Accessibility links

Breaking News

Western Press Review: U.S. Pressure On Damascus, Postwar Iraq, And Mideast Peace

Prague, 16 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- A recent increase in the bellicosity of U.S. rhetoric toward Damascus has caused many to question whether Syria may be next on the U.S. list of regimes to confront in its attempts to spur reform throughout the Middle East. Several editorials today discuss this prospect, as well as what it will take to get Iraq up and running in the postwar period, and the "road map" for peace between Israelis and Palestinians.


A "Financial Times" editorial says the apparent U.S. decision to increase pressure on Syria following military victory in Iraq "has caused widespread concern," "[unleashing] anger and alarm across the Arab world" and "[triggering] consternation in Europe."

The paper writes: "Even if the U.S. feels there is a case for Syria to answer, its threats against Damascus are clumsily timed. They can make sense only as part of a broader strategy to bring peace between Israel and Palestine based on the road map to Palestine statehood" that the U.S. administration says it will present "once a reformist Palestine government is in place."

But positive signs coming from Palestinian Prime Minister-designate Mahmoud Abbas to appoint a reformist cabinet "must be matched [by] U.S. pressure on Israel to ensure an equitable peace settlement." So far, despite somewhat "conciliatory" remarks made last week in Israel's "Ha'aretz" daily, there is "no sign" Prime Minister Ariel Sharon "is willing to deal with the issues of territorial boundaries, Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza, the status of East Jerusalem and the Palestine refugees."

For the moment, Syria is "diplomatically and economically exposed." If President Bashar al-Assad desires "a more secure future for himself and his country," he must "embrace market-based economic reform."

The British daily says this path "is long overdue and the only hope for a more prosperous future in Syria and the region."


An editorial in the "Chicago Tribune" says "precipitous action in Syria is unlikely," even though several high-ranking members of the U.S. administration have warned recently that all options are open in dealing with Damascus.

"True, Syria is in some ways similar to Iraq," the editorial says. "It has been governed since 1968 by a faction of the Arab nationalist Baath Party. Like Iraq, it is a police state in which power is concentrated in the hands of a small clique, headed by President Bashar al-Assad." Syria has also "been a major sponsor of international terrorism, in particular backing Hezbollah against Israel."

But Syria differs from Iraq in several important respects. Damascus supported coalition efforts in the 1991 Gulf War and has cooperated with U.S. authorities on locating Al-Qaeda members after the 11 September 2001 attacks. Syria supported Resolution 1441 on Iraqi disarmament at the UN Security Council.

The paper says while the U.S. may have cause to increase diplomatic pressure if Syria is harboring Iraqi military and political leaders, "the overarching priority for the [U.S.] administration is to remake a region that has too much tolerance for terrorism." And Washington is "more likely to make that point by brokering a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians than by [airing] grudges on a nation-by-nation basis."

The editorial says the "fundamental message from Washington ought to be one of renewal and mutual security, not anger and threat."


"The Washington Post" in an editorial remarks that while roughly 100 Iraqi opposition leaders met at a U.S.-sponsored meeting near Nasariyah yesterday to discuss a democratic future for Iraq, "thousands more were on the streets protesting the meeting, saying they objected equally to Saddam Hussein and to U.S. control over Iraq."

The paper goes on to say that it is important to turn control over to Iraqis as quickly as possible, while engaging nations aside from the U.S. and multilateral institutions to help oversee this transition. But while U.S. forces are eager to turn over their "municipal management" roles, the paper says they "will have to resist the temptation to return authority to Baathist officials who are competent but tainted by association with a brutal regime. They will need to involve allies without ceding control over key goals such as ensuring an Iraq that is free of weapons of mass destruction and unthreatening to its neighbors."

And while the U.S. wants to return power to Iraqis, not all Iraqis accept such core principles as freedom of religion, which would be a fundamental value to uphold to ensure a peaceful Iraqi future.


Although politicians in Washington are making vague threats in the direction of Damascus, increased pressure on Syria does not signal an upcoming war, says Michael Stuermer in "Die Welt."

Stuermer assesses the situation by saying Syria, with its population of 17 million, is half desert, has little oil and little water, but is a land of ancient culture. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is a dangerous military dictator upholding structures similar to those that could be found in Iraq before Saddam Hussein's defeat. On the other hand, Syria is keeping the peace in the Golan Heights, even though it supports Hizballah and Hamas terrorists. Moreover, Syria is known to possess Soviet-built chemical weapons and missiles.

Stuermer says, given this situation and the possibility of "Assad degenerating further to become a Saddam partisan," military intervention may become inevitable. But for now, a war in Syria fought by Americans alone would be "a costly solo business."

