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White Lie

Why Syria isn't "next."

Who's next? As Saddam Hussein's regime crumbled this week, that was the question being asked by commentators across the globe. And, when Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld took to his podium to declare that the United States would hold Syria "accountable" for its weapons shipments to Iraq—a charge backed up by Secretary of State Colin Powell—it seemed the Bush team had finally provided the answer. The ubiquitous General Wesley Clark reported that "many 'policy types' in Washington are now speaking openly of Syria as the next target," while New York Times columnist Paul Krugman revealed that, having bested Iraqi forces, "a strong faction within the administration wants to go on to Syria."

Actually, there is no such faction. When President Bush insisted in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, that "either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists," he was said to have cast the international scene in "black-and- white" terms. This was meant as a criticism, a plea for nuance that took issue with the president's decision to place countries like Iran in the black column when they really belonged in the gray one. The more intriguing question, though, has always concerned countries that didn't merit inclusion in the axis of evil, such as Saudi Arabia and Syria, nations that simultaneously clamp down on and sponsor terrorism and to which neither toppling by force nor coddling without condition seem adequate responses. Nevertheless, the Bush team placed the Saudis and the Syrians in the white column and lavished them with praise for a year and a half.

If there was ever a regime that doesn't belong in the white column, it is Syria under Bashar Al Assad. But that does not necessarily mean it belongs in the black column either. As far as U.S. policy goes, there are two Syrias: a good one and a bad one. First, the good Syria. In the immediate aftermath of September 11, Assad provided the United States with what one administration official describes as a "treasure trove" of intelligence on Al Qaeda activities among Syrian nationals-principal among these Mohammed Haydar Zammar, an Al Qaeda commander living in Germany, and Mamoun Darkazanli, one of the organization's alleged financiers. Assad even sent President Bush a letter proposing that the two countries "establish sound bases of worldwide cooperation ... to uproot terrorism in all its forms." Before long, Syrian intelligence operatives were meeting with the CIA and passing along warnings replete with details about likely terrorist targets. Even the administration's Syria hawks concede that one such warning, which alerted American policymakers to a plot against American forces in the Gulf, "saved American lives." Against all expectations, Damascus even voted for U.N. Security Council Resolution 1441, the U.S.-backed measure that sent weapons inspectors back into Iraq.

A grateful Bush team has responded with a steady diet of diplomatic carrots and blandishments. It excluded Syria from the axis of evil and barely uttered a peep when Syria was elected to the U.N. Security Council. On the contrary, Powell telephoned Assad to praise his cooperation in the war on terrorism; congressional delegations (and, last April, Powell himself) appeared at the Syrian dictator's palace gate; Vice President Dick Cheney called to chat; the administration kept mum about Syria's ongoing military occupation of Lebanon; and it even authorized the opening of a back channel to Damascus, conducted by members of the Bush pre- team under the auspices of Houston's aptly named James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy. Not surprisingly, then, when Congress threatened to impose sanctions on Syria last year, the Bush team weighed in against the bill, reasoning, as Powell put it in a letter to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, that "[n]ew sanctions on Syria would place at risk our ability to ... change Syrian behavior." Employing similar logic, Bush's closest ally, Britain's Tony Blair, feted Assad at Downing Street and even ushered him in to meet the Queen.

It thus came as something of a surprise to many when, in the midst of the war with Iraq, Syria began supplying Saddam with anti-tank weapons, night- vision goggles, and suicide bombers. It shouldn't have. Because, even as the good Syria has been playing nice, the bad Syria has, if anything, gotten worse since the September 11 attacks. Balancing its need to stay out of America's bombsights with its domestic and regional aims, Damascus continues to play host to an alphabet soup of terrorist groups, including leaders from Hamas and Hezbollah, which Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage has branded the "A Team of terrorists." After Hezbollah intensified its cross-border attacks against Israel last spring, Bush demanded that Syria "choose the right side in the war on terror by closing terrorist camps and expelling terrorist organizations." Assad's reply came a week later, with his declaration that "Syria supports the Lebanese national resistance, including Hezbollah." As if to prove the point, the Syrian dictator has brushed aside even the restraints imposed by his father, Hafez Al Assad, who merely provided a conduit for Iranian arms destined for Lebanese terror camps, and has begun directly supplying Hezbollah with heavy weapons and integrating its units into the Syrian army.

