WASHINGTON - The American campaign against Syria over the past two weeks has seemed to take a one-step-forward, two-steps-backward course. Observers who have become accustomed to the firm, no-nonsense messages sent to Iraq by the U.S. administration over the past year could not help but notice the entirely different style of the statements leveled at Syria - threats one day, calming declarations the next.
Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, who only 10 days ago warned, "There has got to be regime change in Syria" - thereby provoking a flurry of rumors that Damascus would be the next target of American cruise missiles. - took pains last Friday to deny reports that the U.S. might be seeking to replace the regime in Damascus. "What we are looking for is a change in the current bad behavior of the Syrian government," clarified the deputy defense secretary.
The intricate relations between the U.S. and Syria require a more complex message. Syria is not Iraq. It is not seen by the American administration or by the public as the same empire of evil that was Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Whereas in America's view everything about Iraq was bad and therefore had to change, the U.S. sees quite a few redeeming qualities in Syria that leave it - for now - outside the American "axis of evil."
Nevertheless, the list of American claims against Bashar Assad's Syria is lengthening. The latest entries concern Syria's actions during the American war on Iraq. The first indication of a rupture could be discerned on the third day of the war, when the U.S. bombed a Syrian passenger bus as it drove over a bridge along the border crossing between Syria and Iraq.
The following day, Major General Stanley McCrystal of the Joint Chiefs of Staff appeared at a press conference, where he apologized for the attack that caused the deaths of five people. He termed it a mistake, explaining that the pilot had fired his missile before the bus arrived on the scene, and by the time he saw the bus crossing the bridge, it was too late. Yet, by the next day, American intelligence made a point of leaking the news that although the bombing itself was a mistake, there was no reason to apologize. The bus was described as a "legitimate target," as it was carrying Palestinian fighters and volunteers on their way to Iraq, to help Saddam Hussein fight off the Americans.
From this point on, the rift grew steadily deeper. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld surprised the nation when he announced that Syria was transferring military equipment from its territory to aid Iraqi forces. Rumsfeld demanded the transfer be suspended immediately. Subsequently there were reports that weapons of mass destruction may have been moved from Iraq, with the collapse of the regime, into Syria and concealed. There were numerous reports that Baath party leaders and members of the military establishment had fled via the Syrian border, with a few of them even being given asylum in Syria.
The Americans had their complaints about Syria even before this recent flare-up. The main gripe concerned terrorism. "You can take a cab from the airport in Damascus and if you say to the driver, take me to this or that terrorist organization - there are half a dozen of them - and he knows exactly where to take you. That's unacceptable, that's intolerable. I hope we can talk the Syrians out of that without ever having to resort to, or even think about the use of force," said Richard Perle, a member of the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board in an interview with the Washington Post last week.
For years, the U.S. has included Syria on its list of states that support terror, which is issued by the State Department every year. Syria plays host to a wide variety of terrorist groups, according to the State Department, including Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, as well as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (headed by George Habash), and the Abu Mussa group. The State Department does note that Syria has cut off its support for the Kurdish PKK organization.
America's greatest concern is Syrian support for Hezbollah, an organization described by high-ranking administration officials as more dangerous than Al-Qaida and which Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage has termed the "A-team of terrorists."
The U.S. has on several occasions tried to convince Bashar Assad to stop supporting Hezbollah, including an explicit request from President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney, but has been stonewalled. "Damascus continues to serve as an Iraqi transfer point for weapons from Iran to Hezbollah," says a State Department report.
Another American claim against Syria concerns weapons of mass destruction. In a report submitted to Congress in January, the Central Intelligence Agency determined that Syria possesses a known inventory of nerve gas and that it has recently stepped up efforts to acquire materials for production of more effective and more stable chemical weapons. The report also states, "there is high probability" that Syria is developing biological weapons.
Last week, Democratic Congressman Eliot Engel of New York announced that he intended to promote legislation, the "Syrian Accountability Act," which he drafted together with Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Republican from Florida who is currently the chair of the House Subcommittee on the Middle East and Central Asia. The law would require imposition of sanctions on Syria if it does not stop its support for the terrorist groups, and suspend its non-conventional weapons programs.
In the past year, the State Department has made an effort to block the law, but the lawmakers no feel that its chances of gaining approval are improving.
