America’s victory in the war in Iraq struck a mighty blow against terrorism, but it did not complete our battle against this global menace. As fighting winds down in Iraq, administration officials are rightfully considering where next to focus their energies to ensure that terrorists enjoy no save havens and no access to weapons of mass destruction. And as things stand now, Syria tops the list.
Syria allowed itself to become the conduit through which fighters opposed to the U.S. passed into Iraq and Baathist kingpins and their collaborators escaped. Numerous informants, including a general who defected from the Iraqi army, have told U.S. officials that many senior leaders of Saddam Hussein’s regime — perhaps even including Saddam and his sons — have escaped to Syria.
American soldiers have found Syrian identification papers on numerous enemy casualties. In one instance, an American military roadblock in Iraq stopped a bus full of men on the highway from Syria who, according to National Public Radio, said they were bound for Baghdad to conduct ambushes on American soldiers. The bus also contained cash — about $500,000 worth — to pay them.
In his first speech after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, President Bush said he would not differentiate between terrorists and governments that provide haven to terrorists. Syria’s recent actions place it in both categories, along with Iran and North Korea.
All three support terrorism, seek to develop weapons of mass destruction and practice a foreign-policy belligerent to Washington. All are being urged through diplomatic channels to modify their behavior. The extent to which they do so likely will determine whether they become targets of the U.S. military.
North Korea might seem the situation most in need of immediate attention. It violated the 1994 Agreed Framework with the United States — in which we provided fuel oil in exchange for Pyongyang’s promise not to pursue nuclear weapons. Now, North Korea has backed out of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and appears bent on producing several nuclear bombs per year for use or export.
Washington has appealed to the United Nations regarding North Korea, but help seems unlikely. Regional diplomacy, however, may prove more promising. North Korea has largely dropped demands that it negotiate one-on-one, exclusively with the United States. It appears to be moving toward the U.S. position that other regional powers, such as China, Russia, and Japan, take part. But so far, there is little progress to report and little reason for hope.
Tehran’s domestically unpopular theocracy supports terrorist groups, has permitted al Qaeda to move about on its soil, and funds an extensive program to develop weapons of mass destruction. It also reportedly has sent militia and terrorists into Iraq to attack the American occupying force.
Iran’s elected government has favored improving relations with the United States in recent years, but it holds little power. Hard-line clerics — many of whom came to power with Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979 — maintain an iron grip over the military and weapons-production operations, and they oppose any normalization of relations with the United States.
The vibrant opposition movement there is not necessarily pro-American, but it includes some decidedly pro-American factions. Thus, direct intervention by Washington could anger the democratic opposition and alienate the very people America wants to encourage.
Few such constraints exist to prevent American action in Syria. In addition to its chemical- and biological-weapons programs, its longtime presence on the U.S. State Department’s list of countries that sponsor terrorism and its general hostility to American interests for the past 50 years, Syria is an unapologetic Stalinist state.
It’s also a menace to its neighbors. Syria has attacked Israel numerous times and it maintains an occupying army in Lebanon. And it continues to back terrorist groups that seek to prevent any peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.
Our war on terrorism can’t tolerate Iranian or Syrian meddling. It can’t tolerate them sponsoring guerrillas to drive up American or Iraqi civilian casualties in an attempt to force us to leave before our work is done in Iraq.
Sanctions — diplomatic and economic — can be a first step toward convincing these countries of our resolve. But both should understand, they won’t be the last steps taken in the continuing war on terrorism.
— Dana Dillon is a senior policy analyst in the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation.