Analysis: Shooting from the hip with Syria
Posted: Monday, March 31, 2003
By Zvi Bar'el, Haaretz Correspondent
What did U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld achieve by publicly scolding Syria and almost adding it to President George W. Bush's "axis of evil?"
Syria, even before the war and more so since its eruption, has turned into the main and most vociferous focus of Arab resistance.
Last week, Iraqi Foreign Minister Naji Sabri was very warmly received by his Syrian colleague Farouk A-Shara. The border between Syria and Iraq is the only Arab border left open and last week Haaretz reported a movement of volunteers across the Syrian border to Iraq.
Syria has not responded to the American demand to shut down the Iraqi embassy and did not take steps to freeze Iraqi bank accounts, as Jordan has.
In recent days, Syria has been in no hurry to disperse the demonstrations outside the American and Egyptian embassies in Damascus. These demonstrations have already served as a pretext for diplomatic wrangling between Syria and Egypt, when Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher summoned Syria's ambassador in Cairo and hauled him over the coals for them.
Syrian President Bashar Assad said in an interview to the Lebanese newspaper A-Sapir that the war in Iraq is a planned occupation intended to draw a new map of the Middle East according to the interests of the United States and Israel. He describes Washington's "road map" as a bribe aimed at soothing the Arabs.
In addition, military equipment has reportedly passed to Iraq via the Syrian border. According to Rumsfeld, this equipment includes night-vision kits. It is not clear whether this equipment was moved before or after the war began. Syria's position and actions, on Saturday firmly denied by Syrian officials, worry Washington.
"In some Arab states there is already talk about Turkey being the only Muslim state that isn't letting troops pass from its bases to Iraq," explains an American diplomat. "The fear is that if the war is bogged down, more Arab states may follow the Turkish example and make it even more difficult for the military activity. That's why it was important to give a public, blatant message regarding Syria."
And what about Turkey? "With Turkey, we are still negotiating over the passage of troops and we still hope to reach some arrangement," said the diplomat.
Despite this, Rumsfeld's statement surprised officials in the State Department and CIA. American sources said secret contacts are being held with Syria to stop the spill of equipment and weapons into Iraq and there was no intention of making this public.
On Saturday, State Department sources spoke of the damage caused by Rumsfeld's statement. They said Rumsfeld was playing into the hands of those Middle East organizations and states that claim Washington's plan is not to make do with Saddam's head but continue from Iraq to other Arab states.
"The direct accusation of Syria, and threatening that it will have to pay for its deeds, strengthens Syria's position among the states objecting to the war and presents the U.S. as one who persecutes Arab states," said a Jordanian administration official. "One axis of evil including Iran, Iraq and North Korea was enough. Did Rumsfeld need his own private axis of evil, as well?"
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