- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 19, 2005

Syria still allows its territory, and parts of Lebanon, to be used by terrorists who seek to destroy every chance of peace in the region.

President George W. Bush, State of the Union address, Feb. 2, 2005.

Thursday, President Bush named former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq John Negroponte the first director of national intelligence. At a press conference following the announcement, reporters badgered the president about budget numbers, who would get how much money, and imagined “turf wars” between Mr. Negroponte and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. From there, the media masters moved to Social security, the Kyoto Treaty and the administration’s perceived inability to “work with Congress.” Unfortunately, they barely mentioned what will likely be one of Mr. Negroponte’s most challenging priorities: Syria.

In fairness, my “colleagues” in the Fourth Estate did ask the president three questions on Syrian complicity in last Monday’s assassination of Lebanon’s former prime minister, Rafik Hariri. The president admitted it is unclear who detonated the massive bomb in Beirut that killed Hariri and 16 others, and warned Damascus: “Syria’s out of step with the progress being made in the greater Middle East… democracy is on the move, and this is a country that isn’t moving with the democratic movement…. It’s not in their interest to be isolated.”

All true, but no one thought to ask, “Who’s running Syria?” Mr. Negroponte’s answer will be crucial to many of our hopes for a tranquil outcome in Iraq — and the Middle East.

For the last two years, Syrian President Bashir Assad has been treated as the man to lead Syria into a better future. Our State Department has described him as “a Western-educated optometrist,” and an “Anglophile,” instead of “son of the previous dictator.” Israeli officials hoped Mr. Assad would “end the long stalemate over terrorist refuges” in southern Lebanon. All this now seems a false hope.

Whether by malicious design or impotence, Mr. Assad seems unwilling or unable to be the reformer or partner for peace the State Department had hoped. No one knows how much power the generals wield behind the scenes. That is Mr. Negroponte’s task: to discern who calls the shots in Syria.

Monday’s deadly blast in Beirut isn’t the only issue. Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad continue flourishing in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. The Syrian army maintains nearly 15,000 troops in Lebanon, treating the country as a semi-autonomous satellite of Damascus. It appears Syria welcomed Saddam’s former Ba’ath Party operatives and has helped terrorists enter Iraq. After a Wednesday meeting of Syria’s prime minister and Iran’s vice president, the radical Iranian proclaimed, “We are ready to help Syria on all grounds to confront threats.”

Though Mr. Bush rightly refused to name Hariri’s assassins until “all the facts are in,” that hasn’t prevented the Lebanese from drawing their own conclusions. In the days following the explosion that ripped through Hariri’s armored motorcade, anti-Syrian demonstrators stoned the Syrian Ba’ath Party headquarters in Beirut. Crowds at Hariri’s mansion chanted, “Syria is the enemy of Allah.” One bold mourner at Hariri’s funeral said, “There has never been a demonstration against Syria before. You would have been arrested. No one dared to say anything before…. It would kill me if they had my name.” But they do demonstrate.

It’s now time for the United States to help facilitate the kind of “March toward Freedom” President Bush articulates without sending in the Marines. That requires Mr. Negroponte to lead a careful, quiet collection of good intelligence with a determination of who is in charge in Syria — if anyone.

The international community — even the despot-doting United Nations — has demanded Syria withdraw its nearly 30-year occupation of Lebanon. The U.N. Security Council passed a resolution for “all remaining foreign forces to withdraw from Lebanon.” Syria isn’t named, but no one misses the pink elephant in the room — or the Syrian troops in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley.

Last Tuesday, the United States recalled our ambassador to Syria, officially citing a need for “urgent consultations following the brutal murder of [Hariri].” That tacit accusation, along with a stern diplomatic note delivered by the ambassador to the Syrian regime, signaled a change in U.S. posture toward Damascus: Shape up, fast. Syria appears to have taken the opposite tack.

Iran’s nuclear ambitions are about as secretive as Syria’s control of Lebanon. Iran brazenly refuses to comply with International Atomic Energy Administration directives and stop enriching uranium.

Syria and Iran, two Islamofascist thugocracies, are together on the wrong side of history. Both are flanked by democratic governments and violently suppress such movements within their own spheres. Israel insists Iran is very close to realizing its nuclear ambition. Syria, by partnering with Iran, has shown a willingness to stand against the West.

After stern words for Syria, Mr. Bush made it clear to reporters the U.S. will not abide a nuclear Iran: “The objective is to solve the issue diplomatically, is to work with friends… to continue making it clear to the Iranians that developing a nuclear weapon will be unacceptable.”

Syria and Iran both feel the nearing “untamed fire of freedom” Mr. Bush spoke of in his Inaugural address and are doing all they can to stomp it out before they get burned. Mr. Negroponte’s job is to see they don’t succeed.

Oliver North is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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