Nevertheless, U.S.-Syria relations are not all black or white. As opposed to the lengthy list of allegations, the administration also remains aware of Syria's positive actions. First and foremost is the aid extended by Syria to the U.S., after September 11, 2001, in locating key figures in Al-Qaida. Following a request from American intelligence, Syria arrested Mohammed Haydar Zammar on its own territory. Zammar was a German citizen of Syrian descent who was in Syria. It was he who had recruited Mohammed Atta, the ringleader of the 9/11 hijackers, into the ranks of Al-Qaida. According to some reports, Syria also provided the U.S. with highly valuable information received gleaned from telephone conversations made by a relative of Osama bin Laden.
The most significant achievement of the intelligence cooperation between the U.S. and Syria was the information handed over by the Syrians that led to the foiling of a planned terrorist attack last year by Al-Qaida operatives against American forces stationed in the Gulf. In an interview with the American media last June, Syrian President Bashar Assad complained that despite substantial Syrian assistance to the U.S. in its war against Al-Qaida, the administration still refused to remove Syria from the list of states that support terror.
The Americans have another reason to look favorably on Assad - his support last November for Security Council Resolution 1441, which paved the way to the renewal of inspection effort in Iraq and subsequently to the military action against Saddam Hussein. Until the last minute, the Americans did not believe the Syrian ambassador to the UN would raise his hand in favor of the U.S. proposal, but in the end the Syrians responded to American pressure and gave the administration that achievement it had sought in the Security Council - 14 in favor, with none against and no abstentions.
Syria subsequently turned into one of the main spokesmen on the Security Council and in the international arena against the war in Iraq, but at the time, many American diplomats were thanking Syria.
The American administration is having a hard time formulating its bottom line on Bashar Assad's Syria. On the one hand, he is doing everything he can to irritate the Americans on the issues most important to them, but on the other hand, the Damascus regime does show bursts of cooperation that make it a potentially important ally for the U.S. in the region. Events of the past few weeks are tipping the scales against Syria, and sources in the American capital attribute this to none other than Syrian leader Bashar Assad.
For the Americans, Bashar Assad is a disappointment. Any hopes that the son of "the Sphinx of Damascus" would be as stable as his father but more pragmatic and liberal, were quickly dashed. Washington does not view Bashar Assad as being sufficiently authoritative to lead Syria toward change, and believes he is captive to the old guard and is reticent to clash with veteran figures in the regime. In addition, the Americans fear that the Syrian president is not as cautious and stable as his father, and that the manner in which he is running the country demonstrates a weak character and an inability to define his objectives. Add to this mix the anti-Semitic statements he has made and his near-reverence for Hezbollah leader Sheikh Nasrallah, and it becomes clear why the young leader in Damascus does not have many friends in Washington.
But not all doors are closed. The administration gave its approval for an unofficial dialogue that has been pursued for the past year by Syria and Washington, under the aegis of the Baker Institute, headed by former secretary of state James Baker. In the most recent round of conversations, held in Damascus, the two sides discussed issues of economic and scientific cooperation, security and regional relations. The American delegation included such figures as former ambassador Edward Djerijian, Senator Arlen Specter and ambassador Christopher Ross; the Syrian delegation was headed by Walid Mualem, a former ambassador to Washington, and included representatives of the Information Ministry, Syrian television and the academic community.
The U.S. administration does not consider this channel of discussions with the Syrians to be especially significant, but sources in the U.S. note that the mere fact that it exists constitutes an attempt by the two sides to forge cordial relations and diplomatic agreement. The fact that President Assad has given his blessing to the unofficial track nevertheless indicates that he is interested in getting closer to the Americans.
Nevertheless, this unofficial channel has now been shunted aside in favor of firm statements issued by official spokesmen.
The real test of bilateral relations will come in the days and weeks to come, when the U.S. sees how responsive Bashar Assad is to the forceful messages aimed at him by Washington. Even if the problem of Syrian assistance to Iraq can be resolved by putting a stop to the passage of high-ranking members of the regime into Syrian territory, there still remain unresolved issues that cloud relations between the two countries. Moreover, based on statements made by high-ranking U.S. administration officials last week, it seems that many decision-makers feel that the window of opportunity for improving relations between Damascus and Washington has already been firmly shut.