Serious Charges

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Even with casualties mounting, costs soaring, and U.S. troops badly overstretched in Iraq, Washington may be about to open a whole new front in the war on terror.

In a Tuesday Senate subcommittee hearing, Undersecretary of State for Arms Control, John Bolton said Syria is developing weapons of mass destruction, has allowed militants to cross over into Iraq to attack U.S. troops, and supports groups the U.S. considers terrorists, Hezbollah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad.

Bolton called Syria, among other countries, a “rogue nation,” and said the Bush administration would not “rule out” using military force against Damascus. When asked by congressman Gary Ackerman if the administration had in mind “regime change” in Syria, Bolton didn’t say no:

“Our preference is to solve these problems by peaceful and diplomatic means, but the President has also been very clear that we’re not taking any options off the table.”

Specifically Bolton charged that Syria’s efforts to develop chemical, biological and nuclear weapons was creating an international security threat, and that Damascus has “one of the most advanced Arab-state chemical weapons capabilities.” And, said Bolton, Syria has been less than helpful in the U.S. war on terror.

Washington has been racheting up the anti-Syria rhetoric for a while. Last week Donald Rumsfeld said that out of 200 foreign fighters arrested in Iraq, a large number of them have been from Syria and Lebanon.

And Congress is taking another look at the so-called Syrian Accountability Act this week. The bill, which has bipartisan support, aims to halt the Syrian occupation of Lebanon, its support of groups like Hezbollah, and its WMD development programs by curbing economic and military exports. (The Bush administration has yet to take a position on it.)

The U.S. says Syria has reneged on promises made by President Bashir Assad to Secretary of State Colin Powell in May to end support of Hezbollah and seal the border with Iraq.

With more than enough going on in Iraq, this seems an odd time for the United States to be picking new fights. And Washtington clearly isn’t going to get help from the U.N.

All of which suggests that the new focus on Syria may be a decoy to draw notice away from the mess in Iraq. Plenty of Syrians think so. Foreign ministry spokeswoman, Buthaynah Sha’ban, told Al-Jazeera that U.S. accusations were way off base:

“We believe that the entire world knows that all the accusations being levelled at Syria are baseless. Instead of addressing the problems it is facing in Iraq, and instead of looking for the causes, the United States is trying to divert attention elsewhere.”

Syrian media was all over the accusations, too. The state-controlled Al-Ba’ath paper called the Syrian Accountability Act “pure Israeli policy.” The Daily Star of Lebanon, in an editorial, said that although Syria has good reason to resent American meddling in the Middle East, both parties should cool it:

“[I]t is American bullying that threatens to plunge the Middle East into yet another crisis. Given its behavior in Iraq, the possibility that Washington plans to invade Syria as well cannot be discounted. Damascus might well “fall” even more quickly than Baghdad did, but that only means the guerrilla phase of the fighting would begin that much more quickly.

Both parties should draw the appropriate lessons from the mere fact that such a scenario is being discussed. The Americans should recognize the destabilizing effect of their meddlesome ways, not to mention their eventual self-destructiveness; the Syrians should open their eyes to the very real perils facing them and move simultaneously to both reduce the likelihood of US military action and make preparations to ensure that if and when it comes, the popular will exists to repel it. The latter means more than relying on the instinct of the populace to protect their homeland against foreign occupation; it demands that the people see hard proof that their government is willing to change its ways and is therefore deserving of their allegiance and, if necessary, their blood.”

Bolton on Tuesday acknowleged that while no evidence exists that Syria has given WMDs to terrorist organizations, the state’s ties to such groups constitute a threat. And a CIA report from last spring says Syria has sarin nerve agent and appears to trying to develop other chemical weapons.

But even if that’s true, going after Syria, given the experience in Iraq and the likely reaction of the Arab word, seems crazy. Bolton admitted as much when he said that “[s]ecretary Powell is conducting very intensive efforts on this front. It’s a delicate moment.” Still, alarmingly, Bolton wasn’t ruling anything out:

“If the language of persuasion fails, these states must see and feel the logic of adverse consequences.”

If the Iraq campaign has taught us anything, it’s that the “logic of adverse consequences” is double edged.


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