The Syria problem
Published September 8, 2004
To listen to John Kerry, many of the conflicts plaguing the Middle East could be resolved if President Bush were more willing to work with our European allies and the United Nations. Reality, to put it mildly, is very different -- a point American officials are experiencing firsthand in trying to persuade Syrian strongman Bashar Assad to change his ways.
Example No. 1 is Lebanon, a country occupied by 17,000 Syrian troops and a haven for Hezbollah and other terrorist organizations. On Thursday, the U. N. Security Council passed Resolution 1559, which called for the removal of all foreign forces from Lebanon. The resolution -- hammered out by American and French delegates -- was widely portrayed as evidence that Washington and its allies are working together to change Syria's behavior. The following day, however, Damascus reminded the international community of the limited utility of Security Council resolutions, when the Syrian-dominated Lebanese Parliament voted 96-29 to amend the country's constitution to extend the term of President Emile Lahoud, a Syrian puppet, by three years.
Reality also reared its ugly head on the question of U. S. -European cooperation in deterring Syrian-sponsored terrorism against Israel. On Wednesday, Hamas suicide bombers struck a pair of Israeli commuter buses in Beersheba killing 16 people. When Israel, noting that Hamas is based in Damascus, threatened to target leaders of that terrorist group (causing several to go underground), the Jewish state was warned not to by European Union foreign-policy boss Javier Solana, who declared that an Israeli retaliatory strike would "complicate" the situation.
Eleven months ago, Israel launched retaliatory raids against several terrorist bases in Syria after Palestinian Islamic Jihad, another Syrian-backed terrorist group, killed 21 people in a suicide bombing at a restaurant. The raids were the first Israeli military attack conducted on Syrian territory since the 1973 Yom Kippur War. (For good measure, Israeli warplanes buzzed Mr. Assad's house, to remind him that Israel has the military capability to throttle Syria. ) So, Mr. Assad, in an interview published yesterday, says he wants to renew peace talks with Israel. For its part, Israel replies that it won't negotiate until Mr. Assad expels Hamas -- which he refuses to do.
Syria's support of terrorism against Israel, of course, is just part of the problem. Along with its ally, Iran, Damascus has played an integral role in supporting the terrorist insurgency in Iraq, and it has provided safe haven for Abu Musab Zarqawi. In Mr. Assad's hands, Syria's stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons and its ballistic-missile capability already force any potential foe to think twice about retaliating for any act of state-sponsored terror. And this Syrian deterrent capability could be growing. The Los Angeles Times recently reported that international investigators are examining whether Syria acquired nuclear technology through the black-market network operated by Pakistani weapons scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan.
Contrary to Mr. Kerry's worldview, U. N. resolutions and cooperation from the EU will play marginal roles at best in changing Syrian behavior. Unless Mr. Assad is credibly made to fear that he could meet the same fate as Saddam Hussein, Damascus' conduct won't change at all.