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Behind Warnings to Damascus: Reassessment of Younger Assad

A sudden flurry of U.S. warnings to Syria in recent days indicates that Washington has undertaken what Israel and its supporters here have been urging for months: a comprehensive reassessment of Syrian ruler Bashar Assad.

In the past two weeks, while U.S. troops were taking control of neighboring Iraq, a string of top American officials — from President Bush, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin Powell on down — have issued almost daily warnings to Syria. Complaints have ranged from Syria’s reported sheltering of fleeing Iraqi leaders to its support for terrorist groups and its reputed possession of weapons of mass destruction.

The barrage of warnings represents an abrupt about-face for Washington. Until recently, administration officials had habitually balanced their standard criticisms of Damascus for supporting anti-Israel terrorist groups with praise for Syria’s cooperation in rooting out Al Qaeda and voting last November for U.N. Resolution 1441 against Iraq.

The reasons are complex. Unlike his late father, Hafez Assad, a ruthless dictator who nonetheless could be expected to act pragmatically and know where the red lines were, Syria experts say the 34-year-old Bashar is proving alarmingly reckless.

“By far the most troublesome aspect of the current situation is Bashar’s lack of good judgment,” said Ephraim Halevy, Israel’s national security adviser, addressing the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in a rare public speech on Monday. “He has so far been one of our most bitter disap- pointments and most serious concerns…. [He] has shown himself to be more adventuresome and irresponsible and prone to violence.” On Tuesday Prime Minister Sharon called him “dangerous,” and on Monday White House press secretary Ari Fleischer branded him an “untested leader.”

According to journalist Ze’ev Schiff of Ha’aretz, Israel’s senior military commentator, Washington’s sudden reversal results in large part from new evaluations of Syrian intentions. Washington has learned that Syria intends to turn Iraq into a new Lebanon where American troops would face terrorist and guerrilla operations, Schiff wrote this week in Ha’aretz.

Israel has also raised in recent weeks the possibility that Syria was hiding Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, a charge that has not been officially endorsed by American officials. Israel’s defense minister, Shaul Mofaz, told the daily Ma’ariv that Israel wanted Syria to dismantle Hezbollah forces in Lebanon.

Syrian officials have denied the allegations and accused Washington and Jerusalem of waging a “disinformation campaign” against Damascus.

Pro-Israel lobbyists who last year lamented that Syria was not included in Bush’s “axis of evil” are now expressing satisfaction at the hardening of the administration’s stance. Hawks have long complained about the ambiguous American policy toward Syria, the only country on the State Department list of state sponsors of terrorism with which America has full diplomatic relations.

When Bashar Assad succeeded his father as president in 2000, his rise was seen by many in the West as a hopeful sign of change in his father’s stifling Baathist dictatorship. Together with the young King Abdullah of Jordan and the young King Mohammed V of Morocco, he was seen as part of a new breed of Western-educated Arab rulers steering their countries away from their fathers’ autocratic rule.

The young Assad, an ophthalmologist partly educated in Britain and an Internet fan, initially announced a series of economic reforms and hinted that a political liberalization was forthcoming. Shortly after, however, the economy tanked and the reforms stalled. A crackdown on dissidents and human rights activists quickly followed.

Since those early days, Assad has issued a series of increasingly belligerent statements against Israel and the United States, fueling speculation that he had fallen under the influence of the radical wing of the Baath party that his father kept at arm’s length.

Halevy said there was evidence that Bashar was influenced by the secretary-general of Hezbollah, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah. The two have met on several occasions, Halevy noted. By contrast, Assad’s late father reportedly met only once with the Lebanese Shiite radical leader during all the years that the two were allies.

The main puzzle now confounding America and the West, analysts say, is whether the younger Assad is under pressure from his entourage to adopt a hard-line stance or whether he is just being true to himself.

David Lesch, a Syria expert at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, laid out three possible explanations for Assad’s attitude. The first is that Bashar has yet to remove his father’s holdovers in the military-security apparatus, who are restricting his room for maneuvering on issues like Iraq, America and Israel.

“Under this scenario we just need to give him more time in order to surround himself with his own assets, and then in the near future he will be able to implement the political and economic reform measures many Syrians want, as well as moderating his foreign policies,” Lesch said. “Until that time comes he is going to play both sides of the fence.”

The second possibility, endorsed by most Syria watchers, is that Bashar is a weak ruler who has come under the control of other elements in Damascus.

The final hypothesis, Lesch said, is that “we have totally misjudged him — that is, just because he studied ophthalmology in London and likes Phil Collins’s music doesn’t necessarily mean he was ever going to be pro-West and more forthcoming on Israeli-Syrian negotiations. In this scenario, the people he has around him are exactly those whom he wants to have, and maybe he is just much more radical than anyone expected.”

Lesch said that while he hoped the first scenario is the correct one, “if Bashar keeps traveling on his current path, then the second or even the third might be more accurate, and it is under these scenarios that the Bush Doctrine in one form or another might make its way toward Syria.”

State Department and British officials have denied that Syria was next on the American military to-do list, and Bush stopped short of military threats last Sunday. Still, hawks inside and outside the administration have been issuing ominous warnings.

Among those taking the lead in promoting the hard line is the Defense Policy Board, a panel of outside advisers to the Pentagon chaired until recently by Richard Perle.

“The Defense Policy Board has recommended an aggressive line toward Syria, including issuing the country an ultimatum to stop supporting Hezbollah and to destroy weapons of mass destruction,” an intelligence source told the Forward. Moreover, he said, the Pentagon is listening. “Rumsfeld has ordered contingency planning for Syria,” he said.

A member of the Defense Policy Board, speaking on condition of anonymity, told the Forward that Syria should be taken to task. He said a good test of Syrian intentions would be for Washington to insist that Damascus pull its troops out of Lebanon.

The intelligence source and several others said they believed Pentagon proposals to go after Syria next were not likely to be taken up by the president and that the strategy was to impress on Syria the urgency of getting its act together.

“That might be working,” one source added. “The Syrians are sending private assurances they won’t help escaping Iraqi leaders and will stop any facilitation of ‘volunteers’ running to Iraq to be cannon fodder.”

In addition to diplomatic activity, Washington appears to be considering economic pressure on Syria, as Powell suggested Monday. American troops already have reportedly cut off the oil pipeline linking Kirkuk in northern Iraq to the Syrian port of Banias, which is believed to have supplied Syria with some 200,000 barrels of Iraqi oil a day in violation of United Nations sanctions before the war.

The administration has also given the green light to a legislative initiative it has long opposed, the Syria Accountability Act. Rep. Eliot Engel, a New York Democrat, and Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican, introduced it in the House with 46 co-sponsors on April 12. A companion bill is expected in the Senate in two weeks. The bill gives the president the authority to slap penalties on Syria if it fails to halt its support for terrorist groups, its pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and its occupation of Lebanon.

“Powell said that the United States is not planning to go to war against Syria and Iran,” Halevy said. “However, there are many measures short of war that can be employed to draw the fangs of the young arrogant and inexperienced president of Syria.”

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