America's attacks on Syria simply confirm fears of its Middle East intentions
[The Indpendent, Editorial - 14 April 2003]:
There is something unseemly, not to say alarming, about the way in which the US appears to be setting up Syria as the next threat to world peace and security even before the guns have fallen silent in Iraq. With looting and violence continuing, barely restrained, over the weekend, President Bush and his senior officials peppered Syria with warnings about its behaviour – warnings all too reminiscent of the ones that preceded the war on Iraq.
They held Syria responsible for myriad iniquities. But central was the accusation that Syria could be harbouring Iraq's former leaders. "The Syrian government needs to co-operate," said Mr Bush. In separate television interviews, his Secretaries of State and Defence repeated the warning and recalled that Washington had long designated Syria a state that sponsored terrorism. There was "no question", Donald Rumsfeld said, that senior Iraqis had fled to Syria or used Syria as an escape route. Mr Powell accused Syria of supplying Iraq with "materials" – apparently meaning weapons.
Meanwhile, Saddam Hussein's half-brother, Watban al-Tikriti, was reported to have been captured by US forces while trying to reach Syria, and a gunman who shot dead a US marine in Baghdad was said to be carrying a Syrian passport. Syrians, said Mr Rumsfeld, accounted for the largest number of foreign fighters encountered by US troops in Iraq. As yet unsubstantiated rumours include reports that Iraq may have sent some of its illegal weapons... to Syria for safe-keeping.
Having eliminated Iraq as a threat, the Bush administration gives the impression that it is casting around for more enemies. The risks of such public accusations were all too apparent in the failed international diplomacy that gave way to the war on Iraq. The current disorder in Iraq similarly illustrates the dangers inherent in effecting a "regime change" by force without sufficient planning.
We can hope that Washington's warnings are no more than a metaphorical shot across Syria's bows and reflect nothing more ambitious than a desire to bring Saddam Hussein and his henchmen to justice. The message, however, comes across as rather more ambiguous. Syria is the only other country to have a monopoly Baath party in charge. The US accuses it of sponsoring and harbouring Hizbollah terrorists. It suspects Syria of trying to obtain weapons that would make it a greater threat to Israel. Syria only narrowly, we are now told, avoided being grouped with Iraq, Iran and North Korea as part of the "axis of evil".
There are those in the US administration who have made no secret of their desire to re-order the whole Middle East. In their scheme, Iraq is only the start. The Prime Minister, for all his commitment to disarming Iraq and improving life for Iraqis, has so far declined to sign up to any wider objective, beyond improving the prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace. By sending his Foreign Office minister, Mike O'Brien, to Damascus and Tehran this week, Mr Blair is not only keeping channels open with these countries. He is also publicly distancing himself from Washington's judgement that they are "rogue states". Keeping communications open should remain Britain's priority. One ill-conceived war with the potential to destabilise the whole region is already one too many.