There are other means of exerting pressure on Damascus, says Stuermer, such as closing pipelines or imposing an embargo. Moreover, Arab leaders are telling Assad he cannot afford to go to war. Stuermer concludes by saying the Washington-Damascus debate is a crisis bringing the two nations "to the brink of war, nothing less -- but also nothing more."


"The Guardian's" Jonathan Freedland says "there is every reason to be skeptical, rather than hopeful, about the intentions of both the Israeli and U.S. administrations" as they get ready to present a new "road map" for Middle East peace.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon "has always accepted peace initiatives -- only then to lodge enough objections to kill the plans stone dead." So when Sharon says he is willing to make "painful concessions" to reach a peace settlement, Freedland says the prime minister might have a low pain threshold in mind.

"He may, for example, be thinking of the pain of giving up 42 percent of the occupied West Bank, rather than almost all of it."

Sharon has already "set out a string of demands that would render a peace deal all but impossible. Palestinians would have to give up their demand for a 'right of return' to homes in Israel proper from the outset, as a precondition." They would also "have to make all their moves before -- not in parallel with -- any action taken by Israel."

As for the United States, Freedland says the White House "will put no pressure on Israel until the Palestinians are deemed to have made the grade on internal reform -- and that judgment is not coming soon."

These attempts are not enough for the Israelis and Palestinians, he says. "They need more than calls for action."


In Britain's daily "The Independent," Hamish McRae lays out a 10-point plan for Iraq's economic reconstruction. "[The] greater the economic success," he says, "the easier it should be to achieve political success too."

First, physical security must be established. Then basic services must be restored, including food and water, power, hospitals, public transport, and schools. Third, the civil-service structure must be rebuilt to collect revenue, followed by the establishment of a new currency to replace the dinar.

The fifth step, says McRae, must be to establish a new legal framework guaranteeing personal property "and the position of the individual vis-a-vis the state." Legal changes must then be made to re-privatize state enterprises that were being run by the former Baghdad regime. Step 7 would see Iraq's foreign debt either written off or rescheduled, to allow the economy to recover.

McRae says an important next step would be to identify a clear, tangible goal to which Iraq could aspire, "so that the inevitable pain of transition is seen to be in return for something truly worthwhile." And none of these stages should be "too prescriptive," but should allow for some flexibility.

Finally, outsiders "need to get out" of Iraq "as soon as is practicable. You cannot impose prosperity from without," McRae says. Ultimately, "it will be the human capital of Iraq [that] will help make the place rich."


A guest commentary by Cornelia Bolesch in the "Sueddeutsche Zeitung" discusses European Union prospects in light of the meeting today in the Greek capital, Athens, to ratify the accession of 10 new member states, mostly from Central and Eastern Europe. These candidates will formally join the union in May 2004.

Bolesch says the pathos with which Europe is celebrating its reconciliation will be short-lived, considering its "profound lack of self-assurance." The U.S. crusade against Iraq has left deep rifts between the old and new EU members. It was impossible for a 15-member EU to find common ground in its attitude to war and peace, she says. And soon the club will include a new "Czech president who recently declared, 'I do not need a European foreign policy.'"

However, Bolesch says, Athens could go down in history as the meeting that made momentous decisions about a new EU constitution. Essentially, the main issue under discussion is whether the EU presidency should be a rotating, temporary position as it is now, or "an all-powerful president who would work intensively on preparing EU summits and cultivating common policy roots."

The EU will now attempt to build bridges between the various camps. The aim, Bolesch says, should be a permanent chairman. The representatives of both nations large and small should signal in Athens that they wish to have an unbiased discussion about a better form of government.


"Liberation's" Patrick Sabatier says 20 minutes of telephone conversation between U.S. President George W. Bush and French President Jacques Chirac will not be enough to calm trans-Atlantic bitterness, which was exacerbated by the diplomatic furor in the run-up to the Iraq war.

It is too soon to tell whether Bush will take the advice of those in his camp who urge him to "punish France, ignore Germany, and forgive Russia" for their antiwar stances. But both presidents have good reasons to take part in bilateral discussions, for it is now time not only to reconstruct Iraq but to repair the trans-Atlantic relationship.

It would be "vain and destructive" for bilateral relations, along with Saddam Hussein's regime, to be one of the main casualties of the Iraq war, whatever the French think of Washington's hawks.

To build an Iraq that is democratic, free and prosperous does not have to be an American solo project. Continuing tensions between the pro- and antiwar camps would only undermine projects to help the Iraqi people and ensure regional and international stability. Sabatier says the French leadership, in pledging to treat each upcoming issue pragmatically and on an individual basis, has shown that it understands the new reality of Iraq.

(RFE/RL's Dora Slaba contributed to this report.)