White House warns Syria its acts risk sanctions

`Rogue nation' accused of harboring Iraqi officials

War In Iraq

April 15, 2003|By Peter Hermann | Peter Hermann,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

AMMAN, Jordan - The Bush administration sharply criticized Syria for a second consecutive day yesterday, accusing its leaders of giving refuge to senior Iraqi officials and possessing chemical weapons - allegations that Syria denied.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell for the first time raised the possibility of imposing sanctions on Syria, noting the "new environment" created by the fall of Iraq and advising that Syria's leaders "should review their actions and their behavior."

White House press secretary Ari Fleischer was even more critical, calling Syria "a rogue nation" and warning that it needs to adapt its actions to the region's radically changed environment.

"I think that what's next is Syria needs to seriously ponder the implications of their actions in terms of harboring Iraqis who need not and should not be harbored," Fleischer said. "They should think seriously about their program to develop and to have chemical weapons. I think it's time to think through where they want their place to be in the world."

Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld told reporters that "we have intelligence that indicates that some Iraqi people have been allowed into Syria, in some cases to stay, in some cases to transit."

He said U.S. intelligence officials also "have seen the chemical weapons tests in Syria over the past 12, 15 months."

Accusations denied

Syrian officials have vehemently denied that they have given refuge to Saddam Hussein's deputies or possess weapons of mass destruction. "Syria has no chemical weapons," a Syrian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Buthania Shaaban, said in Damascus. "The only chemical, biological and nuclear weapons in the region are in Israel."

Arab analysts said the criticism from Washington hardly surprised them because it was a product of the Bush administration's policy toward Iraq.

"They are continuing what they started in Iraq," said Ahmad Asfahani, executive editor of al-Hayat, an Arab newspaper published in London. "It is part of their plan to grab more countries. That is how we see it."

Radwan Abdullah, a political consultant who formerly headed the political science department at the University of Jordan, said the stepped-up rhetoric against Syria was expected.

The Bush administration "wants a new Middle East on their terms and appears willing to go to war to achieve it," he said. "The next logical step after Iraq would be Syria."

Many Arabs are skeptical of America's motives for waging war on Iraq, believing the true reason is to capture oil fields and to help protect Israel, its main ally in the region.

`A warning card'

The issue of Syria dominated the news in Israel yesterday, with top officials in Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's office saying they would demand that the United States force Syria to end the threat from Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed militia that, with Syria's connivance, is the most powerful political force in southern Lebanon, along Israel's northern border.

Leaders of several Palestinian militant groups, including Islamic Jihad and Hamas, have headquarters in Damascus, and Israel would like nothing more than to eliminate the leadership of those organizations that sponsor suicide bombings.

"I think the Americans will not ignore what Syria has done," Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz told Israel Radio yesterday. "I believe that during this war the Americans issued a warning card to Syria."

There is little doubt that the swift and decisive victory by American troops in Iraq has made the United States an even greater power in the region, and weakened countries such as Syria to the point where they might have few choices left.

"Syria might have to accept some kind of peace, even with Israel, to accommodate the Americans and avert danger," said Abdullah, the political scientist. "That is the new reality."

U.S. military officials had voiced concern about Syria early in the war and accused it of allowing Iraq to be supplied with night-vision goggles and other military equipment. But officials made even stronger statements last weekend, saying that Syria had sent mercenaries to fight on behalf of the Iraqi regime and that Damascus possessed weapons of mass destruction.

"This is a day of emerging liberation for the people of Iraq, and it's important for President [Bashar] Assad of Syria, who is a new leader, a young man, to understand that the future needs to be different from the past," Fleischer told reporters at the White House.

Action not ruled out

Asked about the possibility of military action against Syria, a White House official said, "We don't rule anything out, but nobody is talking about that right now."

Abdullah expressed doubt that top Iraqi officials are in Syria, but if they are, "Syria won't keep them there," he said. "The young leader is not his father, but he is not stupid either. This regime does things that always lead to a deal."

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