If Syria's support for America's foes was confined to Hezbollah, the administration might still be touting Assad as a partner in the war on terrorism. Alas, the Syrian leader has a soft spot for Saddam, too. Unlike his father, whose enmity toward his Iraqi counterpart dated back decades and culminated in his decision to join the U.S.-led coalition against Iraq in 1991, the younger Assad has developed a full-blown alliance with the Iraqi leader in the three years since he took power. Strapped for cash, keen to prove his credentials to a rabidly anti-American public, and eager to emerge from his father's shadow, Assad reopened the Iraqi-Syrian pipeline in late 2000 and before long was funneling $1 billion worth of oil out of Iraq each year (in violation of U.N. sanctions); lifting visa, trade, and other border restrictions with Iraq; and even shopping for Saddam on the international arms market. Nor did Powell's 2001 plea to shut down Syria's illicit oil trade with Iraq or successive U.S. marches make the slightest impression on Assad. Instead, the Syrian dictator pledged two weeks ago to "stand beside Baghdad" in its current war with the United States and, for good measure, had his foreign minister, Farouk Al Sharaa, assure the Syrian parliament that "Syria's interest is to see the invaders defeated in Iraq."

Even during the war, Assad's regime has been shipping military equipment across the Iraqi border, which prompted Rumsfeld's rebuke on March 28. Nor did that rebuke come merely from Rumsfeld and his civilian advisers: It was cleared with the White House and reflected, if anything, frustration within the ranks of the U.S. military. That frustration, according to administration officials, stemmed from Syrian shipments of Russian-made Kornet anti-tank weapons and platoons of suicide bombers carrying Syrian passports. The traffic has continued despite repeated American protests and even a visit to Damascus by Assistant Secretary of State William Burns. The traffic has flowed in the other direction, too: As their regime collapsed around them this week, many of Saddam's lieutenants piled into caravans and scrambled to safety in Damascus.

So will Syria finally, as Rumsfeld insists, be held "accountable"? The Syrian regime seems to hope so. Over the past few weeks, a parade of its officials has fanned out on the Arab world's airwaves to predict, as Assad did two weeks ago, that Damascus will be Washington's "next target." He's not likely to get his way. "Pretending he's next, particularly after Saddam is gone, makes [Assad] look like a leader," says one Pentagon official. "But he's not even on the list."

Nor has the dictator's wartime conduct budged the administration's Syriaphiles from their attachment to Assad. At the State Department, where Burns and his deputy, David Satterfield, have been touting Assad as an Arab Gorbachev ever since September 11, opposition to sanctioning his regime still runs deep. As in Iraq, State Department officials have refused to meet with prominent Lebanese and Syrian opposition leaders and, in recent weeks, even prevented their counterparts at the Pentagon from doing so. The CIA's George Tenet along with Bush I veterans, such as former Secretary of State James Baker and former Ambassador to Syria Edward Djerejian, have also continued pushing the Bush team in the direction of diplomatic accommodation. As summarized by a State Department official who hears it daily, their argument is that, however imperfect he may be, Assad has provided invaluable assistance in the war against Al Qaeda, and the White House will need to call on him if it intends to revive the peace process between the Israelis and Palestinians. President Bush has also rung up a debt to Prime Minister Blair for his wartime support, and the British have been pushing the Bush team to make amends with Syria. Hence, when asked last week whether Rumsfeld's comments portend a less forgiving policy toward Damascus, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw snapped, "We would have nothing whatever to do with an approach like that."

But the debate over who comes after Saddam again ignores the gray. America's diplomatic toolbox, after all, contains numerous options short of war, and it is exactly these options that are under consideration by officials less enamored of Assad. They run the diplomatic gamut, from pressing Damascus more forcefully—through diplomatic pressure and public denunciations—to oust the terror groups that call Syria home to elevating Syria's occupation of Lebanon in the hierarchy of U.S. policy concerns. That last option holds particular appeal for officials in the White House and at the Pentagon, who recall with disgust the quid pro quo that the elder Bush hammered out with the elder Assad in 1990. Under the terms of that agreement, the United States—in return for Syria's support for the Gulf war—agreed to turn a blind eye to its occupation of Lebanon. Washington does so to this day, and the mere suggestion of doing otherwise makes officials at Foggy Bottom apoplectic. Indeed, if policymakers at the Defense Department continue to flirt with speaking out about the occupation of Lebanon, the issue could easily become yet another flashpoint between the two agencies.

Unless, of course, the White House settles the matter first. Informed of Rumsfeld's denunciation of Syria, President Bush reportedly gave a monosyllabic response: "Good." But it would be even better if Bush made the denunciation himself. And better still if he did so for reasons that went beyond pique over Syria's wartime conduct. Here, after all, is a regime that, like Saddam's, tortures its own citizens, invades its neighbors, and supports terrorism abroad. True, it doesn't possess as many deadly weapons as its neighbor to the east. But, then, no one is advocating war with Syria. What Pentagon and White House officials are advocating is merely skepticism regarding the fantasy that the war on terrorism has transformed a longtime foe into a newfound friend. Candor on that point hardly requires toppling the regime in Damascus. It just means a few less love letters to Bashar Al Assad.