Is The U.S. Picking A Fight With Syria?

U.S. forces report killing apparent Syrian nationals during the course of various battles in Iraq.

Just as a top military commander pronounced the end of major hostilities in Iraq Monday, the Bush administration appeared to be picking a new fight with the country's western neighbor, Syria.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin Powell and White House spokesperson Ari Fleischer each offered stern criticism of Syria. Specifically, the three accused Syria of harboring former members of the Iraqi regime, developing weapons of mass destruction and exporting terrorism.

"They should review their actions and their behavior, not only with respect to who gets haven in Syria and weapons of mass destruction, but especially the support of terrorist activity," Powell said during a press conference Monday. "We will examine possible measures of a diplomatic, economic or other nature as we move forward … We'll see how things unfold."

The U.S. has not threatened the use of force against Syria, but the administration justified strikes on Iraq with very similar criticism of Saddam Hussein's regime.

An unnamed senior administration official told The Washington Post the White House has no plans to strike Syria. But, he said, "We're trying to scare them for the moment," in the hope that "Syria will change its behavior."

Syria's 375-mile border with Iraq is considered to be extremely porous. Earlier in the war, Secretary Rumsfeld complained that key military equipment, including night-vision goggles, were flowing from Syria into Iraq. While he declined to blame the Syrian government specifically for the exports, he called on it to rein it in.

In addition, U.S. forces have reported firing on and killing fighters who were apparently Syrian nationals during the course of various battles in Iraq.

A top Iraqi nuclear scientist recently spent time in Syria, and Saddam Hussein's first wife is possibly there now, intelligence officials told AFP, a French news agency. But they declined to corroborate reports of other top Iraqi leaders arriving in Syria. The scientist, Jaffar al-Jaffer, left Syria and is now being interviewed by American officials.

Syria is roughly the size of North Dakota in terms of landmass. It lies south of Turkey, east of Lebanon and north of Jordan. It also encompasses the Golan Heights, which Israel has controlled since the close of the Arab-Israeli War in 1967.

Israel and Syria are longstanding nemeses but have occasionally conducted talks over how to resolve the standoff in the Golan Heights. On Tuesday, Israel's prime minister issued his own sharp criticism of Syria's leader, Bashar al-Assad, in a local newspaper.

"[He] is dangerous because he is capable of making the same error over the balance of forces with Israel as he made with the Americans, and he has a force which obeys his orders: Hezbollah," said Ariel Sharon, Israel's conservative leader. Hezbollah is a Shiite Muslim militia operating in Lebanon.

Former chief U.N. weapons inspector Richard Butler says he believes that Syria has helped conceal Iraqi weapons of mass destruction. "I was shown some intelligence information, from overhead imagery and so on, that the Iraqis had moved some containers of stuff across the border into Syria," he told ABC Radio.

U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said Monday that he was concerned "that recent statements directed at Syria should not contribute to a wider destabilization in a region already affected heavily by the war in Iraq," a spokesman for Annan said.

The administration's rebuke of Syria came on the same day that a top American military spokesperson declared that the U.S. does not foresee any further significant battles in Iraq.

"I would anticipate that the major combat engagements are over because the major Iraqi units on the ground cease to show coherence," said Army Major General Stanley McChrystal.

American forces tightened control on Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit Tuesday (April 15). Earlier, a top U.S. commander expressed surprise at the level of resistance American forces encountered in the town.

Other recent developments:

  • Members of Iraq's various ethnic factions gathered Tuesday at Talil airbase near Nasiriya to discuss reconstruction plans. The meeting included former Iraqi exiles, Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites. But thousands of other Shiites protested the process nearby.

  • Three U.S. troops were killed and three others were injured Monday in two separate accidents. Two Army V Corps members were killed when a grenade exploded at a checkpoint near Baghdad Airport. Another died during an apparent weapons discharge, according to the Pentagon.

  • The U.S. ambassador to Russia told a Russian newspaper that there may have been ties between the intelligence agencies of Russia and Iraq. But he declined to provide further details of the connection.

  • The commander of Iraq's Anbar unit, which once consisted of 16,000 troops in the western part of the country, has surrendered to the U.S., according to AFP.

    — Ethan Zindler

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