Mofaz: U.S., Israel view Assad's acts, words as 'very grave'
By Ze'ev Schiff and Nathan Guttman
Haaretz - 4-01-03: Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said Tuesday that the United States and Israel view as "very grave" the wartime aid that Syrian President Bashar Assad has given the Saddam Hussein regime, as well as recent Assad comments that Mofaz said suggested that no peace with Israel was possible.
"Bashar Assad has recently engaged in and expressed himself in two spheres that in the view of the Americans and in our view are very grave," Mofaz said on a visit to the army's central induction center near Tel Aviv.
The first is the "very fact of their granting physical aid to the Iraqis. The second is his remark about Israel, in which he says in essence that no peace agreement can be reached with Israel."
"We must follow both his remarks and his actions in a very, very thorough manner," Mofaz said.
In a front-page interview with Lebanon's as-Safir newspaper last week, Assad was asked if he believed Syria - which has led Arab opposition to the war and appears on a U.S. list of states sponsoring terrorism for supporting Lebanon's Hezbollah guerrilla group and Palestinian organizations fighting Israel - would be next on Washington's 'target list' after Iraq. "The possibility is always there," Assad replied.
"As long as Israel exists, the threat is there. As long as there is an aggression on an Arab country and a war on our borders, the danger is there...But worry does not translate to fear."
Despite American warnings, in the last few days Damascus has expedited the passage of volunteers wishing to join the Iraqis in their war against the Americans, Haaretz said Tuesday in an exclusive report, according to which thousands of volunteer, most of them Syrians, are thronging to the Mosul and Kirkuk regions in north Iraq.
U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has accused Damascus of transferring weapons to Iraq, but did not mention the volunteers. On Monday the United States warned Syria and Iran again not to cooperate with terrorism and with Saddam Hussein's regime.
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said at the AIPAC convention on Sunday that Syria will have to make a critical choice: "Syria can continue direct support for terrorist groups and the dying regime of Saddam Hussein, or it can embark on a different and more hopeful course. Either way, Syria bears the responsibility for its choices, and for the consequences."
Ratcheting up the war of words
Ratcheting up the war of words with Washington, Syria Tuesday called the U.S.-British invasion of Iraq a "fiasco" and suggested American officials be tried for crimes against humanity.
The English-language Syria Times newspaper - one of several state-run newspapers - said in an editorial that the invasion had proven to be a "major embarrassment" for the U.S. military and has led to anti-U.S. sentiments reaching "unprecedented levels."
"The only way out is to stop the war immediately and hold those responsible for it 'accountable' for their crimes against humanity," the newspaper said.
Commenting on Powell's warning, the Syria Times said Powell had a choice of his own to make: "He can continue direct support for the military in the invasion of Iraq, or he can embark on a different and more hopeful course and quit. "U.S. officials must accept full responsibility for the aggression fiasco," it said. "The war is unjustifiable and illegal."
The administration made it clear on Monday that since that equipment delivery from Syria to Iraq - which according to Rumsfeld consisted mainly of night-vision goggles - no further deliveries had been observed.
Volunteers stream from Syria to Iraq
The dozens of volunteers who first passed from Syria to Iraq came mostly from Lebanon and from the Palestinian refugee camps in it. Syria let them cross into Iraq through the official border passes, and became the first state bordering with Iraq to permit the passage of volunteers. One of the buses driving the volunteers in Iraq was hit by an American missile and five of its passengers were killed.
At first, Palestinians and Lebanese was dominant among the volunteers, but as their numbers increased, the number of Syrians among them grew. Now the stream of volunteers is estimated at thousands. Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tareq Aziz said in an interview two days ago that some 4,000 volunteers had arrived in Iraq from various Arab states. He did not say where they came from, but it is known that the Iranians, Jordanians and Turks do not permit the passage of volunteers to Iraq.
In the past, America has taken a lenient view of the Syrian aid to Iraq. A few months ago, Haaretz first reported of the Syrian military purchases for Iraq in various East European states. The equipment and weapons reached Syria's Atkia harbor and were transferred in convoys to Iraq. To this day, the exact quantities of arms, tank engines and planes transferred to Iraq by the Syrians are not known.
Washington kept its criticism down because the CIA estimated it was better to receive intelligence from Syria on Al-Qaida activities. Apparently this information helped the Americans in the past to crack Al-Qaida cells in Germany and Spain. After the war started, the Pentagon became more critical toward Damascus and the displeasure was reflected in Rumsfeld's accusations against Syria. However, it is not clear how the Americans will act and whether they will try to intercept the movement of volunteers from Syria to Iraq.
While criticizing Syria, the United States is continuing to pressure Iran on two levels. It is demanding Iran stop letting the "Bader brigades" into Iraq and to stop Iran's nuclear project. Powell said, "It is now time for the entire international community to step up and insist that Iran end its support for terrorists, including groups violently opposed to Israel and to the Middle East peace process."
Assad's increasingly strident statements on the Middle East have included a swipe at the road map for Middle East, as sponsored by the U.S., EU, UN, and Russia. The Syrian leader said the road map, along with its predecessors the Mitchell and Tenet plans, were "destined for failure because they do not meet the aspirations and restore the rights of the Palestinian people."
The road map, drawn up by international mediators of the so-called quartet of the United Nations, the United States, Russia and the European Union, calls for the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel in 2005.
Earlier on Tuesday, interviewed on Israel Radio's Reka channel, Mofaz said of Assad's comments on Israel, "To my great regret, these remarks are unhelpful, certainly during a time such as this, and also in view of the fact that the Syrians are aiding the Iraqis, as American Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld had said."