- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 4, 2005

Secretary of State Colin Powell’s foreign-policy team has a steep learning curve when it comes to Syria, judging from yesterday’s visit to Syria by Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage. To listen to Mr. Armitage, relations between the United States and the regime of Syrian strongman Bashar Assad may have some difficulties, but seem to be moving in the right direction.

Mr. Armitage, who was accompanied by Assistant Secretary of State William Burns, said he believes that Syria shares Washington’s view that the Jan. 30 elections in Iraq should go forward as scheduled. Mr. Armitage said Syria had made progress but needed to “do more” to prevent foreign terrorists from crossing into Iraq. Syria’s ambassador to the United States said afterward that Mr. Armitage’s talks in Damascus were “very successful” and did not reflect the tension between the two countries often depicted in the media. Washington, he said, “acknowledged the cooperation already in place and asked us very gently to strengthen this cooperation.”

Mr. Armitage’s performance was an unfortunate one, because the behavior of the Syrian regime does not merit gentle treatment. Far from it, Syria should be read the riot act. Syria continues to support Hezbollah and Palestinian terrorist groups determined to sabotage the Jan. 9 elections scheduled to take place in the West Bank and Gaza. And it continues to subvert Iraq through its support of the terrorist insurgency there.

Prime Minister Iyad Allawi has sharply criticized Syria’s malevolent role in Iraq. He recently said that he had information about Iraqis planning to carry out attacks from Syria. Mr. Allawi added that he sent a letter to Mr. Assad requesting that Damascus hand over to Iraq “wanted elements and those accused of planning and executing” attacks. Iraq’s national security adviser said the government has evidence that two Iraqi Ba’athists, including a half-brother of Saddam Hussein, were supporting the Iraqi terrorists from Syria. Iraq leveled other charges of Syrian subversion.

Unfortunately, the State Department does not appear to share the Iraqi government’s sense of urgency about Syria. In May 2003, Mr. Powell, while visiting Damascus, laid down the law to Mr. Assad about supporting Ba’athists and other terrorists working to subvert Iraq. Mr. Assad initially appeared to agree to everything Washington demanded, but Syrian support for the insurgency continued. Since then, Washington has repeatedly made the same demands, which Syria seemed to agree to and later reneged on. It’s an approach that incoming Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice needs to change right away.

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