Openly pleased with the Bush administration’s recent warnings to Syria not to aid Iraq, Israel and its supporters here have begun ratcheting up their accusations against its radical neighbor in apparent hopes of widening the rift between Damascus and Washington.
Senior officials with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee told the Forward that combating Syrian and Iranian involvement in terrorism and their pursuit of ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction was likely to be a major focus of Aipac lobbying efforts in 2003.
Aipac’s executive director, Howard Kohr, said the group intends to put pressure on the Bush administration to take steps to stop the transfer of missile technology from Russia and North Korea to Iran and Syria.
The administration, which until recently had courted Syrian neutrality in its campaign against Iraq, began directing threats against Damascus last week, citing evidence that Syria was lending support to the Iraqi war effort. Administration officials have also leveled accusations in recent weeks against Iran’s nuclear program, despite hopes that Iran could assist in the anti-Iraq effort.
The administration’s new accusations focused on Syrian supplies of relatively low-level weaponry, including night-vision goggles and jamming systems for satellite-locator devices. Israel this week raised the ante, charging that Syria might be helping Iraq to hide weapons of mass destruction.
The American charges were first leveled March 28 by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, who said Damascus had been channeling the goggles and jamming devices to Iraq. Rumsfeld warned that the United States would “consider such trafficking as hostile acts and will hold the Syrian government accountable for such shipments.”
Syria rejected the accusations, calling them unfounded and irresponsible.
Two days later, delegates to the annual Aipac conference in Washington were surprised — and, many said, pleased — to hear Rumsfeld’s warning repeated publicly by his more dovish colleague, Secretary of State Colin Powell.
Powell told Aipac that Syria was now facing “a critical choice.”
“Syria can continue direct support for terrorist groups and the dying regime of Saddam Hussein, or it can embark on a different and more hopeful course,” he said in his Sunday speech. “Either way, Syria bears the responsibility for its choices, and for the consequences.”
Powell also received a standing ovation when he called on the international community to intensify its efforts to curb Iran’s support of terrorist groups and its efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction and the means to deliver them.
The following day, Israel upgraded the accusation by charging that Syria was possibly hiding Iraqi weapons of mass destruction.
Israel’s No. 2 military intelligence official, Brigadier General Yossi Kupperwasser, told the Knesset foreign affairs and defense committee on Monday that Iraqi chemical and biological agents and long-range missiles may have been hidden in Syria. Similar accusations were aired by Prime Minister Sharon back in December.
Jonathan Peled, a spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry, said the ministry had no comment on the allegations, adding that in his view, Israel had enough trouble dealing with Syrian activities in Lebanon.
An American official said it was “safe to assume” that the administration was “not endorsing” the Israeli accusations about Iraqi weapons.
One of Israel’s leading Syria experts suggested that while the Israeli allegations were probably based on fact, it might be unwise for Israel to use them as a way of injecting itself into American-Syrian relations.
“If Rumsfeld had intelligence about weapons of mass destruction hidden in Syria, he would have talked about it,” said Itamar Rabinovich, a former Israeli ambassador to Washington who is now president of Tel Aviv University. “Then again, if Sharon and others talk about it, there must clearly be something under the fire.”
Still, Rabinovich added, “you already have all those accusations that Israel is driving U.S. policy in the Middle East, so the Jewish lobby shouldn’t be pushing for U.S. action against Syria and Iran.”
Several experts said that while the administration has issued repeated warnings to Tehran about its nuclear program and its support for terrorist groups in recent weeks, the warning to Syria was more surprising.
“I see this as a warning shot,” said David Lesch, a professor of Middle East history at Trinity University in San Antonio. “Syria’s foreign policy has traditionally been to play both sides of the fence. Israel and the United States are now telling the Syrians that they are straying on one side of the fence and they should pull back.”
Reports have been surfacing for months about arms trafficking from Syria to Iraq, including anti-aircraft missiles, rockets and Scud missile guidance systems from Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and Bulgaria.
In late March the administration accused Russia of providing Iraq with military equipment, leading most observers to believe that Syria is in fact accused of allowing those weapons to transit into Iraq.
“There appears to be some intelligence that the Syrians were allowing Russian shipments of night vision goggles and other equipment of military value, i.e. GPS jammers, to go to Baghdad via a business cutout in Damascus,” an intelligence source said. GPS or global positioning systems are satellite-based locator devices used by American troops.
Syrian officials angrily reacted to the American warnings, saying Israel was behind them. In addition, Syrian officials voiced open hopes that “the Iraqi people” would defeat the American-led military coalition.
Behind the public rants, the Syrian regime is worried that Damascus could be next on the American list to reshape the Middle East.
In a rare interview last week with the Lebanese daily As-Safir, Syrian ruler Bashar Assad said he had warned Arab leaders at an Arab League meeting in Cairo last month that several of their countries could be next.
“You can be sure the Syrians will be worried about potential U.S. intervention,” said Richard Murphy, a former ambassador to Syria who is now a senior Middle East fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. “After all, the neo-conservative line has been that Baghdad is only the first of the dominoes.”
However, Murphy and other observers believe that Syria’s unique relation with the United States will prevent a complete breakdown of relations.
Syria is the only country on the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism with which Washington maintains diplomatic relations. Observers believe this is both a reward for Syria’s support during the 1991 Gulf War and an acknowledgement of Damascus’s central role in any future settlement with Israel.
This means Damascus can play a balancing act unlike other Arab allies of Washington such as Egypt, Jordan or Saudi Arabia.
For example, President Bush warned Syria on several occasions to take sides in the war on terrorism by closing terrorist camps and expelling terrorist organizations such as the Iranian-backed Hezbollah, and the Palestinian groups Islamic Jihad and Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
But the Syrians have refused, claiming Hezbollah is a Lebanese political party and the other groups only have press offices in Damascus.
In addition, Syria had been receiving 150,000 barrels of Iraqi oil outside the United Nations’ oil-for-food program until the outbreak of the war.
Last spring, Powell went to Damascus and asked Assad to stop pumping Iraqi oil. According to David Mack, vice president of the Middle East Institute and a former senior Middle East hand at the State Department, Powell came away thinking he had Assad’s agreement to plug the pipeline. But, Mack said, Powell’s assumption was disproven.
“Either there was a serious misunderstanding, or, as Powell believes, Bashar welched,” he said.
Washington then publicly attacked Syria at the United Nations on the issue but dropped it after a while. The administration also opposed the Syria Accountability Act, a congressional effort to impose sanctions on Syria.
In the meantime, Syria collaborated in hunting Al Qaeda operatives, kept a tight leash on Hezbollah and voted for the October 2002 Security Council resolution that administration cites as its authorization for war.
“This awkward relation is deteriorating,” Rabinovich said. “But it really depends on how much the Syrians let this sink. This is their trademark brinkmanship.”