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What’s Next on Bush Agenda? Everything at Once, It Seems

April 16, 2003
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For months, analysts and pundits have wondered what would be the next item on the Bush administration agenda after war in Iraq.

Suddenly, it seems the White House is tackling most of its agenda items at once.

In the hours after Iraq’s major cities fell last week, U.S. attention began shifting to the Middle East’s numerous other trouble spots.

Among the priorities is the presentation of the “road map” toward Israeli-Palestinian peace, rebuilding Iraq and, unexpectedly, pressuring Syria to change its belligerent policies.

All have major implications for Israel. The American Jewish community and other pro-Israel activists have been closely monitoring developments in the region, seeing both opportunities and concerns in the reshaping of the Middle East.

It long was expected that the administration would focus on rebuilding Iraq and resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict immediately after the war.

But the pressure on Syria seemingly came out of nowhere last week.

Bush administration officials began blasting Syria for sending shipments of military supplies to Iraq, harboring terrorist organizations and alleged Iraqi war criminals and allowing men to infiltrate Iraq to fight U.S. forces.

“In recent days, the Syrians have been shipping killers into Iraq to try to kill Americans,” Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz told Congress on April 10. “I think it is important that Iraq’s neighbors not meddle with Iraq.”

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon joined the chorus, reviving allegations he made last winter that Iraq had moved military equipment to Syria, either to hide it from the United States or to transfer the equipment to Hezbollah, the Lebanon-based terrorist organization that is supported by the Syrian and Iranian governments.

Sharon labeled young Syrian leader Bashar Assad “dangerous,” arguing that he is inexperienced and capable of misjudging the strategic landscape.

“During the war in Iraq he proved he does not have the ability to reach the right conclusions from relatively obvious facts,” Sharon told the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot on Tuesday. “All those who considered the facts could have known that Iraq would lose. But Assad thought the United States was going to lose.”

Syrian officials reportedly have said they want to turn Iraq into “America’s Lebanon,” a reference to the insurgency that Syrian-supported guerrillas waged for years against Israeli troops occupying southern Lebanon.

The slow but steady bloodletting ultimately forced Israel to withdraw in 2000. A similar situation would teach the United States not to meddle in Arab affairs, Syrian officials reportedly believe.

Meanwhile, Israeli officials were in Washington for talks with administration officials on modifying the road map. But they faced resistance from a White House committed to the plan it drafted with its partners in the diplomatic “Quartet” — the United Nations, European Union and Russia.

A day after meeting with Sharon’s chief of staff, Dov Weisglass, Secretary of State Colin Powell said Tuesday that the “finalized” road map would be released to the parties after the cabinet of new Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas is confirmed.

Powell said he expects to receive “comments” from both parties.

“These are comments that will come in, they’ll be considered by the Quartet,” Powell said in a briefing at the Washington Foreign Press Center. “But, really, these are comments that both sides have to begin to discuss with each other and share with each other.”

The current confluence of events likely will mean increased Israeli engagement with the United States. Israel will try to echo Washington’s warnings to Syria, while pressing the White House not to push the road map faster than Israel is willing to go.

Israel has much to gain from increased pressure on Damascus. Syria essentially controls Israel’s northern neighbor, Lebanon, and harbors and supports terrorist organizations such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah.

U.S.-led pressure on Syria is likely to be more productive than anything Israel could bring to bear on its own.

Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the Syrian government is a mix of ideologues and realists — and that opportunities for change exist.

“The question ultimately becomes, ‘Can you build a coalition inside Syria for Syria to reorient the way it deals with the world?’ ” he said.

Among the possible carrots the United States can use is the drafting of a road map for Syria to get off the State Department’s list of state sponsors of terrorism; the creation of new economic opportunities for Syria; giving Syria a role in regional discussions; and inviting them to participate in rebuilding Iraq.

“You need to make sure there is not a reward for Syria for being the non-U.S. ally in the Arab world,” Alterman said. “To the extent that most Arab states have friendly relations with Washington, Syria may be casting for support by playing itself as the non-U.S. ally in the Arab world.”

With Syria on the list of state sponsors of terrorism, there are few sanctions the United States can impose that aren’t already in place; however, Congress is moving forward a bill that has been on the back burner for more than a year that would penalize Syria for its behavior.

The Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act would ban sales of items to Syria that have potential military use in addition to other uses, freeze Syrian assets in the United States and call on the president to implement other sanctions, such as restricting Syrian diplomats’ travel in the United States or prohibiting U.S. businesses from operating in Syria.

It’s unclear how vocal U.S. Jewish organizations will be about Syria. They worked hard over the past year to mute their support for war against Iraq, fearing that a prominent stance would lead to accusations that the war was being fought on Israel’s behalf — accusations that were leveled anyway.

Jewish leaders may be hesitant to speak out on the Syrian track for the same reasons — but also because their voices may not be needed.

“There may be a feeling that if this is going to be debated and perceived as a U.S. issue, why engage it from a parochial perspective of a pro-Israel group pushing its agenda?” one Jewish leader said. “Why pile on?”

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said Jewish groups have had little time to discuss Syria strategy because the issue has moved so fast.

“I do think we have to be concerned about visibility of the Jewish community on these issues,” Hoenlein said.

An Israeli official in Washington said Israel is more willing to speak out about Syria than it was about the Iraq war, because “nobody is talking about military conflict.”

Jewish voices will be needed, however, to combat expected rhetorical attacks on Israel’s nuclear arsenal.

When the United States criticized Syria, Assad replied by saying he hoped for a nuclear-free Middle East. Powell then was pressed on whether the United States would push Israel to disarm.

“We would like to see a region that is free of all the weapons of mass destruction,” Powell said.

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