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Is Syria Next? - 2003-04-14

The Bush administration is reviewing relations with Syria in light of charges that Damascus is providing aid and refuge to the ousted Iraqi government and is developing weapons of mass destruction. Stepped-up U.S. criticism of Syria is raising questions about whether a country accused by the United States of supporting terrorism could become the next U.S. military target.

In what has been a steady escalation of accusations, President Bush and senior administration officials have issued a series of blunt, public warnings to Syria over its alleged role in aiding Iraq.

"They seemed to have made a conscious decision to ignore that," said U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

Mr. Rumsfeld accuses Syria of not only supplying the Iraqi military with night vision goggles, but with sending fighters into Iraq and allowing members of the ousted Baghdad government to flee the country.

"We have intelligence that shows that Syria has allowed Syrians and others to come across the border into Iraq, people armed and people carrying leaflets, indicating that they'll be rewarded if they kill Americans and members of the coalition," he said. "And we have intelligence that indicates that some Iraqi people have been allowed into Syria, in some cases to stay, in some cases to transit."

And, in a new charge, the administration Monday revealed it has monitored chemical weapons tests in Syria over the past 15 months, that Syria has stocks of the nerve agent sarin and is trying to develop other toxic substances as well.

All of this amounts to some unmistakably bold diplomatic language, not the kind that a neighbor of Iraq, given what just happened there, would likely be comfortable in hearing. On Monday, Secretary of State Colin Powell said the United States will examine possible diplomatic, economic or other measures against Syria. Earlier this month, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld's deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, made these comments on NBC's Meet the Press.

"They're doing some things they shouldn't be doing and the sooner they stop the better it will be for them," he said. "The Syrians need to know though that what they do now they will be held accountable for."

Syria has been a staunch opponent of the war to topple Saddam Hussein. But its deputy Ambassador in Washington Imad Moustapha strongly denies the charges being leveled by the Bush administration.

"Our government has summoned the U.S. ambassador in Damascus to the ministry of foreign affairs and asked him to provide us with any material information, any clues, any evidence about those accusations," he said. "Of course, they didn't."

The Syrian deputy ambassador says some of the allegations originate with Syria's enemy and America's ally, Israel.

"It's just like trying to inflame more and more the region or make the people really more angry and try to give an impression that now it's Iraq, tomorrow it will be Syria, then Egypt then Saudi Arabia," Mr. Moustapha said. "You know there is this feeling in the region."

Rachel Bronson, director of Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations thinks the Bush administration no doubt wants to use the example of Iraq to send a clear message to other governments in the region - that their behavior is being watched as well.

"Putting them on notice in some ways that we're watching and 'don't try to meddle' is probably useful," she said. "But you needed to really do that very, very quietly. Because what this looks like and this has been a real problem for us diplomatically, is that Iraq is the first stage on this doctrine of preemption. And that messages to Syria and Iran, very vocal messages, seem to fit into this notion that Syria and Iran are next."

After the September 11 terrorist attacks, President Bush did, in fact, put countries like Syria and Iran, which both support Hezbollah, on notice that the United States would draw no distinction between terrorist groups and countries supporting them.

While no U.S. officials have said the United States is prepared to extend the war in Iraq to Syria, some administration officials are raising the same concerns about the Damascus government that they had with Baghdad.

Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz responded this way, when asked about what should happen in Syria. "There's got to be change in Syria as well," he said.

With U.S. relations with Syria now under review, administration officials are hoping strong warnings alone will be enough to bring about a change in behavior in Damascus.