For the second time this year, the United States is publicly accusing Syria of interfering in U.S.-led military operations in Iraq. Yet again, at least according to one veteran foreign affairs analyst, the accusations do not presage hostile intent, but are merely efforts to maintain U.S. political pressure on Damascus.
Washington, 17 September 2003 (RFE/RL) -- A senior American official is renewing accusations that Syria is taking what he calls "hostile action" against U.S.-led coalition forces in Iraq, and pursuing nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons.
Undersecretary of State John Bolton told the U.S. House of Representatives International Relations Subcommittee on the Middle East and Central Asia yesterday that: "We've seen Syria take a series of hostile actions toward coalition forces in Iraq. Syria allowed military equipment to flow into Iraq on the eve of and during the war. Syria permitted volunteers to pass into Iraq to attack and kill our service members during the war and is still doing so."
Bolton also expressed Washington's concern about Syria's possible efforts to develop nuclear weapons. He said Damascus has tried to acquire what are known as "dual-use" technologies, which can be applied to peaceful or military applications.
In addition, Bolton told the subcommittee, the U.S. is watching for evidence of any foreign assistance -- specifically from Russia -- that could enable Syria to develop nuclear weapons.
"Russia and Syria have approved a draft program on cooperation on civil nuclear power. Broader access to Russian expertise could provide opportunities for Syria to expand its indigenous capabilities should it decide to pursue nuclear weapons."
Bolton's comments followed those earlier this week by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell that Syria is not cooperating with U.S. demands to end support for the Iranian-backed Hezbollah group, which Washington labels a terrorist organization, and to withdraw its troops from Lebanon.
Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Shaara rejected those charges. He said this week that Syria is willing to meet what he called "reasonable" demands from the U.S. within the framework of international legitimacy.
In the early days of the U.S.-led war in Iraq, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on several occasions accused Syria of allowing the forces of then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein to import military equipment through Syria.
Rumsfeld said at a Pentagon press briefing on 28 March, when the war was a week old, that: "We have information that shipments of military supplies have been crossing the border from Syria into Iraq, including night-vision goggles. These deliveries pose a direct threat to the lives of coalition forces. We consider such trafficking as hostile acts and will hold the Syrian government accountable for such shipments."
At the time, Damascus protested such statements, and there was concern that the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush might widen the war to include Syria. But the furor soon died down. In the meantime, Syria has appeared to go out of its way to cooperate with the United States.
As serious as the statements are, however, they should not be cause for concern about a possible widening of the war in Iraq, according to analyst Anthony Cordesman. He is a former Pentagon and State Department intelligence analyst and is now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a private-policy research institute in Washington.
Cordesman tells RFE/RL that everything Bolton told the hearing was testimony that he had planned to give several months ago. He noted that that hearing was postponed because Bolton's comments would have been viewed as too provocative at a time when the United States was engaged in a war with Syria's neighbor Iraq.
He said Bolton was merely repeating what Rumsfeld and other U.S. officials had said previously. And the intent, according to Cordesman, was not a prelude to possible American hostilities against Syria, but solely to put pressure on Damascus -- both positive and negative pressure.
"The problem with [such terms as] 'sinister or hostile intent' is that unless somebody waves a flag saying 'sinister and hostile intent' [laughs], there's no way to know, but I don't have any reason to believe that this was anything more than a pretty strong and firm statement on what Syria is doing, which was designed to keep the pressure up on Syria, and that Syria so far has tended to react in ways which serve American interests."
Cordesman says the United States wants to persuade Syria not to support any political or religious faction in Iraq that is hostile to the United States, not to engage in weapons proliferation, and not to support groups like Hezbollah and Hamas.
Some observers also tend to forget that there is also a positive side to the U.S. pressure on Damascus, according to Cordesman.
"If Syria goes through economic reform, then certainly there will be U.S. investment," he said. "If Syria is interested in the [Israeli-Palestinian] peace process, the United States will support it as it has in the past. If Syria is interested in cooperation in building a modern Iraq, then the United States would recognize that Syria has a legitimate interest in a peaceful and more modern Iraqi state."
Cordesman notes that the timing of Bolton's hearing and the fact that his testimony was public is potentially interesting. He says the administration no doubt wanted the world to hear its concerns about Syria.