DAMASCUS: Syria on Tuesday strongly denied US claims it was involved in illicit weapons programs and sheltering Iraqi fugitives, which it described as an intimidation campaign designed to force it to change its resistance to policies favoring Israel.
And amid an outcry from foes and allies over the standoff between Washington and another Arab target when the dust in Iraq has yet to settle, US officials softened their rhetoric, indicating that there were no plans for a military attack on Syria, but better cooperation was expected from President Bashar Assad’s regime.
“We have concerns about Syria. We have let Syria know of our concerns. We also have concerns about some of the policies of Iran. We have made the Iranians fully aware of our concerns,” US Secretary of State Colin Powell told reporters in Washington.
“But there is no list, there is no war plan right now to go attack someone else either for the purpose of overthrowing their leadership or for the purpose of imposing democratic values,” Powell said.
In recent days, American officials have accused Syria of being a “rogue state” that possesses chemical weapons and “harbors terrorists” and senior regime officials fleeing Iraq.
Earlier Tuesday, the Syrian Cabinet said the “escalated language of threats and accusations by some American officials against Syria are aimed at damaging its steadfastness and influencing its national decisions and (Arab) national stances.”
“The Cabinet rejects these accusations and falsified allegations and sees them as a response to an Israeli stimulus and a service to its (Israel’s) goals and expansive greed.” it said, demanding an end to the “American-British occupation of Iraq.”
The statement came after Washington said Syria was a rogue state and that it would consider diplomatic and economic measures against Damascus. But Spain, which backed the United States and the United Kingdom in their war against Iraq, ruled out any targeting of Syria.
Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar told a news conference in Warsaw that: “Syria has been and will be a friend of Spain. It will not be the target of any war actions. I am convinced that the conflict will not spread to other countries in the region.”
Meanwhile, the French minister for European affairs, Noelle Lenoir, said Paris had “no proof” that Damascus had tested chemical weapons.
“The situation around the world is dangerous enough, without targeting one country or another on the question of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction,” Lenoir told French cable network I-Television.
Turkish Prime Minister Abdullah Gul said his country had no evidence that Syria was a rogue state, but urged Damascus and other countries in the region to act “wisely.”
For his part, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon echoed the American charges and called the Syrian president “dangerous,” saying he had shown flawed judgment over Iraq.
Sharon urged Washington to exert “economic and diplomatic” pressure on Syria to expel Palestinian militants from Damascus and oust Hizbullah fighters from southern Lebanon.
He echoed demands raised for the first time publicly by the Israeli defense minister on Monday, signaling that Israel is seeking broader benefits from the fall of Saddam than just end of the threat from Iraq.
The Israeli daily Haaretz, citing American, British and Israeli intelligence officials, said Tuesday that relatively high-ranking Iraqi officials have escaped to Syria, but that Saddam Hussein and his inner circle are not believed to be among them.
Sharon said that on the eve of the US-led invasion, Saddam transferred weapons to Syria, either to hide them or to equip Hizbullah. The Israeli premier gave low marks to Assad’s handling of the Iraq crisis.
“Bashar Assad is dangerous, his judgment is flawed,” Sharon told the Yediot Ahronot newspaper in an interview published Tuesday. “He has shown that he is unable to draw obvious
conclusions … Anyone with eyes in his head would have known that Iraq was on the losing side.”
Some believe that Washington’s bellicose rhetoric is meant to ensure that Syria plays no role in a post-Saddam Iraq and neutralize Damascus’ influence in any Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking efforts that might begin.
Washington is also believed to have stressed its anger at what it feels could be Syrian facilitation of the movement of resistance fighters across the border, as US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on Monday said that fighters armed with leaflets advertising a bounty on American soldiers had crossed the border.
The Americans were particularly upset when the Iraqi Consulate in Damascus, facing the US Embassy, became an assembly point for the volunteers.
The practice halted a few days ago, but American officials appear to be concerned about the possibility that Syrian authorities issued passports for Syrians and non-Syrian nationals to enter Iraq.
Syria’s ambassador to Spain, Mohsen Bilal, told Spain’s Cadena Ser Radio that he considered the American charges “blackmail.”
“It’s an insult to a country that is a member of the UN Security Council,” Bilal said, denying charges that Syria had granted protection to senior Iraqi leaders who may have fled across the border.
Asked about a White House spokesman’s description of Syria as a state “harboring terrorists,” Bilal said: “We reject this accusation categorically because it is baseless.”
Kofi Annan, the secretary-general of the UN, said he was “concerned” that the US accusations might “contribute to a wider destabilization in a region already affected heavily by the war in Iraq.
Annan also reiterated his view that “any claim of threats to international peace and security should be addressed” through UN channels.
The secretary of Iran’s powerful Expediency Council vowed that if Syria were attacked, Iran would “not remain neutral as it has during the US-led war on Iraq.”
In Tehran, Mohsen Rezaei told a news conference that any action against Syria “would be a prelude to one against Iran.”
“We will not be neutral if the US attacks Syria. We will not engage in military confrontation with the Americans but will employ all our nonmilitary facilities to prevent such an attack or to support Syria,” Rezaei said, without elaborating. With agencies