Wednesday, February 16, 2005

Part Six of Six - Special Section

Widening the Conflict?

Ambassador pulled: The United States pulled its ambassador from Syria on Tuesday, expressing "profound outrage" over the assassination of a Lebanese leader who had protested Syrian influence in his country.

Administration officials stopped short of directly accusing Syria of carrying out the murder. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the assassination was the "proximate cause" of the ambassador's recall.

Asked if the United States would punish Syria with new economic sanctions, Rice said, "We will continue to consider other options."

But no hasty conclusions – that would be so atypical of Bush: The White House yesterday ratcheted up its rhetoric against Syria, making clear it did not blame Damascus for the Beirut bomb that killed Rafiq Hariri, but criticising the country as a "destabilising force" in the region.

The speed with which the administration has seized upon Syria in the aftermath of the attack has illustrated Washington's eagerness to force change upon a government it regards as an engine of Middle East terrorism.

White House officials emphasised that they were not rushing to hasty conclusions about who bore responsibility for the car bomb, which killed 14 people and reawakened fears of renewed violence in Lebanon.

President George W. Bush raised the pitch of US frustration with Syria earlier this month by reserving his only belligerent comments in the State of the Union address for the regime in Damascus. "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," Mr Bush said, adding that the administration would seek to enforce the 2003 Syrian Accountability Act that provides for sanctions against Damascus.

White House officials are thought to be considering further economic measures, which include barring investments in the Syrian economy and preventing Syrian banks from using clearing houses in the US.

A growing list: Rice told a news conference after meeting with her Egyptian counterpart Ahmad Aboul Gheit that the Hariri assassination was the immediate reason for the envoy's recall but there was a "growing list" of problems with Syria.

She cited Syrian support for terrorism and the insurgency in neighboring Iraq as well as the presence of 14,000 troops in Lebanon.

"The Syrian government is unfortunately on a path right now where relations are not improving, but are worsening," the chief US diplomat told reporters.

"We would hope that the Syrian government would take the opportunity of this signal from the United States to review where we are in the relationship and to try to put our relations on a better path."

Rice did not directly blame the Syrians for the bombing Monday that killed Hariri, 60, and 14 other people in Beirut. But she held Damascus indirectly accountable.

"We are united with the rest of the world in wanting a full investigation into what happened," she said. "But there is no doubt that the conditions created by Syria's presence there have created a destabilized situation in Lebanon.

Funny how those foreign troops can destabilize things: Rice did not blame Syria for Monday's bomb attack that killed Hariri and 16 others, but she did challenge Syria's longstanding claim that its troops were needed in Lebanon to provide security. "There is no doubt that the conditions created by Syria's presence there have created a destabilized situation in Lebanon," she said.

Syria's Ambassador to the U.S., Imad Moustapha, was quick to return the verbal blows. "If anyone is trying to politically score some points against Syria, I would say ... this would be shameful," he told CNN. "It should be very clear to everyone that if anybody is insinuating about a Syrian role in the criminal atrocity that happened in Beirut, I think they are lacking logic," he said.

In a thinly-veiled jab at Washington, he said accusations that Syria is supporting terrorism are akin to the claims, later disproved, that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction in the lead-up to the war. "Syria does not support terrorism. We have said this time and again," he said.

When asked about possible additional sanctions on Syria, Rice said, "we will continue to consider what other options are at our disposal".

More fuel for American idiots: Whether or not Syrian President Bashar Assad was behind Monday's assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, the car bombing is sure to strengthen forces inside the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush who have long argued for "regime change" in Damascus.

Before the bombing that killed Hariri, half a dozen of his bodyguards and at least five bystanders, the balance of power between anti-Assad hardliners and more flexible forces within the administration was roughly even.

Earlier this month, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, who is considered a hawk on Damascus, even insisted to a Congressional panel that "it is not our policy to destabilize Syria."

But, as suggested by Washington's abrupt withdrawal of its ambassador in Damascus Tuesday morning, that position may well be in the process of changing, if it hasn't changed already.

Syrian WMDs: The United States is talking to UN Security Council members about how to punish whoever was responsible for the slaying of Lebanese former prime minister Rafiq Hariri, the White House said Tuesday.

"We talked about how we were to discuss measures to punish those who were responsible for the terrorist attack. And, yes, that remains what we are committed to," he said.

McClellan told reporters that "it's too early to know who was responsible" for the bombing that killed Hariri but launched another broadside at Syria, calling anew for Damascus to withdraw its 14,000 troops from Lebanon.

McClellan also reiterated Washington's longstanding concerns about Syria's alleged programs to develop weapons of mass destruction, "ongoing support for terrorism," and charged that Saddam Hussein loyalists were using Syria as a base of operations for attacks inside Iraq.

Some clips from the press conference: Q But, sorry, again, just to pursue this a little further -- you don't recall an ambassador unless you're showing displeasure with the country in which that ambassador is stationed. So what sort of displeasure are you demonstrating here with Syria by recalling Ambassador Scobey?

MR. McCLELLAN: We've had a number of serious concerns about Syria's behavior. We want to see Syria change its behavior and play a constructive role in the region.

Q How can you on the one hand say you don't know who is responsible, and at the same time, be pulling the ambassador back and moving forward with the Security Council, talking about punishing those responsible? Why tiptoe around the issue?

MR. McCLELLAN: Norah, I think we've made our views very clear when it comes to Syria. We've expressed our concerns. Our concerns are not just with their presence in Lebanon. That is one of the concerns, and the terrorist attack that took place yesterday on former Prime Minister Hariri underscored the importance of Syria taking steps to change its behavior, by withdrawing its forces and helping to use its influence to prevent attacks from happening in the first place.

Q Have you received any information that directly links Syria to the attack?

MR. McCLELLAN: No, I have no update on the investigation, itself, in terms of the terrorist attack that took place yesterday. I think I've made that clear.

Q Because on one hand, you're making the link between these steps that you're taking against Syria to the fact that the attack happened. But on the other hand, you're not linking Syria to the attack. I mean, how do you mesh the two?

Many thanks to fellow obsessive Holden for his many excellent Gaggle posts.

Gee, no one could have predicted this: Iranian Vice-President Muhammad Reza Aref said in Tehran after meeting Syrian Prime Minister Naji al-Utari on Wednesday that both countries were ready to help "on all grounds to confront threats".

Al-Utari told reporters: "This meeting, which takes place at this sensitive time, is important, especially because Syria and Iran face several challenges and it is necessary to build a common front".

The announcement came barely minutes after an unknown aircraft fired a missile on Wednesday in a deserted area near the southern city of Dailam in the province of Bushehr where Iran has a nuclear power plant, Iranian state television said. .


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