Monday, September 29, 2003

While President Bush did not officially list Syria as a member of the axis of evil during last year’s State of the Union address, the administration clearly seems to be moving toward making Damascus a sort of ex officio member of the club, alongside Iran and North Korea. In recent testimony before the House International Relations Subcommittee on the Middle East, a senior State Department official made it clear that President Bashar Assad’s Ba’athist dictatorship is well on its way to attaining pariah status with the Bush administration — an unenviable position to be in, as his Ba’athist neighbor Saddam Hussein found out six months ago.

The official, Undersecretary of State for ArmsControlJohn Bolton, emphasized that Syria remains a security threat in two major areas: weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and support for terrorism. Mr. Bolton listed Syria, along with North Korea, Iran and Libya, among “rogue states” that pose “threats to our national security.” And, using terminology that has to worry Mr. Assad, Mr. Bolton said that Washington is determined to “roll back” and “ultimately eliminate such weapons from the arsenals of rogue states and ensure that the terrorist groups they sponsor do not acquire weapons of mass destruction.” He left open the possibility that Washington might need to use force against dangerous regimes like the one in Damascus.

For at least the second time in the past year, the administration expressed concern about possible Syrian efforts to develop nuclear weapons. “We are aware of Syrian efforts to acquire dual-use technologies —some through the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Technical Cooperation program — that could be applied to a nuclear weapons program. In addition, Russia and Syria have approved a draft program on cooperation on civil nuclear power,” Mr. Bolton told the subcommittee. “Broader access to Russian expertise could provide opportunities for Syria to expand its indigenous capabilities, should it decide to pursue nuclear weapons.”

Mr. Bolton also noted that Washington suspects that Syria is continuing to develop an offensive biological weapons capability; has stockpiled chemical weapons such as sarin and VX nerve gas and has equipped part of its force of several hundred ballistic missiles with chemical warheads. A longer-range missile — the Scud D — developed with assistance from North Korea, is capable of reaching large portions of Iraq, Jordan and Turkey from sites well inside Syria. Iran has also played a key role in aiding Syria’s ballistic missile development. By developing weapons of mass destruction and continuing to support terrorist groups like Hezbollah, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Mr. Bolton warned, Syria falls into a category of states that pose a “potential dual threat” to American interests. And, the senior State Department diplomat also warned that, by permitting Arab “volunteers” to enter Iraq to kill American service members, Syria has been playing a dangerous game.

Unlike U.S. policy toward Iraq — which Democratic partisans have turned into a political football — there is strong, bipartisan support on Capitol Hill for legislation to penalize Syrian misbehavior. Indeed, despite some initial misgivings from the Bush administration, as of last night, 272 House members and 75 senators have supported legislation to impose a sweeping set of economic sanctions to force Damascus to dramatically change its behavior. Should the administration eventually decide it is necessary to take decisive action against Mr. Assad’s regime, it will begin with a surprisingly bipartisan, strong level of support in Congress.

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