. "And so, Syria has the ability, has the capacity, to mobilize dissident Palestinian organizations, those who would be working against [Palestinian leader] Yasser Arafat, and so I think this is a preemptive move on the part of Washington."

Likewise, Jouejati said a recent suggestion by Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that Israel could scale back Jewish settlements in Palestinian areas in exchange for peace should be seen in the same context.

Syrian-born Jouejati, however, does not see Damascus caving in to U.S. pressure, despite acknowledging that Washington now has more leverage over Syria with control of Iraq. Prior to the war, Syria was seen as a major smuggler of Iraqi oil, but not anymore.

He notes that Washington and Damascus have quietly cooperated in the war on terrorism, with Syria helping to track down Al-Qaeda cells. But Jouejati said the key issue between the two countries remains their divergent view of the radical Palestinian groups, which are seen as terrorists by Washington but legitimate liberation fighters by Damascus.

"In the absence of solving this definitional issue, I do not think that the Syrians will either relinquish their sovereignty over the Golan Heights nor will they throw out the Palestinian organizations that are headquartered in Damascus," Jouejati said.

Jouejati does not think military action would then follow, but added that economic and diplomatic isolation could result. "In that case," he said, "the United States and Syria would be on a collision course."

But not everybody sees it that way. Tanter, who served on former U.S. President Ronald Reagan's National Security Council, told RFE/RL that Washington is still very much concerned about the situation on the ground in Iraq, and genuinely views Syria's behavior as threatening its position in Iraq.

"I would not be surprised if cruise missiles hit Syria, not to hit the regime in Damascus but to take out some weapons caches that have been stashed along the border or some mobile weapons labs that have gotten across the border," Tanter said. "What does that have to do with the road map? It has nothing to do with the road map. It has to do with war."

Meanwhile, efforts are already under way in the U.S. Congress to punish Syria economically.

The Syrian Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act, which may come up for debate, could ban U.S. exports and the sale of dual-use items to Syria. It would also prohibit U.S. businesses from operating there, restrict Syrian diplomats and airline flights, reduce diplomatic contacts, and freeze U.S.-held Syrian assets.

The legislation failed in 2002 to win majority support in either the Senate or the House of Representatives, partly because the Bush administration opposed it as a distraction from its preparations to attack Iraq.

But one of its sponsors says the time is now ripe to pass it. "Now that Saddam Hussein's regime is defeated, it is time for America to get serious about Syria," New York Congressman Eliot Engel said.