Hands off Syria

Wednesday, 16 April 2003 21:27 by: Anonymous
Boston Globe Editorial

Wednesday 16 April 2003

Despite their testy warnings to Damascus, President Bush and his advisers have wisely denied that they mean to topple the Baathist government President Bashar Assad inherited from his shrewder father, Hafez Assad.

There are good reasons to warn Bashar to stop doing some of the dangerous things he has been doing lately. However, there is no just or sufficient cause to order US troops to turn westward out of Iraq and head for Damascus in coming days, notwithstanding the longings for liberation harbored by many Syrians and most Lebanese.

Fortunately for humanity, Saddam Hussein was one of a kind. He was not merely one of the worst violators of human rights during the past horrific century; he also started catastrophic wars accompanied by irrational acts of aggression against uninvolved neighbors.

Syria under the Assads has been guilty of torture and summary executions. Damascus has hosted terrorist groups and thugs of many stripes -- secular and Islamist, Shiite and Sunni, Christian and Muslim. But, at least under Hafez Assad, the Syrian regime consistently refrained from crossing the kinds of red lines that Saddam lunged over again and again.

Indeed, Syria's intelligence services have been cooperating closely with the Bush administration since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, sharing accurate and actionable information with the CIA and, in interrogations of captured Al Qaeda suspects, asking questions proposed by CIA officers.

Since the secular regime in Damascus has a long history of merciless pursuit of Islamists in Syria's Muslim Brotherhood, Bashar was not being inconsistent in 2001 when he proposed in a letter to President Bush ''worldwide cooperation'' between Syria and the United States ''to uproot terrorism in all its forms.'' Indeed, Bashar might be entitled to feel that Washington has belatedly joined the Assads' war against Islamist extremism.

Recently, however, Bashar has been acting as if he has joined up with Saddam -- or remnants of Saddam's regime -- at the worst possible moment. US officials are warning him not to hide wanted Iraqi scientists or fugitive accomplices of Saddam. The reason he finds himself in this position is that unlike his father, who saw Saddam as an enemy, Bashar went into business with the Iraqi despot. For the past two years Saddam illegally shipped oil at below-market prices to Syria through a long-unused pipeline, and the ruling entourage in Damascus pocketed the profits. Yesterday US officials confirmed that the pipeline has been shut down. Washington has also accused Bashar and his advisers of allowing antitank weapons, night vision goggles, and suicide bombers to cross over into Iraq for Saddam's use.

Bashar needs to be warned to cease playing with fire. But in the long run, the soundest way to alter the totalitarian politics of the region is to help foster democracy in postwar Iraq and a just and durable peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

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U.S. Threatens Sanctions Against Syria

Tuesday 15 April 2003
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.

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.

"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.

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 President Bashar 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.

Itamar Rabinovich, who was Israel's chief negotiator with Syria from 1992 to 1995, said its government wanted to please a radical constituency inside Syria but also would like to protect Syria's relationship with the United States.

In a telephone interview, Rabinovich, now president of Tel Aviv University, said that over the years "the United States has been fascinated with the possibility of getting Syria to switch sides and become an ally of the United States."

The administration's strategy was to apply diplomatic pressure, he said, but "the bottom line is that I don't think the United States plans to go to war with Syria."

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.

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U.S. Shuts Off 'Illegal' Oil Supply to Syria
Linda Diebel
Toronto Star

Wednesday 16 April 2003

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell yesterday tried to calm fears of an invasion of Syria, even as the American military cut off Damascus' oil supply from Iraq.

At the Pentagon, Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said U.S. army engineers shut down the oil pipeline from Iraq to Syria, arguing the oil flow was "illegal" under sanctions imposed by the United Nations.

Syria disputes the claim.

Damascus says the oil shipments, estimated last year at $1 billion (U.S.), were legal under the United Nations oil-for-food program, which ended with the start of the U.S.-led war against Iraq.

Rumsfeld, noting that U.S. troops were careful not to damage the pipeline yesterday, underscored the Bush administration's intent of ensuring the export of up to 3 million barrels a day of Iraqi oil by the end of the year.

"We have preserved infrastructure in that country," Rumsfeld told reporters.

The importance of oil, which Rumsfeld says belongs to the Iraqi people, was clear again Monday when the U.S. Central Command formally announced that the U.S.-led coalition had taken the last Iraqi oil field.

