On to Damascus?

The Bush Administration cannot be blamed for being furious with Syria.

The Bush Administration cannot be blamed for being furious with Syria.  Its actions over the past few weeks suggest it is eager to take up the vacancy on the "axis of evil" created by the departure of Saddam Hussein.  When the war was perceived to be going badly in the first week, President Basher Al-Assad gave an extraordinary interview to the Lebanese newspaper Al-Safir on March 27.  Among other points, he argued that Israel will not be a legitimate state in the Middle East even if peace is accomplished.  While acknowledging the United States is a superpower capable of "conquering a relatively small country," "but" he asked, "is it able to control it?"  He cited Lebanon as a model for Iraq.  The implication was that after Israel occupied Lebanon in 1982 its initial successes led to a disaster because the Arab world rallied around and fought back. In other words, if the United States retains a long-term military presence in Iraq, a similar strategy against the Americans can be mounted, provided that there is a coordinated Arab effort.   

Secretary of State Powell, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, Deputy Secretary of Defense Wolfowitz and Undersecretary of State John Bolton, all in different forums, have warned if Syria interferes in the continuing Iraqi operation it will be playing with fire.  Some outside advisors have gone even further.  Former CIA Director James Woolsey in an open forum at the University of California at Los Angeles campus on April 2, stated that the whole array of Middle East countries should now be worried about American power and determination to change the region.  He said he would be pleased if their leaders were worried.  On April 11, Representatives Elliot Engel (D-NY) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) introduced the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act of 2003 in the House of Representatives.  This will "hold Syria accountable for its support of terrorism, the occupation of Lebanon and the possession and continued development of the weapons of mass destruction."  As Representative Engel put it, "now that Saddam Hussein's regime is defeated it's time for America to get serious about Syria."   

Although further confrontation between the United States and countries like Syria is possible, especially if terrorism against U.S. forces in Iraq escalates, the dangers should be highlighted.  Any military showdown with Syria is likely to embroil Israel with potentially troubling consequences.  U.S. policy should focus on economic and diplomatic pressure to force Syria to change its ways, especially its support for terrorism.  We should not allow success in Baghdad to trigger a march on Damascus.   

 

The Bush Administration cannot be blamed for being furious with Syria.  Its actions over the past few weeks suggest it is eager to take up the vacancy on the "axis of evil" created by the departure of Saddam Hussein.  When the war was perceived to be going badly in the first week, President Basher Al-Assad gave an extraordinary interview to the Lebanese newspaper Al-Safir on March 27.  Among other points, he argued that Israel will not be a legitimate state in the Middle East even if peace is accomplished.  While acknowledging the United States is a superpower capable of "conquering a relatively small country," "but" he asked, "is it able to control it?"  He cited Lebanon as a model for Iraq.  The implication was that after Israel occupied Lebanon in 1982 its initial successes led to a disaster because the Arab world rallied around and fought back. In other words, if the United States retains a long-term military presence in Iraq, a similar strategy against the Americans can be mounted, provided that there is a coordinated Arab effort.   

Secretary of State Powell, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, Deputy Secretary of Defense Wolfowitz and Undersecretary of State John Bolton, all in different forums, have warned if Syria interferes in the continuing Iraqi operation it will be playing with fire.  Some outside advisors have gone even further.  Former CIA Director James Woolsey in an open forum at the University of California at Los Angeles campus on April 2, stated that the whole array of Middle East countries should now be worried about American power and determination to change the region.  He said he would be pleased if their leaders were worried.  On April 11, Representatives Elliot Engel (D-NY) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL) introduced the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act of 2003 in the House of Representatives.  This will "hold Syria accountable for its support of terrorism, the occupation of Lebanon and the possession and continued development of the weapons of mass destruction."  As Representative Engel put it, "now that Saddam Hussein's regime is defeated it's time for America to get serious about Syria."   

Although further confrontation between the United States and countries like Syria is possible, especially if terrorism against U.S. forces in Iraq escalates, the dangers should be highlighted.  Any military showdown with Syria is likely to embroil Israel with potentially troubling consequences.  U.S. policy should focus on economic and diplomatic pressure to force Syria to change its ways, especially its support for terrorism.  We should not allow success in Baghdad to trigger a march on Damascus.   

 

Geoffrey Kemp is the director for Regional Strategic Programs at the Nixon Center.

 is the director for Regional Strategic Programs at the Nixon Center.