WASHINGTON BUREAU CHIEF; Special
correspondent Knut Royce contributed to this story
April 10, 2003
Washington - With victory in Iraq assured, hawks outside and inside the
Bush administration have begun taking a notably aggressive stance toward its neighbor to
the west, Syria. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, and
their main ideological ally at the State Department, undersecretary John Bolton, have all
made menacing public remarks about Syria in recent days.
Yesterday, Rumsfeld said Syria was harboring lower-level members of Saddam Hussein's regime. He said Syria had ignored his warnings not to help Iraq militarily and, in response to a question as to whether Syria was "next," said ominously, "It depends on people's behavior. Certainly I have nothing to announce." One intelligence source with good access to Pentagon civilian authorities said that Rumsfeld last week ordered the drawing up of contingency plans for a possible invasion of Syria and that Defense undersecretary Douglas Feith is working on a policy paper highlighting how Syria's support of terrorist groups is a threat to the region. However, a senior Pentagon officer said he was unaware of any new planning regarding Syria.
Rumsfeld and his allies directly contradicted soothing comments about Syria by Secretary of State Colin Powell and his deputy, Richard Armitage, in a clear sign the debate over the Middle East continues between administration hawks and moderates beyond the Iraq question. And Rumsfeld has also taken on the CIA, where sources have said there was no evidence of Syrian governmental help for Iraq.
With many Arabs afraid that Iraq is only the first of several Arab targets of the U.S. government, and others alleging that its real interest in the Middle East is to bolster Israel, the undiplomatic comments by Rumsfeld and the others provoked intense debate within the diplomatic community of U.S. intentions.
In an interview Sunday, Wolfowitz told NBC, "There's got to be a change in Syria," and said it should eventually "get the message" from what happened to Iraq that it should not acquire weapons of mass destruction and not use terrorism as an instrument of national policy.
Syria has long supported Hezbollah and other groups that carry out attacks against Israel, and it is said by the CIA to possess chemical and biological weapons.
Armitage assured reporters yesterday that "in the last several days ... [the Syrians] have responded quite well to U.S. and coalition warnings and demarches about closing their borders and things of that nature and she has done so." He downplayed talk of a list or of further military action. But Rumsfeld directly contradicted Armitage yesterday. Syrian diplomats here denied Rumsfeld's allegations but admitted they were alarmed by the aggressive tone not only of officials, but influential conservatives outside the administration.
Former CIA director James Woolsey - mentioned at the Pentagon as a possible official in postwar Iraq - recently said the United States is involved in a new world war against Iran, the "fascists of Iraq and Syria" and Islamic extremists. The conservative American Enterprise Institute this week published an article apparently calling for U.S. attacks on Syria and Iran, which it said were sending forces into Iraq. "So they are coming to kill coalition forces, which means that there is no more time for diplomatic 'solutions.' The United States will have to deal with the terror masters, here and now," it said. Michael Ledeen, a go-between with Israel in the 1980s U.S. plot to ship arms from Iran to the Contra rebels in Nicaragua, wrote the article. Iran is often mentioned as another possible target of the Bush administration, and also has been warned recently by Rumsfeld, but has not gotten as much public attention as Syria.
Murhaf Jouejati, a Syrian-born Syria scholar in Washington, said the recent comments "are warnings and by going public, it is an undiplomatic thing to do ... Really, we have to see if what is going on is a plan in progress or are those folks improvising?"Jouejati said the attacks from the United States would only bolster the standing of Syrian President Bashar Assad at home and in the Arab world. Assad, a mild-mannered doctor who took over when his father died three years ago, is still consolidating his power in Syria. Jouejati said that it would be "political suicide" for Assad to be seen as kowtowing to the United States.
A Syrian diplomat said there would be even less international support for a war on Syria than a war on Iraq. Before joining George W. Bush for their summit in Belfast, British Prime Minister Tony Blair called Assad to reassure him, the diplomat said.
Special correspondent Knut Royce contributed to this story Copyright © 2003, Newsday, Inc.