US rattles the sabre at Syria: following its "success" in Iraq the US appears to have turned towards Damascus.

Author:Owen, Tom

The striking success of the US assault on Iraq has doubtless convinced US military planners that, after their similar successes in Afghanistan, they can now wade at will into other countries on or connected to the 'axis of evil'. And it seems Syria is the first candidate, if pundits and Washington statements are to be believed. In late March and early April Syria came under a heavy barrage of rhetoric and insinuation: Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said in a press conference that the Pentagon has 'scraps of intelligence saying that Syria has been cooperative in facilitating the move of the people out of Iraq and into Syria', suggesting that some of the faces on the US army's rogue playing card set were now in Damascus. Newsday quoted an unnamed intelligence official as saying that Rumsfeld had ordered the drawing up of contingency plans for a possible invasion of Syria.

The US undoubtedly has a number of bones to pick with Damascus. Syria has always been on the list of countries criticised for harbouring and lending support to terrorist groups, especially Hizbullah and Palestinian Islamic groups. Rumsfeld's deputy Paul Wolfowitz said Syria was also 'shipping killers into Iraq to try to kill Americans'. Among those suspected of finding refuge in Syria, according to the now ubiquitous 'defence officials', were Huda Salih Mahdi Ammash, who the CIA has charmingly named 'Mrs. Anthrax' (she later turned up in Baghdad), and Rihab Taha, with the equally novel nickname 'Dr. Germ'. In addition to suggesting that Syria was harbouring Iraqi regime leaders, Rumsfeld also claimed there was evidence of transfers of weapons of mass destruction from Iraq to Syria, possibly necessitating UNMOVIC-type weapons inspections for Syria. And, as detailed in last months' TIME, there is also firm evidence that illegal weapons sales to Iraq by Serbia, Russia, Ukraine and others were facilitated by using Syria as a cutout to disguise the end user. All of this adds up to a rather tense situation and with US forces in the neighbourhood already, Syria looked vulnerable.

No US plan of attack

Yet so far nothing has happened, and it seems that as time goes on the possibility of a US attack on Syria will recede. First, the British government made it quite plain that it would not participate in any action against Syria. Prime Minister Tony Blair is engaged in a rapprochement with the Syrian regime under Bashar Assad, and Foreign Office sources told TME that the idea of...

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