Global Policy Forum

US Severs Most Contacts with Syria, Officials Say


By Farah Stockman and Thanassis Cambanis

Boston Globe
November 8, 2005

Washington debate reported over idea of 'regime change.'

The United States has cut off nearly all contact with the Syrian government as the Bush administration steps up a campaign to weaken and isolate President Bashar Assad's government, according to U.S. and Syrian officials.

The United States has halted high-level diplomatic meetings, limited military coordination on Syria's border with Iraq and ended dialogue with Syria's Finance Ministry on amending its banking laws to block terrorist financing. In recent months, as distrust between the two countries widened, the United States also declined a proposal from Syria to revive intelligence cooperation with Syria, according to Syria's ambassador to the United States, Imad Moustapha, and a U.S. official. The new era of hostility flows from U.S. frustration at what it considers Syria's failure to effectively control its border with Iraq and continued support for radical Palestinian groups that threaten the chances of peace in Israel.

The U.S.-Syrian confrontation has sharpened just as Syria is also facing pressure from many Arab and European governments - as well as the United States - over Syria's suspected role in the assassination of the former prime minister of Lebanon, Rafik Hariri. On Monday, the United Nations asked to interview six top Syrian officials regarding the assassination, including Assad's brother-in-law, said a Foreign Ministry official who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to journalists.

Some U.S. officials say privately that there is now an active debate about whether "regime change" should be a U.S. goal. Publicly, administration officials say that they want to see a change in behavior. But Syrian officials say they have made progress on many U.S. demands, including stepping up patrols along the Iraqi border, and that it is the United States that has broken promises to cooperate. Syrians say that powerful neoconservative policymakers in Washington have long hoped to topple their government in a bid to transform the Middle East.

"What we see in general is an administration that is categorically refusing to engage with Syria on any level," Moustapha said. "We see an administration that would really love to see another crisis in the Middle East, this time targeting Syria. ... Even before the Iraq war started, they had this grand vision for the Middle East."

Despite their disputes, the two countries worked together on counterterrorism efforts following the Sept. 11 attacks. The danger posed by al Qaeda was one thing that both governments could agree on: Syria's secular leaders, who are from a minority Alawite sect, consider al Qaeda and other Sunni fundamentalists dangerous political rivals for the Syrian populace, a majority of whom are Sunni.

Syria halted intelligence cooperation after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Meanwhile, U.S. officials say Syria must make a strategic decision to completely change its ways - like Libya did - or risk being cut off from the world. "There have been repeated and numerous high-level attempts to engage the Syrian government," said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack. "Yet they have failed to act."

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