© St. Petersburg Times, published April 15, 2003
WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration sharply scolded Syria for a second day on Monday, warning it to "ponder the implications" of what Washington says is that country's support of terrorism, its development of chemical weapons and its harboring of fugitives from the regime of Saddam Hussein.
Secretary of State Colin Powell for the first time raised the possibility of imposing sanctions on Syria, noting the "new environment" created by the fall of Iraq and advising that Syria's leaders "should review their actions and their behavior."
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer was even more critical, calling Syria "a rogue nation" and warned that it needed to adapt its actions to the region's radically changed environment.
"I think that what's next is Syria needs to seriously ponder the implications of their actions in terms of harboring Iraqis who need not and should not be harbored," Fleischer said. "They should think seriously about their program to develop and to have chemical weapons. I think it's time to think through where they want their place to be in the world."
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told reporters that "we have intelligence that indicates that some Iraqi people have been allowed into Syria, in some cases to stay, in some cases to transit."
The Associated Press reported that Hussein's first wife, Sajida Khairallah Telfah, is believed to have left Iraq, and some uncorroborated reports put her in Syria. It is unclear when she left Iraq.
Rumsfeld also said that U.S. intelligence officials "have seen the chemical weapons tests in Syria over the past 12, 15 months."
Syrian officials have vehemently denied that they have given refuge to Hussein's deputies or possess weapons of mass destruction. "Syria has no chemical weapons," a Syrian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Buthania Shaaban, said in Damascus, the capital. "The only chemical, biological and nuclear weapons in the region are in Israel."
The tough talk from Washington has set off alarm bells in the Arab world and left many wondering if Syria is the next target for U.S invasion.
"There is, without question, a strong element within the administration that actually feels Syria should be next," said Alon Ben-Meir, a professor of international relations at New York University. "The escalation of this type of rhetoric eventually assumes a life of its own."
But a senior U.S. official, speaking to Knight Ridder on the condition of anonymity, said there are no plans, even tentative ones, for military action against Syria. Rather, he said, the saber-rattling is intended to convince the Syrians to refuse safe haven to Iraq's fallen leadership and crack down on militant Islamic groups, especially Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad.
British officials on Monday ruled out military action against Syria.
"There are no plans whatsoever to invade Syria," Prime Minister Tony Blair told the House of Commons.
Arab analysts said the criticism from Washington hardly surprised them because it was a product of the Bush administration's policy toward Iraq.
"They are continuing what they started in Iraq," said Ahmad Asfahani, executive editor of al-Hayat, an Arab newspaper published in London. "It is part of their plan to grab more countries. That is how we see it."
Radwan Abdullah, a political consultant who formerly headed the political science department at the University of Jordan, said the stepped-up rhetoric against Syria was expected.
The Bush administration "wants a new Middle East on their terms and appears willing to go to war to achieve it," he said. "The next logical step after Iraq would be Syria."
Many Arabs were skeptical of America's motives for waging war on Iraq, believing the true reason was to capture oil fields and to help protect its main ally in the region, Israel.
The issue of Syria dominated the news in Israel Monday, with top officials in Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's office saying they would demand that the United States force Syria to end the threat from Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed militia that, with Syria's connivance, is the most powerful political force in southern Lebanon, along Israel's northern border.
U.S. military officials voiced concern about Syria early in the war and accused it of allowing Iraq to be supplied with night-vision goggles and other military equipment. But U.S. officials made even stronger statements over the weekend, saying Syria had sent mercenaries to fight on behalf of the Iraqi regime and that Damascus had weapons of mass destruction.
"This is a day of emerging liberation for the people of Iraq, and it's important for President (Bashar) Assad of Syria, who is a new leader, a young man, to understand that the future needs to be different from the past," Fleischer said.
-- Information from the Baltimore Sun, New York Times and Knight Ridder Newspapers was used in this report.