Sunday, May 23, 2004

In the midst of a widening war in Iraq, the Bush administrationfinally seems to be getting serious about Syria. On May 11, President Bush signed an executive order imposing military and economic sanctions on the Ba’athist state and labeling it an “unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy and economy” of the United States.

Such measures are long overdue. After all, Syria continues to serve as a major training ground and safe haven for a variety of international terrorist groups, from the Palestinian Islamic Jihad to the anti-Turkish Kurdish Worker’s Party to Iraq’s al Qaeda-affiliated Ansar al-Islam. Syria’s young dictator, Bashar Assad, has also deepened his regime’s relationshipwithHezbollah, Lebanon’s powerful Shi’ite militia. This support has included financial transfers and massive arms shipments, which have expanded the guerrilla group’s regional reachwhilesolidifying Syria’s grip on Lebanon. Western intelligence services have even monitored the recruitment and planning activities of al Qaeda lieutenants operating out of Syria.

Yet under intensifying American pressure, Syria suddenly has discovered a terrorist problem of its own. After gunmen detonated a car bomb in front of a former U.N. office in the diplomatic quarter of Damascus and clashed with Syrian security forces in late April, Syrian spokesmen wasted no time linking the incident to al Qaeda. But astute students of Syrian behavior — like Reps. Eliot Engel, New York Democrat, and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Florida Republican — have a different suspect in mind and have accused Damascus of fabricating a crisis to put itself on the right side of the war on terrorism.

Syria, however, is anything but on the right side. In fact, Damascus appears to be stepping up its direct involvement in terrorism. In late April, Jordan’s state security service averted a catastrophic terrorist attack by al Qaeda elements in the capital city of Amman. The abortive bombing, projected to have been capable of killing tens of thousands of people, involved large quantities of VX nerve agent that have since been traced back to Syrian stockpiles.

The world’s sole remaining Ba’athist regime has also adopted an exceedingly unconstructive role on Iraq, refusing to secure its shared 600-mile border despiteAmericanentreaties. And notwithstanding its public denials, U.S. officials still suspect Syria is actively fueling the Iraqi insurgency by facilitating the migration of foreign fighters across the Iraqi-Syrian border.

At the same time, Damascus has been investing heavily in weapons of mass destruction (WMD). In the past year, it has launched a major effort to achieve “strategic parity” with Israel and is now believed to have amassed at least 100 missiles equipped with VX nerve agent aimed at the Jewish state. Reports from the region also suggest the Syrian government is ramping up its ties with China in a bid to expand its ballistic-missile capabilities. High-ranking American officials have further publicly hinted that Damascus might have managed to acquire atomic centrifuges through its dealings with the recently uncovered nuclear network of Pakistani scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan.

Syria even has embarked on a landmark expansion of its partnership with Iran. In April, Syrian Defense Minister Mustafa Tlass met in Damascus with his Iranian counterpart, Ali Shamkhani, and finalized a sweeping military cooperation agreement — one aimed at derailing the efforts of the United States and its coalition allies to transform the Middle East, and establishing Syria as a de facto Iranian protectorate.

Policy-makers in Europe appear not to have noticed, however. Just this past December, as the U.S. Congress was approving legislation designed to take Damascus to task for its long-running occupation of Lebanon, support for terrorism and pursuit of WMD, the European Union was busy finalizing a formal”Euro-Mediterranean Association Agreement”withtheAssad regime. The accord, which establishes a European-Syrian “free trade area” and institutionalizes both cultural and political dialogue with the Ba’athist state, is modeled on precisely the same sort of engagement that has been so spectacularly unsuccessful in prompting Iran’s clerical regime to reform. Now, against the backdrop of American sanctions, Europe again has reaffirmed its intention to continue “critical and constructive engagement” with Damascus.

The gap between European and American policy doubtless has a great deal to do with style; policy-makers in Brussels have long seen their brand of nuanced diplomacy as a more constructive counterpoint to American demands for accountability. But the latest bid by Brussels to rehabilitate Damascus, even as the Ba’athist regime there continues to support terrorism and seek WMD, should be further proof that Europe’s urge for engagement with rogue regimes has become downright dangerous for the United States.

Ilan Berman is vice president for policy at the American Foreign Policy Council in Washington.

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