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On Bashing Bashar By: William Safire
New York Times | Wednesday, October 15, 2003


At a sandwich lunch at The Times, Howard Dean was asked what his message would have been to Israelis about their recent strike into Syria to destroy a terrorist camp after a suicide bomber's atrocity in Haifa.

The candidate for the Democratic nomination had a carefully prepared reply: "I don't have any access to intelligence to know whether that was a terrorist camp or not. If it was, they're justified. They have a right to defend themselves."

What a refreshing change from his previous comment that "it's not our place to take sides" in the dispute between Israelis and Palestinians. Rival candidates may mutter that Dean is now pandering to pro-Israel Democrats, but those of us who believe in the pre-emption of terror welcome all who have policy epiphanies.

Note, however, the big "if" in Dean's answer: the strike into Syria would be justified if the target for Israel's pre-emption had in fact been an Islamic Jihad training camp in Syria.

Israel's government, presumably with sneakers on the ground, claims that its intelligence is rock-solid and that it bombed the Jihad facility "between classes" to minimize casualties while delivering its potent message. Although the White House is in anti-leak lockdown, other U.S. officials let it be known that our satellite surveillance confirmed the Israeli finding and was the factual basis for President Bush's strong public support for the cross-border strike.

But in real presidential life, little intelligence data is certain. What if Mossad informants and C.I.A. evaluators had come up with an estimate of "75 percent likely"? Would a President Dean then find pre-emption justified? Or would he wait until trainees from that camp carried out their missions, perhaps killing thousands, when he could be 100 percent sure?

That is where strategic analysis, past performance and plain logic come into play. Bashar al-Assad, the minority Alawite ruler, is shown by many telephone intercepts to be deeply influenced by Hezbollah's Sheik Hassan Nasrallah in Syrian-occupied Lebanon. Bashar lied in Colin Powell's face last year about cutting off Saddam's illegal oil exports through Syria, and got away with it.

What else goes into the calculation that Syria is terror's friend and the free world's enemy? We suspect, but cannot inspect, weaponry we think was trucked into Syria from Iraq in the weeks before the war.

Beyond suspicion is this fact: A majority of the Saddam die-hards, Al Qaeda and Ansar al-Islam terrorists, and suicide bombers who have turned up in Iraq have been killers who entered from Syria, an infiltration that Bashar did little to stop. On the contrary, he finds it in Syria's strategic interest to aid and abet guerrilla war against the coalition and the nascent Iraqi government. With Saddam gone, Bashar sees Syria as the leader of Arab rejectionism.

How to change regime behavior short of regime change? Turkey showed us one way, when it massed troops on its Syrian border and demanded that Damascus close down the Kurdish P.K.K. terrorist headquarters in Damascus. Bashar yielded promptly, and the terrorist leader is in a Turkish jail.

• Demand that Syria repay the Iraqi people the billion-dollar payoff Bashar took from Saddam in the form of cheap oil during the run-up to the war. Put pressure on the long-bamboozled I.M.F. to require Syria to repay Iraq the additional $3 billion in Saddam's payoffs and blood money that U.S. officials charge is now hidden in Syrian banks. Until that stolen money is returned, do not appoint a new U.S. ambassador or accept the credentials of a new Syrian envoy.

• Pass and sign the Syrian Accountability Act, but back up its minor sanctions with inducements for Turkey, Jordan and (Paul Bremer to the contrary) Iraq to minimize trade with a neighbor that abets the training and export of terrorists.

• Sponsor an embarrassing U.N. resolution to end Syria's occupation of Lebanon; more than 25,000 soldiers keeping a puppet in place are nobody's "guests." (And why is the Vatican supine in the face of sustained Muslim oppression of Maronite Christians?) Find the European connections to the cocaine trade in the Bekaa Valley that buys rockets for Sheik Nasrallah's Hezbollah.

• Repeat forcefully, when we have good data to back up an allied government's stern signal to pre-empt further atrocities, Howard Dean's echo of Bush's policy: "They have a right to defend themselves."  


William Safire is a columnist for The New York Times.


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