Syria Denies Aiding Saddam's Regime

2002/12/16 Bashar Assad headshot, as Syrian President
Amid increasing speculation that it could next be a target of U.S. attack, Syria on Monday denied it was sheltering Saddam Hussein's cohorts or weapons.

"Of course Syria has no chemical weapons. They (Americans) have been talking for years about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. But so far, the presence of these weapons has not been confirmed," said Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Bouthayna Shaaban.

"I would like to say that there are biological, chemical and nuclear weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East region. They are in Israel, not in Syria," she said in a telephone interview with Lebanon's Al-Hayat-LBC satellite channel late Sunday.

President Bush warned Syria on Sunday not to harbor Iraqi leaders and charged that Damascus has chemical weapons.

"We expect cooperation, and I'm hopeful we'll receive cooperation," he told reporters in Washington. Mr. Bush stopped short of threatening Syria with military action but added: "People have got to know that we are serious about stopping the spread of weapons of mass destruction."

Syrian President Bashar Assad met Monday with British Junior Foreign Minister Mike O'Brien, who arrived in Damascus as part of a tour that would also take him to Iraq.

A British Embassy official said O'Brien's visit was "part of ongoing dialogue between Syria and Britain," adding that the United Kingdom was interested in conducting consultations on post-Saddam Iraq with all the countries neighboring Iraq.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, speaking to reporters in Bahrain on Monday, said Syria was not the next coalition target after the war on Iraq but added that it needed to answer questions.

In an interview with British Broadcasting Corp. radio Monday, Straw said the United States and Britain would be looking for Syrian cooperation regarding "some fugitives from Iraq (who) may well have fled to Syria, and other matters, including whether they have in fact been developing any kind of illegal or illegitimate chemical or biological programs."

Asked whether he believed the Syrians had weapons of mass destruction, Straw replied: "I'm not sure, and that's why we need to talk to them about it."

Assad also met Monday with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal. Syria's official news agency said the two discussed "the situation in Iraq and efforts being exerted by neighboring countries to restore security and stability and to preserve the unity and integrity of the Iraqi territories."

Syria's deputy ambassador to the United States, Imad Moustapha, denied that his country was harboring escaped Iraqis. In a broadcast interview he said it was the responsibility of U.S. troops to monitor Iraq's 375-mile western border with Syria.

U.S.-led forces captured one of Saddam's half brothers in northern Iraq and said he was planning to cross the border to Syria. Iraq's U.N. ambassador, Mohammed Al-Douri, arrived in Syria on Saturday, a day after leaving New York. It was not immediately clear whether he would return to Iraq.

But the BBC reports a top Iraqi general now cooperating with American forces, General Ali al-Jajjawi, said several regime leaders have fled to Syria.

Secretary of State Colin Powell warned Syria not to harbored members of Saddam Hussein's regime.

In a broadcast interview, Powell said, "We have designated Syria for years as a state that sponsors terrorism." He warned that it would be unwise if Syria "suddenly becomes a haven for all these people who should be brought to justice."

The remark is one of several by top U.S. officials and advisers in recent weeks that suggest the U.S. might turn the heat up on Damascus now that Baghdad has fallen.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said some Iraqi leaders remained in Syria, while others have moved on to different countries. He declined to identify the Iraqis or the other countries, or if the United States was prepared to take any punitive action against Syria.

"We certainly are hopeful Syria will not become a haven for war criminals or terrorists," Rumsfeld said.

Busloads of Syrians have entered Iraq to fight against the U.S.-led coalition, Rumsfeld said. Some of them have been turned back to Syria, others have been captured and still others have been killed in firefights, he said.

Syrians accounted for the largest share of foreign fighters that U.S. troops have faced in Baghdad over the past 24 hours, he said.

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.