A growing number of senior Bush administration officials are losing patience with Syria for what appears to be Syrian efforts to help Iraq defend itself against coalition military forces.
For more than a year, State department officials say, Washington has been trying to get Syria's President, Bashar al-Asad, to put an end to cross border activity which the Bush administration has seen as support for Saddam Hussein's regime. Night-vision goggles and other equipment which was intended to help the Iraqi military crossed from Syria into Iraq but more troubling were busloads of young men from various middle eastern countries who crossed into Iraq.
"In recent days, the Syrians have been shipping killers into Iraq to try to kill Americans. We don't welcome that," said Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz before Congress this week. According to another administration official, U.S. military forces took 15-20 " potential combatants and terrorist-types" into custody on the Iraqi side of the border earlier this month, after they had crossed from Syria.
And, sources say, there are the continuing illegal shipments of oil. Syria has been receiving more than a hundred thousand barrels of Iraqi oil per day, via pipeline and truck convoy, which is being sold at great profit. In return, Syria has allowed the trans-shipment of Arab fighters and illegal items to flow into Iraq, even during the ongoing conflict. Sources say people known to the government, or very close to the government are involved. One administration official says the activity "strongly suggests a Syrian government role, or at least permission or complicity."
William Burns, Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs, has personally taken Washington's protests to Damascus and Ambassador Ted Kattouf has delivered messages of concern to Syria's Foreign Minister several times recently.
Secretary of State Colin Powell's most recent shot across Syria's bow was short and to the point: "Syria…now faces a critical choice," Powell said recently in a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a pro-Israel lobbying group. "Syria can continue direct support for terrorist groups and the dying regime of Saddam Hussein, or it can embark on a different and more hopeful course. Either way Syria bears the responsibility for its choices, and for the consequences."
"For Powell to stand up and say this before AIPAC," says Syrian analyst Murhaf Jouejati of the Middle East Institute, "shows the tact of an alligator, not a diplomat." The Syrian regime, Jouejati says, is caught in a push-pull situation. It has no wish to support Saddam's regime but it sees America's military campaign to oust Saddam as an onslaught against a fellow Arab regime.
If Damascus doesn't begin to take Washington's protests seriously, there are a variety of consequences which Bush officials could impose, ranging from tougher sanctions to recalling Washington's ambassador. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and others have also hinted Syria could follow Iraq as a target of America's military, although many do not take that threat seriously.
One way or another, Damascus may have gotten the message but it might have come with a twist. Analyst Jouejati says "All this, the statements from the Tarzans and the Rambos in Washington, is going to lionize the Syrian government in Arab eyes and will push Syria further into Iranian arms."
Powell has told interviewers he hopes that nations like Syria see what has happened to Iraq and that they "will move in a new direction."