Analysis / Washington turns its sights on Damascus By Ze'ev Schiff
[Ha'aretz - 15 April]
Why is the volume of rebuke leveled by the U.S. administration against Damascus getting higher while the war in Iraq is actually coming to a close? Two reasons seem to underly America's rage, which was quite evident first in the statements of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and then of President George W. Bush. One is that Washington has learned that Damascus has decided to "turn Iraq into a new Lebanon," and the second is the suspicion, which is probably based on reliable intelligence, that Damascus is ready to shelter fleeing Iraqi leaders and let them pass through to other hiding places worldwide.
Hardly a day has gone by recently without Washington lashing out against Syria. The headquarters of U.S. forces in Qatar concured, saying that during the fighting in Iraq, volunteer Syrian soldiers opened fired on American troops; the Syrians also fired anti-tank missiles and old Strela missiles against U.S. aircraft. Since these are weapons that individuals usually do not own, the Syrian volunteers must have received them before crossing into Iraq.
In his comments yesterday, Rumsfeld distinguished between the Syrian people on the one hand and its leadership, which supports terror, on the other. He stressed the link between Syria and Hezbollah, which the U.S. has recognized as a terror organization. Rumsfeld did not threaten military retaliation, but wondered who would invest in a country like Syria. And for the first time, Bush yesterday demanded that Syria dispose of its chemical weapons.
These statements indicate a turnaround in Washington's approach to Damascus. The previous policy of quiet operations was led by the CIA, which apparently got intoxicated by information that the Syrians had provided at some stage about Al-Qaida's operations in various countries, including Germany. Washington, therefore, was reluctant to publicly censor Syria when it learned that the Syrians were acquiring equipment and arms for Iraq in various countries in Eastern Europe. The Americans approached Syria with this information, but Damascus did not stop the acquisitions. Syria continued to broker Iraqi arms deals until the fighting began.
Next, Syria allowed Palestinian and Syrian volunteers to cross the border into Iraq. American pressure on Syria mounted, but Damascus did not make any real effort to seal the border. This was not a matter of slow response but of deliberate disregard to America's requests, which would not have happened without President Bashar Assad's approval. He seems to be drawing courage from recent talks with the French, who are still encouraging anti-American activities.
America grew even angrier when it discovered that even after Saddam Hussein's defeat, the Syrians, in coordination with Hezbollah's leader, continued to determine how to hurt the Americans in Iraq and disrupt their progress. The leading concept in Syria today is that Iraq should be to the Americans what Lebanon was for Israel - namely, to cause terror attacks and suicide bombers and generate as many American casualties as possible. It is yet unknown whether Syria or Hezbollah has any operational plans to back up these professed policies.
However, Washington seems to have solid information about different Iraqi leaders who have escaped to Syria; all these fugitives have been defined by the U.S. as criminals of war. These men are probably not part of Saddam's closest circle and most likely include leading figures in Iraq's military industry. It won't be long before Washington demands the extradition of the wanted Iraqi leaders.
Traditionally, Syria has pointed a finger at Israel, accusing it of inciting Washington against it. In truth, Israel is doing its best to keep a low profile in the Iraqi affair in which Assad got himself entangled, but it, too, will have to reevaluate its policy vis-a-vis Syria under the rule of Assad Junio