Pressure Builds On Syria

2002/12/16 Bashar Assad headshot, as Syrian President
The Bush administration is sharpening its rhetoric against Syria, demanding it stop sponsoring terrorism and harboring remnants of Saddam Hussein's Iraqi regime or face diplomatic or economic sanctions.

"It is time to sign on to a different kind of Middle East," national security adviser Condoleezza Rice said Monday as Syria took another public pasting from the administration.

That echoed White House statements leading up to the war with Iraq that linked the end of that regime to increased chances for Middle East peace.

Secretary of State Colin Powell said Iraqis who have knowledge of weapons of mass destruction and Iraqi political leaders "are the kinds of individuals who should not be allowed to find safe haven in Syria."

"And this is a point we have made to the Syrians directly and will continue to make to the Syrians," he said at a news conference.

The Washington Post reports that U.S. officials believe several top Iraqi leaders have slipped into Syria, with a few hiding there and others move onto third countries.

"They should review their actions and their behavior, not only with respect to who gets haven in Syria and weapons of mass destruction, but especially the support of terrorist activity," Powell declared. Raising the threat of punishment, he said, "We will examine possible measures of a diplomatic, economic or other nature as we move forward…We'll see how things unfold."

In New York, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said he was "concerned that recent statements directed at Syria should not contribute to a wider destabilization in a region already affected heavily by the war in Iraq."

Syrian officials denied having chemical weapons and said the United States has yet to prove similar charges against Iraq. They also accused Israel of spreading misinformation about Syria.

In a sign that the United States might be more isolated in targeting Syria than it was in going after Iraq, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said Syrian President Basher Assad had personally assured him that his government "would interdict anybody" crossing the border from Iraq. "And I believe they are doing that," Blair told the House of Commons.

But White House spokesman Ari Fleischer rejected those denials, calling Syria a rogue nation and saying it is "well corroborated" that Iraq's neighbor has a chemical weapons program. "Syria needs to cooperate," he said.

Rice, in a parallel thrust at Damascus, said Syria's support for terrorism and "harboring the remnants of the Iraqi regime" were unacceptable.

But she indicated the administration was not contemplating military action.

Using the same formula the administration has applied to North Korea and its aggressive nuclear weapons program, Rice said at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, "The president has made clear every problem in the Middle East cannot be dealt with the same way."

And Powell signaled to Assad that the administration still would like to include Syria in the Mideast peacemaking it intends to accelerate between Israel and the Palestinians.

"As we go down the road to peace, we want it to be a comprehensive peace, and ultimately, of course, that would have to include finding a way to settle the outstanding issues with Syria, as well," Powell said at a State Department news conference.

Syria seeks to recover the Golan Heights, a strategic area it lost to Israel in the 1967 Mideast War.

Although it long has been listed by the State Department as a sponsor of terrorism, ever since Richard Nixon's presidency 30 years ago the United States has sought to interest Syria in peacemaking with Israel.

Assad met with British and Saudi envoys Monday in Damascus as his government denied U.S. charges that Syria has weapons of mass destruction and is sheltering Iraqi leaders.

Powell noted that Syria had said its border with Iraq was closed. However, he said, "it might mean the main roads are closed but whether or not others are able to get across the border is something that I can't speak to."

"But once they get into Syria and start heading to Damascus I would expect that Syrian authorities would do everything they could not to provide these people safe haven," he said.

U.S. commanders said volunteers from Syria were among the foreigners helping Iraqis put up resistance against U.S. troops in Baghdad. Navy Capt. Frank Thorp, a Central Command spokesman, said the fighters were often working alone or in small clusters.

On Saturday, a top Pentagon adviser who is considered an architect of the policy that led to the war with Iraq issued a stark warning to Syria on Saturday.

Richard Perle, a member of the influential Defense Policy Board, told the International Herald Tribune that if Syria were found to be hiding Iraqi weapons, "I'm quite sure that we would have to respond to that."

"But I suppose our first approach would be to demand that the Syrians terminate that threat by turning over anything they have come to possess, and failing that I don't think anyone would rule out the use of any of our full range of capabilities," Perle said.

Israel's defense minister said in an interview with Israel's Maariv daily, excerpts of which were published Monday, that Israel sees an opportunity, working with the United States, to remove the potential Syrian threat from its borders in the wake of the Iraq war.

Shaul Mofaz said Israel wants weapons and rockets of the Lebanese guerrilla group Hezbollah removed from southern Lebanon and the group dismantled. Syria is the main power broker in Lebanon. Israel will also demand that Syria stop harboring Palestinian militant groups, Mofaz said.