US tells Syria to co-operate or risk conflict
From Tim Reid in Washington
Bush accuses Damascus of developing chemical weapons
Times of London, UK - 14 April:
PRESIDENT BUSH yesterday accused Syria of having chemical weapons. In the clearest sign yet that Washington is turning its sights on Damascus’ links to terrorism, two of his most senior Cabinet members also warned the country against harbouring Iraqi officials.
Mr Bush told Syria that it “must co-operate” with Washington as it continues its effort to overthrow Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq.
He also repeated earlier warnings from Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, and Colin Powell, the Secretary of State, that Damascus must not harbour fleeing members of Saddam’s regime.
“We believe there are chemical weapons in Syria,” Mr Bush said. “We expect co-operation and I’m hopeful that we will receive co-operation.”
He did not threaten Syria with military action, but told it, along with Iran and North Korea — who, with Iraq, form his “axis of evil” — that the example of Iraq shows “we’re serious about stopping weapons of mass destruction”.
General Tommy Franks, commander of coalition troops in Iraq, said that it could take a year to search every site in Iraq where weapons of mass destruction might be hidden. He said that up to 3,000 locations are earmarked for visits which are progressing at the rate of five to 15 a day. He added that Syrian fighters had joined Iraqi soldiers to fight inside Iraq.
US Intelligence has given warnings that Damascus has a nascent chemical and biological weapons programme, but the accusation has never before been made publicly by the Bush Administration.
Imad Moustaphi, Syria’s deputy ambassador to the US, denied the claims, calling them “a campaign of disinformation” to distract attention from civil disorder in Iraq.
However the accusation, coming from the President himself, marks a significant increase in Washington’s aggressive rhetoric toward the regime of President Assad.
Mr Rumsfeld, who last month accused Syria of channelling military equipment including night-vision goggles to Iraq, said yesterday: “Being on the terrorist list is not some place I’d want to be. The (Syrian Government is making a lot of bad mistakes, a lot of bad judgment calls, in my view, and they’re associating with the wrong people.”
He added that there was “no question” that some senior Iraqi leaders had fled to Syria.
His comments came as the Pentagon announced that a half-brother of Saddam, Watban Ibrahim Hassan, had been captured in northern Iraq, apparently trying to reach Syria.
Watban, apprehended near the northern city of Mosul, was the “five of spades” in the Americans’ 55-name most wanted list, issued in the form of a deck of cards.
General Franks also said that several senior members of the regime had been captured in western Iraq. Meanwhile Yemen granted political asylum to Mohsen Khalil, Iraq’s permanent ambassador to the Arab League in Cairo.
General Powell also told Syria not to offer shelter to Iraqi officials fleeing Baghdad.
He said: “We think it would be very unwise if suddenly Syria becomes a haven for all these people who should be brought to justice who are trying to get out of Baghdad. Syria has been a concern for a long period of time. We have designated Syria for years as a state sponsor of terrorism.”
The US stance towards Syria has become markedly more aggressive since the start of the Iraqi campaign. Yesterday’s comments were Washington’s latest move to increase the pressure on Damascus, which also gives shelter to the leaders of the Palestinian groups Hamas and Hezbollah.
The rhetoric is part of a new phase of muscular US diplomacy in the region which has been given added force by the demonstration of US military might in Iraq. But the targeting of Damascus has raised fears that Washington plans to turn its attention to a military assault on Syria.
However it is unlikely that the Administration would entertain the idea of another pre-emptive military campaign so soon, particularly with a presidential election next year.
There is also recognition in Washington that military action against Syria, or even the overt threat of it, would confirm fears that the US is intent on subjugating the Arab world.
President Assad has voiced concern that Syria is next on the US “war on terrorism” list.
The White House and the State Department have denied that President Bush plans any more “regime changes” in the region. But Washington hopes to use the leverage gained from its overwhelming military victory to exert uncompromising diplomatic and economic pressure on regimes to change their behaviour.