The Bush administration Monday threatened diplomatic and economic sanctions against Syria, repeating accusations that Damascus is harboring Iraqi regime leaders and terrorists.
In a chorus of criticism, top administration officials also complained that Syria is developing chemical and probably germ weapons, and is allowing enemy fighters to cross its territory to strike U.S. forces in Iraq.
They warned the country’s leader, President Bashar Assad, against interfering as the United States tries to usher in a new day in the region by rebuilding Iraq.
Syria is a “rogue nation,” said Ari Fleischer, chief White House spokesman, and needs to “seriously ponder the implications” of developing chemical weapons and harboring fleeing members of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s regime.
The threatened sanctions came after days of sharp comments to Syria by U.S. officials, including President Bush, and signaled increasing administration concern that Syria is emerging as a center of resistance to the U.S. presence in Iraq.
Several officials insisted that the U.S. has no plans to go to war with Damascus. But officials have been especially alarmed at the suspected flight of Baath Party officials to Syria and the way the country allegedly allowed fighting equipment, including night-vision goggles, to flow across its territory to help Hussein’s troops.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said the U.S. “will examine possible measures of a diplomatic, economic or other nature as we move forward.”
“In light of this new environment, [Syrian leaders] should review their actions and their behavior, not only with respect to who gets haven, and weapons of mass destruction, but especially the support of terrorist activity,” Powell said after meeting with the Kuwaiti foreign minister.
Fleischer said it is time for “President Assad, who is a new leader, a young man, to understand that the future needs to be different from the past....” Assad, 37, has led the country since his father died in 2000.
In response to reporters’ questions, Fleischer said military force is an option, though he described this as a “blanket statement” that applies “as overall policy around the world.”
At the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Syria has allowed “some Iraqi people” to cross its borders, either to pass through the country or to find haven there. He said foreign fighters have been allowed to enter Iraq via Syria to attack American troops and that the U.S. has “seen the chemical weapons tests in Syria over the past 12, 15 months.”
The U.S. has diplomatic ties with Syria, but its leverage is limited because there are few commercial contacts between the countries, and because Syria is already subject to certain U.S. economic and diplomatic sanctions as an officially designated state sponsor of terrorism.
With much of the world regarding Syria as a key Middle Eastern power, the U.S. would probably have few, if any, partners if it sought international sanctions, experts predicted.
Indeed, in London on Monday, British Prime Minister Tony Blair -- Bush’s closest ally in the war on Iraq -- appeared to distance himself from the U.S. threats to Syria.
Punishing Syria also would jeopardize important cooperation that Damascus has been providing in the campaign against the Al Qaeda terrorist organization, U.S. officials said.
Nevertheless, officials insisted that they do have some ways of cracking down further and intend to use them if Syria continues to ignore their increasingly loud warnings.
One option for the administration is to impose new diplomatic and economic sanctions under provisions of the USA Patriot Act, passed after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, which allows Washington to levy such sanctions if a country is found to be augmenting the capability of a terrorist group with global reach.
The law could be invoked in Syria’s case because of its ties to Lebanon’s Hezbollah, or Party of God, an official said.
Another option is to support the proposed Syria Accountability Act, offered last week by Reps. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.). It would hold Syria accountable for supporting terrorism, the occupation of Lebanon and the possession and continued development of weapons of mass destruction.
If passed, the act would ban the sale of items that could be turned into weapons and mandate the imposition of two of six possible sanctions: banning exports to Syria, prohibiting U.S. businesses from operating there, restricting Syrian diplomats in the U.S., blocking Syrian flights from landing in the U.S., cutting back diplomatic ties or freezing Syrian assets in the United States.
The administration intends to watch Syria “very closely over the next couple of days” to see if it responds to the warnings, a State Department official said. “We want to see if they get their act together and answer us in a positive way -- or keep on denying everything,” he said.
Syria repeated its denials Monday that it has chemical weapons and insisted that it had never cooperated with Hussein’s regime.
“The only chemical, biological and nuclear weapons in the region are in Israel, which is threatening its neighbors and occupying their lands,” said a Foreign Ministry spokeswoman in Damascus.
Despite the uniformly tough words from Bush administration officials, there are deep differences behind the scenes in Washington about both what Syria has done and what the U.S. should do in response.
As with Iraq policy, Pentagon hawks are using the toughest language on Syria.
The intelligence community has “reason to believe” that some Iraqis could have crossed the porous border, but it is not clear that any of them are senior officials, said one U.S. official from a different Cabinet agency, who requested anonymity.
“There’s no doubt that some members of the regime have crossed. But we can’t point to any senior regime officials who have. It isn’t clear who they are,” the official said.
Under Syrian law, anyone with an Arab passport can enter the country without a visa, which complicates attempts to stop Iraqis, U.S. officials say. There’s also the possibility that some Iraqis may have false passports or identity papers.
Washington’s tough talk against Syria set off alarms in other capitals.
The U.S. threats became a political problem for Blair, who was forced to issue strong denials in the House of Commons on Monday that the table was being set for another war.
Blair was to deliver a statement intended to signal that he is turning his attention from waging war to securing peace. But he faced a barrage of questions about Washington’s intentions.
“There are no plans to invade Syria, so it stands to reason we do not intend to invade Syria,” he said.
He cannot account for all the statements coming out of Washington, Blair said, but his own source of information is Bush, and the president has assured him there are no plans to broaden the targets.
Turkey, Syria’s northern neighbor, also was alarmed by speculation that the Bush administration might next take the war to Damascus.
“This war should end in Iraq,” Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul said Monday.
Many Arabs were likely to read the threats as confirmation of their suspicions that the United States intends to topple more unfriendly governments, regional experts warned.
Although there is good cause for the U.S. to warn Damascus, said Edward M. Walker, a former diplomat and president of the Middle East Institute, many Arabs believe administration hawks have long been intent on overthrowing more governments.
A newly released CIA report to Congress that surveyed Syria from 2000 to 2002 suggests that although Syria’s chemical weapons program is not new, the country has been making progress on unconventional weapons in several ways.
The report says Damascus already has a stockpile of the nerve agent sarin but is trying to develop more toxic and long-lasting chemical weapons. It says it is “highly probable” that the country was trying to develop a germ weapons program.
It notes that last year the Russians and Syrians were beginning to work out a joint program of nuclear cooperation that would give Damascus an opportunity to expand its “indigenous capabilities, should it decide to develop nuclear weapons.”
Times staff writers William Wallace in London; Richard Boudreaux in Ankara, Turkey; and Maura Reynolds in Washington contributed to this report.