Bush Steps Up Pressure on Syria
By Tyler Marshall
WASHINGTON – President Bush stepped up U.S. pressure on Syria today, declaring it is “out of step” with advances toward democracy in the Middle East.
Speaking at a White House news conference, he called on Damascus to end its support for international terrorist groups, to pull its military forces out of Lebanon, and to send former Saddam Hussein loyalists fueling an anti-American insurgency from Syria back to Iraq.
Bush also pledged to explore with allies on his trip next week to Europe ways to confront Syria jointly in order “to convince the Syrians to make rational decisions.”
“Syria is out of step with the progress being made in the greater Middle East,” Bush said. “Democracy is on the move, and this is a country that isn’t moving with the democratic movement.”
At the 35-minute news conference, called to announce his nomination of veteran diplomat John Negroponte to become the nation’s first director of national intelligence, Bush also addressed an array of other issues. He expressed a desire to use diplomacy rather military action to….
prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and said his first goal of his European trip was to remind Americans and Europeans of the transatlantic relationship’s importance. He stated that his overall goal for the Middle East this year was to see “more advance toward free and democratic states.”
On the domestic front, he pledged to tour America to build support for social security reform.
The president’s comments on Syria came three days after a massive bomb killed Lebanon’s former premier, Rafik Hariri, in Beirut and spotlighted Syria’s continued military occupation of the Mediterranean country – a presence Syria claims is a stabilizing influence but one that the United States and most European countries view as the opposite.
The administration has also repeatedly accused Syria of supporting militants from Islamic groups, including Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad, in their efforts to fuel violence in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Also, the U.S. charges that former Baathists from Iraq are allowed to operate inside Syria and move back and forth across the Syrian-Iraqi border to join the insurgency’s fight against the U.S. military.
While Bush restricted his remarks to previously stated demands on Syria and stopped short of blaming Damascus directly for Hariri’s assassination, his comments marked the first time he has personally weighed in on the issue and, as such, were viewed as an intensification of U.S. pressure.
Responding to the administration’s jawboning, Syrian ambassador to the United States, Imad Moustapha, today accused U.S. officials of trying to “capitalize” on Hariri’s assassination and lamented the tough U.S. talk.
“We think the United States is trying to score politically from a catastrophe that has befallen both Lebanon and Syria,” Moustapha said in an appearance on C-SPAN television. “We do not fear there is a pending invasion. But we are troubled and worried by this nonstop, continuous campaign against Syria.”
Moustapha reiterated Syria’s condemnation of Hariri’s assassination, saying it was “a catastrophe on a national scale.”
Testifying at a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice described Syria as “in a sense, a shield for terrorist activities in southern Lebanon.” She declared that Damascus shared “some responsibility” for the conditions in Lebanon in which the assassination occurred.
However, she too declined to link Syria directly to the assassination, saying any blame had to await the outcome of an international investigation. While she refused to rule out the possibility of military action against Syria, she said the administration expected to accomplish its goals diplomatically.
“We believe that the concerned international pressure of the international community can and should move the Syrians to act,” she said.
The restrained response by Bush and Rice acted to keep the spotlight on Damascus in the wake of Hariri’s assassination in order to pressure Syria to change direction politically without directly accusing it of complicity in his death. The more calibrated rhetoric is also in tune with the response of Europeans whom Bush hopes to work with to broaden diplomatic pressure.
Forcing Syrian troops to leave Lebanon is an issue that France and the United States have worked on closely despite the chill that has characterized their relations since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq nearly two years ago. The two countries co-sponsored United Nations Security Council resolution 1559 in September that called for the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon and free national elections.
The United States quickly backed a call by French President Jacques Chirac for an international investigation into the assassination, a call Bush personally endorsed today. Precisely how to broaden international pressure on Syria is expected to be an important topic when the two leaders meet in Brussels on Monday.
However, Europeans have refused to bow to U.S. pressure to officially designate the Lebanese-based Shiite fundamentalist group Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. While acknowledging its attacks against American and Israeli targets, Europeans note that because the group is also an important player in Lebanese politics and is a major supplier of social services to the country’s Shiite population, formally outlawing it could add more strains to Lebanon’s fragile stability.
An administration official noted that Bush had a variety of limited political measures set out in the 2003 Syria Accountability Act that he could implement, including a formal downgrade of diplomatic relations, imposing travel restrictions on Syrian diplomats and halting U.S. business investments in Syria. The administration could also act under provisions of the 2001 Patriot Act to limit the financing of Syrian exports.
On Iran, Bush said he hoped to join with European allies to use diplomatic means to prevent Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons. However, when asked if he would join a European Union negotiating effort, Bush indicated the United States would act instead inside the U.N.’s International Atomic Energy Agency, a body that has the power to refer Iran to the Security Council for possible punitive action.
The European initiative, led by France, Britain and Germany, would offer Iran security guarantees and an economic package in return for an Iranian renunciation of atomic weapons and the acceptance of international inspections. The Europeans have repeatedly asked the United States to join their process.