Syria now top US target for 'regime change'

By Toby Harnden in Washington

(Filed: April 8, 2003)

One of the main subjects on the agenda of the Belfast summit yesterday was Syria, the Pentagon's next likely target for "regime change" amid suspicions it allowed Saddam Hussein to transfer weapons of mass destruction within its borders.

President Assad

Although President George W Bush did not include Syria in his "axis of evil" of Iran, Iraq and North Korea in January 2001, since then American officials say they have seen growing evidence of support for terrorism by Damascus.

American officials stress, however, that regime change can be achieved without military action. There are strong hopes in Washington for a popular revolution in Iran by democratic opposition groups inspired by what has happened in Iraq.

President Bashar Assad, Syria's leader, has led Arab opposition to the Iraq war, stating that he hoped Saddam would remain in power. Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, recently accused Syria of providing military equipment to Saddam.

Some US officials are also convinced that Mr Assad has actively collaborated with Saddam and agreed to take weapons, including Scud missiles, from him so they would not be discovered in Iraq by United Nations inspectors.

"Significant equipment, assets and perhaps even expertise was transferred, the first signs of which appeared in August or September 2002," a Bush administration official told The Telegraph.

"It is quite possible that Iraqi nuclear scientists went to Syria and that Saddam's regime may retain part of its army there."

Increasingly tough rhetoric from the Bush administration had made little fundamental difference to the Syrians, he added.

"They behave only slightly when they're scared to death but the change is only limited and tactical." Satellite photographs revealed heavily guarded convoys moving from Iraq to Syria last year.

The official said: "Put it this way, they wouldn't have needed that kind of security to move cattle."

The official said that there were also well-founded fears that Iraq and Libya had also been co-operating and that weapons proliferation in the Middle East was one of the major problems facing the world. Colonel Gaddafi's regime was "scary close" to developing a nuclear weapon, he said.

In December, Ariel Sharon, the Israeli prime minister, said: "We are certain that Iraq has recently moved chemical or biological weapons into Syria."

This claim was subsequently investigated by John Bolton, US under-secretary of state for arms control and a prominent hawk in the Bush administration. Israeli sources said Mr Bolton told Mr Sharon that war with Iraq would force Syria and Libya to "come off the fence".

When asked by The Telegraph last week whether Saddam had exported some of his weapons to Syria, Paul Wolfowitz, the US deputy defence secretary said: "We just don't know."

There is firm resistance within the US State Department to Mr Rumsfeld's hardline stance on Syria with many officials arguing, like their British counterparts, that Syria can be a partner in the war against terrorism if it is given encouragement rather than being threatened.

Richard Murphy, US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs from 1983 to 1989, said he did not believe armed conflict with Syria was on the immediate horizon.

"Talk of a broader military conflict with Syria does not represent a decision taken by American policy makers. This is the view among the neo-conservatives, some of whom are in the administration.

"There's a perception that the time has come to spread democracy in the Middle East. Their view is that the US paid heavily on September 11 for having not stood by its principles in dealing with autocracies in the Middle East."

But neo-conservatives, former Democrats with socially liberal views but a hawkish and ambitious vision of the use of American power abroad, include Mr Wolfowitz and Mr Bolton and enjoy growing influence within the White House.

7 April 2003: Bush and Blair talk peace on three fronts
3 April 2003: Blair at odds with US over Syria and Iran threats
1 April 2003: Defiant Syria ups the ante in face of American warnings
29 March 2003: Blair's big gamble on Syria looks like a loser
29 March 2003: US accuses Syria and Iran of 'hostile acts'

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