WASHINGTON — The Bush administration and the Israeli government are preparing for a belligerent Syrian reaction to the findings of a United Nations report that is expected to accuse Damascus of masterminding the February 14 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri.
Israeli officials are anticipating an escalation in attacks by the Syrian- and Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia on Israel’s northern border with Lebanon, Israel’s chief of military intelligence, Aharon Ze’evi-Farkash, disclosed during Sunday’s Cabinet meeting.
Ze’evi-Farkash told the Israeli Cabinet that Hezbollah’s heavy rocket attack last week on Israel’s northern communities — more than 300 rockets were launched — was a response to international pressure on Syria and Iran. More pressure on Syria, he said, is likely to result in more attacks.
In Washington, American officials are preparing for an increase in cross-border infiltration of jihadists into Iraq through Syria’s porous border, according to Washington insiders who have access to administration officials.
“We too will be paying a price at the Iraq-Syria border,” said Edward Walker, a former assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs who also served as America’s ambassador to Israel and as its deputy chief of mission in Damascus. Walker, now the president of the Washington-based Middle East Institute, said that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has struck an increasingly antagonistic and defiant tone in response to Western attempts to isolate him.
Despite sharing similar assumptions about the Syrian response to pressure, American and Israeli officials appear divided over whether regime change in Damascus would be the best outcome.
Israel is concerned about the chaos that could follow the collapse of Assad’s regime. For Israelis, sources said, Assad is more than “the devil you know,” he is the only Syrian that can maintain order.
But the Bush administration is becoming increasingly convinced that a change of government is needed in Syria, according to foreign diplomats and pro-Israel activists in Washington. “Now [the Americans] have given up on Assad,” said a Washington insider who has access to senior administration officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “There may be some in the administration who are hoping for a transformed Assad, but most believe that it’s not going to happen and that losing Assad may not be such a loss.”
No U.S. policymaker is talking seriously about an invasion or other military steps to oust Assad. But, sources in Washington said, there are those who favor applying enough pressure on the young Syrian ruler to energize internal opposition that would topple him.
Heavy pressure on Damascus is expected when the special U.N. investigative commission, headed by German prosecutor Detlev Mehlis, publishes its report next month. According to various indications, including an October preliminary report by the Mehlis commission, the final report is expected to implicate senior officials in Assad’s inner circle. On Tuesday, U.N. investigators reportedly questioned five senior Syrian officials in relation to the assassination.
Bush administration officials have indicated to congressional leaders recently that they may impose new sanctions on Assad’s regime and could press for international sanctions on Syria.
The Bush administration generally avoids explicit calls for regime change in Damascus. But recently, in public and in private, administration officials have begun expressing a desire for Assad’s regime to fall. The U.S. Agency for International Development’s director of public diplomacy for Middle Eastern and Middle East Partnership Initiative Affairs, Walid Maalouf, who often speaks for the administration on Syria, recently came close to calling for regime change. In a November 18 speech at Syracuse University, Maalouf said, “The Assad Baath is like the Saddam Baath — enough is enough — freedom and democracy for the Syrian people from the Baath regime is a must.”
In the past, administration officials wanted to make sure that pressure intended to change Assad’s behavior did not cause the utter collapse of his regime. The administration has no clear alternative in mind to Assad’s regime and had been apprehensive about destabilizing Iraq’s neighbor. But administration officials recently told foreign diplomats, senior Jewish activists and other Washington insiders that the White House is less concerned than it was before about the repercussions of pressuring Assad.
In Israel, on the other hand, officials are still voicing concern about Syria’s response. There is a great deal of apprehension in Israel that “international pressure will only amplify Assad’s defiant mood,” said Michael Herzog, a veteran Israeli intelligence officer who is now a visiting fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
According to Walker, the chances of a domestically initiated overthrow of the Syrian regime are slim. Even if the government fell, the former American diplomat pointed out, the strongest opposition force in Syria is the militant anti-Western Muslim Brotherhood.
Since the U.N. Commission started its investigation and began probing Assad’s inner circle, the Syrian anti-American and anti-Israel rhetoric has escalated, both in Assad’s public statements and in the government-controlled media.
Last week, Damascus gave a hero’s welcome to American white supremacist David Duke. The former Ku Klux Klan leader addressed a Damascus demonstration in support of Assad, held a press conference, met with Syria’s Grand Mufti and was interviewed on Syrian television. During the interview, he said, “Israel makes the Nazi state look very moderate in terms of its views.”
Duke praised Assad. But the leader did not invite Duke for a meeting during his visit to Syria.