| Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. (AFP)
Cairo, March 31 (Reuters): Sharp US warnings to Syria to abandon its support for Iraq and “terrorism” have heightened the dilemma facing President Bashar al-Assad.
In two public broadsides, secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld and secretary of state Colin Powell served notice that Damascus would be held to account for its behaviour during the US-led war on Iraq, in which US and British troops are facing stiffer than expected resistance.
Assad acknowledged in a newspaper interview last week that Syria, which sees itself as a champion of Arab nationalism and a rampart against US ally Israel, was concerned it might be next on Washington’s hit list.
“The possibility is always there. As long as Israel exists, the threat is there. As long as there is an aggression on an Arab country and a war on our borders, the danger is there. But worry does not translate to fear,” he told Lebanon’s as-Safir.
US President George W. Bush has said he aims to reshape West Asia, spreading democracy and bringing Israeli-Arab peace as a result of the war to oust President Saddam Hussein.
Economically reliant on illicit Iraqi oil supplies and ideologically close to its ruling Baath party, Syria has voiced strong support for Iraq since the war began 12 days ago and allowed volunteers to cross its border to fight for Saddam.
But it has denied Rumsfeld’s accusation of shipping military supplies to Baghdad including night vision goggles, in what he called a hostile act that could put US soldiers at risk.
Syrians have staged mass pro-Iraqi demonstrations and denounced other Arab leaders for failing to stop the war or for being accomplices of the US.
Diplomats said Assad was exposing Syria to US reprisals by being so outspoken in contrast to the caution of his father, the late President Hafez al-Assad, who joined the US-led Gulf War coalition that drove Iraq out of Kuwait in 1991.
Powell used a powerful US Jewish lobby as a forum to send a second warning in three days to Damascus yesterday. “Syria can continue direct support for terrorist groups and the dying regime of Saddam Hussein, or it can embark on a different and more hopeful course,” he said.
Damascus cooperated in the US-led war against terrorism after the September 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, sharing intellegence and arresting and interrogating suspected members of the Islamic militant al Qaida network.
But Washington objects to Syrian backing for Lebanon’s Hizbollah movement and for Palestinian militant groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad, responsible for numerous suicide bombings. Islamic Jihad said yesterday it had sent a first wave of suicide bombers to help Iraq fight US and British forces.