Politics & Policy

Syria Mouths Off

Eventually, America must address those other Baathists.

In case you missed it, Syria came close to admitting it had biological and chemical weapons Tuesday.

#ad#Asked about American and British claims that Syria had weapons of mass destruction, President Bashar Assad stopped short of the categorical denial that has been his stock response until now. Instead, he pointed to the Israelis’ recent attack on alleged Palestinian bases in Syria and the occupation of the Golan Heights as evidence that Syria needs a deterrent. “We are a country which is [partly] occupied and from time to time we are exposed to Israeli aggression,” Assad told the Daily Telegraph. “It is natural for us to look for means to defend ourselves. It is not difficult to get most of these weapons anywhere in the world and they can be obtained at any time.”

Meanwhile, an exiled Syrian opposition party is reportedly accusing a relative of Bashar Assad of hiding Iraqi weapons of mass destruction in three locations in Syria. The U.S.-based Reform Party of Syria claims that the weapons were smuggled in large wooden crates and barrels by Zu Alhema al-Shaleesh, known for moving arms into Iraq in violation of U.N. resolutions and for sending recruits to fight Coalition forces.

The nephew of the rumored arms smuggler, Assef al-Shaleesh, runs Al Bashair Trading Co., which was involved prior to the Iraq war in oil smuggling from Iraq and arms smuggling into the country. Last week, the Los Angeles Times reported that the Al Bashair Trading Co. participated in the smuggling of millions of dollars worth of sophisticated arms and equipment to Saddam Hussein for three years prior to the Iraqi leader’s overthrow.

All of this comes to light roughly a month after President Bush’s signing of the Syria Accountability Act, which imposing economic sanctions on Damascus for continued Syrian support of terrorist organizations, its occupation of Lebanon, and its development and possession of weapons of mass destruction.

This brought howls of outrage from Syria. Last month, as one reporter put it, “Syria’s top diplomat in Washington ’spoke of misunderstandings’ between his country and the United States at the National Press Club.”

Actually, the Syrian charge d’affaires in Washington, Imad Moustapha, said that the recent passage of the Syrian Accountability Act was a result of sinister Israeli influence in Washington. He attributed the political push for the act, which passed the House 408 to 8 and the Senate 89 to 4, to an August meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Rep. Eliot Engel (D., N.Y.).

“This meeting was reported in every paper,” Moustapha said. “Sharon said that he must work hard, that this was the only way to roll back Syria.”

While much of Moustapha’s remarks were in the pallid, vague terms of diplo-speak, his language did lighten up whenever the topic of Israel came up. He even felt that Israel had been throwing its weight around in the U.S. presidential primaries.

“Even Howard Dean suffered from a barrage of criticism when he said the U.S. had to be an honest broker in the Middle East,” Mustapha said.

The ambassador reiterated his opposition to what he called “the American occupation of Iraq,” but some of his comments suggested Baathist brotherhood isn’t what it used to be.

“We are not going to lament the collapse of the Saddam Hussein regime,” Mustapha said. “Saddam was a catastrophe for all Arab nations. He deserves whatever ends up coming to him.”

Of course, Mustapha isn’t completely opposed to military forces crossing borders. Syria invaded Lebanon in 1976 and began the process of turning its neighbor into a servant state. On October 13, 1990, when international attention was focused on Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait, the Syrian military units advanced into Beirut and finished off what remained of Lebanon’s beleaguered constitutional government. As NRO contributor Cliff May has put it, “Lebanon, sadly, is currently Syria’s vassal. For now, the government of Lebanon will follow Assad’s instructions.”

“We do not consider it an occupation,” Mustapha said. “The sovereign government of Lebanon is recognized by the entire world community. Lots of Lebanese are not happy with the Syrian presence, but there are also many who insist that the Syrians remain.”

When I asked how the U.S. “occupation” of Iraq compared to the Syrian “occupation” of Lebanon, he called the comparison “preposterous.” (Yes, it is a preposterous comparison, Mr. Ambassador, just not the way you think it is.) He told me to go ask the Lebanese embassy what they felt about the Syrian presence, and talked about positive meetings between Lebanese citizens and Assad.

As luck would have it, a few Lebanese were in the audience, and they said definitively–and anonymously, lest the lurking men from the Syrian embassy identify them–that their home country was occupied by Syria.

On Monday, a new American ambassador to Syria, Margaret Scobey, had her first meeting with Syrian Foreign Minister Farouq al-Shara.

Hopefully, she brought with her a newspaper with headlines about Libya publicly dismantling its WMD programs, Iraq’s Baathist dictator behind bars, and Iran opening up its nuclear facilities to international inspection. Examining the news from the region, even Assad has to wonder whether he wants to be the last Middle Eastern dictator bragging about having chemical and biological weapons.

Jim Geraghty, a reporter for States News Service in Washington, D.C., is a frequent contributor to NRO.

Members of the National Review editorial and operational teams are included under the umbrella “NR Staff.”

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