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U.S. Tantrum Against Syria

October 09, 2003

For decades, presidents have stressed that the United States is an honest broker in the Mideast. John F. Kennedy courted both Egypt and Israel. Jimmy Carter oversaw the Camp David accords. George H.W. Bush voiced his objections to Israeli settlements and stopped Saddam Hussein from incorporating Kuwait. The current president, however, imperils this careful role.

The Bush administration is pursuing hawkish policies that needlessly provoke Syria. President Bush failed to chasten Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon after Israel on Sunday bombed what it termed a terrorist training camp in Syria. Now, the administration is dropping its opposition to Congress' proposed Syria Accountability Act of 2003. The House International Relations Committee passed the measure Wednesday, and it probably will receive full congressional approval in a few weeks.

The act, co-sponsored in the Senate by Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), would impose sanctions on Syria for, among other things, its support of terrorism. Sanctions might include freezing Syrian assets in the U.S., reducing diplomatic contacts, restricting Syrian diplomats' travel in the U.S. and barring American businesses from investing or operating in Syria.

Syria is a bad actor in the Mideast. It's unclear, however -- Israeli intelligence assertions aside -- whether Damascus possesses or desires weapons of mass destruction; such claims deserve skepticism, at any rate, in the wake of flawed intelligence reports on Iraq. What is more apparent is Syria's trampling for decades on Lebanon's sovereignty, especially since the U.S. abandoned Beirut after the 1983 Marine barracks bombing. Syria also supports terrorism, which is why the State Department lists it as providing "haven and support" to terrorist groups.

Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah must be condemned for their murderous attacks against Israeli civilians. Although the U.S. opposes terrorism globally, Washington could find Syria helpful. It would be a major boon if Damascus, for example, handed over any officials from Hussein's regime in its territory and sealed national borders so foreign fighters didn't move across to attack U.S. troops in Iraq.

No one should hold his breath waiting for such actions. Even so, the congressional measure on Syria is flawed: Bush can impose most of its reprisals already. What this act amounts to is a tantrum that does little except to further roil the volatile Mideast and alienate moderate Arabs.

A constructive step by Washington would be to press all parties in the Mideast to return to negotiations on the "road map" for an Israeli-Palestinian peace. The eye-for-an-eye approach, especially because it increases violence and hardens animus across the region, only blinds leaders to steps they must take to end their peoples' suffering and dying.

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