"The intention is to Americanize the Iraqi oil operation completely and put it under the control of the U.S.-run administration in Iraq," said Michael Klare, a world security studies professor at Hampshire College.

"The U.S. will decide how that oil will be marketed," he told the Star last night.

"And the decision to cut off oil to Syria was just the first realization that they have taken that control."

The last few days of hostile language over Syria buttressed by yesterday's oil pipeline shutdown has raised the tension level internationally, and particularly in the Middle East.

At a briefing for foreign reporters yesterday, an Egyptian journalist asked Powell "who's next?" in the region, and whether the "U.S. has a plan to spread a set of values at gunpoint."

"There is no list," said Powell. "There is no war plan right now ... to go attack someone else, either for the purpose of overthrowing their leadership or for the purpose of imposing democratic values."

Yesterday, for the first time, growing White House tensions with Syria showed a split between the U.S. and principal Operation Iraqi Freedom ally Britain.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw refused to back Washington's description of Syria as a "rogue state" that harbours terrorists. Straw referred to Syrian President Bashar Assad and his officials as "intelligent people who have the future interest and welfare of their country at heart."

And while the White House and Pentagon repeated allegations Syria is harbouring Iraqi war criminals and developing weapons of mass destruction, British Prime Minister Tony Blair pointedly disagreed.

"I have spoken to President Assad and he has assured me that that is not happening," Blair told the House of Commons in London.

He said it is "simply not correct" that the United States has plans to invade Syria.

U.S. President George W. Bush did not mention Syria publicly yesterday but discussed the matter in a 20-minute phone conversation with French President Jacques Chirac. The White House described the call, placed by Chirac, as "businesslike" an indication of the cool relations since France opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq but said Chirac agreed Syria should not shelter Iraqi leaders.

Responding to the U.S. calling the Syria a rogue nation, the Syrian cabinet issued a statement in Damascus rejecting "these accusations and allegations (which are) a response to Israeli stimulus."

Meanwhile, Italian court documents indicate Syria has functioned as a hub for an Al Qaeda network that moved Islamic extremists and funds from Italy to northeastern Iraq, where the recruits fought alongside the recently defeated Ansar al-Islam terrorist group, the Los Angeles Times reports.

Italian investigators say they have no evidence the Syrian government was aware of the network or protected it, and say they hope to get help from Syrian authorities with the case. Still, the activity raises questions because the Syrian government has aggressive security services that would likely be aware of extremists operating in their territory.

Two weeks ago, Italian police arrested seven alleged Al Qaeda operatives. They were charged with sending about 40 extremists through Syria to terror bases operated jointly with Ansar al-Islam, whose stronghold was recently overrun by Kurdish and U.S. troops.

The six-country Gulf Co-operation Council yesterday urged the United States and Britain to maintain a dialogue with Damascus.

"We reject the threats against Syria and we believe that the threats should stop," Qatari Foreign Minister Sheik Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabor Al Thani said in the Saudi capital Riyadh.

At the Pentagon, Rumsfeld said he hoped there is no more Iraqi oil flowing to Syria, adding he couldn't be sure.

"Whether it's the only one (pipeline) and whether that has completely stopped the flow of oil between Iraq and Syria, I cannot tell you," he said.

"We do not have perfect knowledge."

However, the U.S. energy department's own reports show there was only one operating pipeline between Iraq's northern Kirkuk oil fields and the Syrian port of Banias. It was opened in 1998 to move oil under the United Nations oil-for-food program, after having been closed since 1982.

In 2001, Washington offered to allow Syria to import Iraqi oil as long as it was done through the U.N. program, which tightly controlled how much Iraqi oil could be sold and for what purpose. There is controversy over whether Syria exceeded the amount of oil it was allowed to import.

Cutting off Iraqi oil to Syria should not mean, at least in the near term, that Syrians run out of oil. It does mean, however, according to U.S. energy figures, that Syria, an oil-producing nation, will be hit economically by having less oil to export.

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."

But the Bush administration is already talking about other punishments against Syria. Last week, a bill was reintroduced in Congress to, among other measures, strip Syria of landing rights at U.S. airports, cut diplomatic ties and limit U.S. travel to the country.

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Last modified on Monday, 21 April 2008 13:38