- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 21, 2003

Even before Tuesday’s terrorist bombing at U.N. headquarters in Baghdad, Ambassador Paul Bremer warned Syria to stop letting terrorists across the border to engage in murder and sabotage. In an interview with the London-based Al Hayat newspaper, published only hours before the deadly U.N. bombing, Mr. Bremer said that Syria continues to permit foreign terrorists to cross the border. “We held talks with the Syrians in this regard,” Mr. Bremer noted tersely. “We hope to see better cooperation.”

The remarks by Mr. Bremer, a man who chooses his words very carefully, do not come in a vacuum. They follow months of efforts to dissuade Syrian dictator Bashar Assad from allowing foreign terrorists to enter Iraq in order to kill American and British soldiers. In March, Damascus granted free passage across its borders to foreign “volunteers” to join the fight against U.S.-led forces in Iraq. They were urged to defeat “American-British-Zionist aggression” in Iraq. The Bush administration, with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld playing a leading role, demanded that Syria (and its longtime ally, Iran) stop allowing these foreign radicals to enter Iraq. Under intense U.S. pressure, Syria closed its border in April and apparently expelled several high-ranking Iraqi Ba’athist officials, including Jaffar al-Jaffer, Saddam Hussein’s top nuclear scientist.

In May, Secretary of State Colin Powell (now Mr. Bremer’s boss) visited Damascus and effectively read Mr. Assad the riot act, demanding that he close the offices of Palestinian terrorist groups in Damascus and prevent foreign fighters from entering Iraq. In June, the State Department said that Damascus had taken only limited steps to shut down the terrorists’ offices, calling these moves “totally inadequate.” But, over the past six months, unnamed State Department officials also have been quoted as suggesting that Washington could not afford to be too hard on Syria, because the Assad regime has provided Washington with information that helped shut down some al Qaeda terrorist operations.

But Syria has played a critical role in helping al Qaeda create a worldwide terrorist network. In April, Italian authorities arrested seven al Qaeda operatives and charged them with sending 40 individuals through Syria to terrorist bases in northeastern Iraq that were jointly operated (with Saddam’s consent) by al Qaeda and Ansar-al-Islam — a Kurdish terrorist group defeated by U.S. military forces and Kurdish resistance groups early in this year’s war in Iraq. Today, Ansar is believed to have rebuilt its forces inside Iraq, and may be involved in recent attacks on U.S. forces.

Unfortunately, the State Department has been sending mixed signals about its determination to confront Syria. While Mr. Bremer argues for a strong U.S. stance, Mr. Powell’s spokesman, Richard Boucher, undercut Mr. Bremer on Tuesday, asserting that Foggy Bottom wants to see “continued” progress from Syria in preventing terrorism. This puts Mr. Powell in a difficult position. When Mr. Bremer assumed his current post in May, Mr. Powell was said to consider this a political victory, because Mr. Bremer has excellent relations with senior officials at State and Defense. Now, Mr. Powell’s spokesman seems to be subtlety contradicting Mr. Bremer. Perhaps it is time for President Bush to weigh in forcefully in support of Mr. Bremer’s more realistic worldview.

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