Next Stop In the War Against Terrorism: Damascus

Here is some jolly news for the New Year. Or maybe not. On January 1, five newly appointed countries began their two-year terms on the U.N. Security Council. The lucky winners: Bulgaria, Cameroon, Guinea, Mexico, and Syria. Those five joined the council's five permanent members and its five other rotating members in the United Nations' most prestigious job, which includes enforcing Security Council Resolution 1373. That resolution, as you may recall, was adopted shortly after the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York City and Washington. It calls upon all U.N. members to "refrain from providing any form of support, active or passive, to entities or persons involved in terrorist acts." It also—

Wait a minute. Syria?

Yes, Syria. Its charge will include—get this—enforcing the U.N.'s demand that "all states shall ... deny safe haven to those who finance, plan, support, or commit terrorist acts." Lovers of life's delicious ironies will especially savor this fox's rise to oversight of the chicken coop. Syria, population 17 million, is a brittle and increasingly fragile dictatorship-secular rather than Islamic—with a dysfunctional socialist economy (growth rate: minus 4 percent) and aspirations to be a regional power in the Middle East. How does such a basket case turn itself into a major player in Middle East diplomacy? By supporting terrorism.

Syria is a charter member of the U.S. State Department's list (started in 1979) of states that sponsor terrorism. The country hosts people, offices, and in some cases the headquarters of 10 or so suspected terrorist groups, seven of which are on the State Department's official list of "foreign terrorist organizations." Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine are both headquartered in Damascus. Hamas opened a new main office there just last March, according to the State Department. And Hezbollah is based in Lebanon, which is under Syrian occupation and control.

For most of these groups, Syria seems to provide little more than a safe haven, but its involvement with Hezbollah is long and deep. Hezbollah's role, as far as the Syrians are concerned, is to stir up trouble on Israel's northern border and thus give Syria a card to play in its quest for the return of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. According to a U.S. government analyst, the Syrians have less influence over Hezbollah's international operations than over its anti-Israel ones. Nonetheless, Hezbollah, the analyst noted, probably is second only to Al Qaeda in its global reach, with operations in Europe, South America, and parts of Asia. And Hezbollah is also second only to Al Qaeda in the number of Americans it has killed; the count includes 258 in the 1983 bombings of a Marine barracks and a U.S. embassy in Lebanon, plus a Navy diver murdered and dumped on a tarmac in the 1985 hijacking of TWA Flight 847, and more.

All of this would be of less consequence if Syria had turned over a new leaf. After all, on September 20, in his speech to a joint session of Congress, President Bush said: "From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime." Note that word "continues." Bush was effectively offering an amnesty to countries that mend their ways. Since then, a number of countries—Sudan, Pakistan, Yemen, even Libya—have taken steps toward doing so.

And Syria? According to a knowledgeable source, since September 11 Syria has provided U.S. authorities with "quite helpful" intelligence relating to Al Qaeda and several other groups. Ha'aretz, an Israeli newspaper, reports that last month a senior FBI investigator received permission to question certain people in Syria who were known to have met with Mohamed Atta, the apparent leader of the World Trade Center attacks. All of that is encouraging, but it is not, unfortunately, the whole story.

"What's especially egregious about Syria is that it's one of the few countries of the world that, when offered the amnesty, rejected it and continued, on many fronts, to support terrorism since September 11," says Robert B. Satloff, the executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Since September 11, he points out, not one or two but four of the seven recognized terrorist organizations that operate in Syria or under Syria's aegis have undertaken actions: for example, Hezbollah's shelling of northern Israel; Palestinian Islamic Jihad's car bombing in Jerusalem; any number of Hamas bombings; and, not least, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine's assassination of an Israeli Cabinet minister, which pushed the Israeli-Palestinian confrontation to the edge of all-out war.

Four groups launching attacks since September 11? That, in my view, is the Syrian government thumbing its nose at the United States," Satloff says. The United States' failure to fight Syria's accession to the Security Council, Satloff argues, sent Damascus the signal that America isn't serious. And that, he believes, has been the signal to Damascus for years. "For some reason, the Syrians get their own unique status in the war on terrorism," he says.

Terrorism has for years been integral to Syria's foreign policy, because it makes Damascus a force to be reckoned with. "It makes them a player in the Arab-Israeli arena by proxy," Satloff says. Because Syria can make trouble, the United States has been reluctant to drop the hammer on it—even though, to add insult to injury, Syria is the biggest buster of sanctions against Iraq. A pipeline through Syria trans-ships 150,000 barrels a day of Iraqi oil, all of it outside the U.N.'s approved oil-for-food program. According to press accounts, Syria promised early last year to mend its ways and then didn't. "Major-league unhelpful," is how one Administration source describes Syria's lining of Saddam Hussein's pockets.

So how about using force to replace the Syrian regime? Not even hard-liners contemplate an Afghan-style military campaign in Syria. Unlike Al Qaeda, Iraq, or for that matter Iran (at least until lately), Syria is not a sworn enemy of the United States. To the contrary, Damascus can and sometimes does play ball with Washington, as it is doing now by providing intelligence help. Nor, unlike North Korea or (until recently) Sudan, is Syria an irrational or incorrigible rogue state. Rather, it is a calculating opportunist. For just that reason, military action is probably unnecessary: Syria is probably both rational and vulnerable enough to bend under Western pressure, if the West presses hard.

Satloff notes that the United States and its allies could take any number of steps, short of bombing Damascus, to bring Syria to heel. The U.S. and its allies could slow or stop foreign investment into Syria and yank the chain on Syria's $19 billion in external debt; they could insist that Lebanon (a Syrian client) shut down terrorist training camps in the Bekaa Valley, and they could bomb the camps if necessary; they could take out the Iraq-Syria oil pipeline by bombing the Iraqi side.

The Bush Administration, according to one official familiar with its current thinking, is mulling an assortment of options. "We are looking very carefully at just what we think the mix of negative incentives might be, and maybe there are some positive incentives that we might want to consider," the official said. This official argued that an American effort to keep Syria off the Security Council would have been futile, but that the situation can now be turned to America's advantage. "We're going to use Syria's membership on the Security Council as an occasion to intensify the spotlight on them," the official said. When I asked how high Syria would be on the Bush Administration's post-Afghanistan ("phase two") agenda, he replied that the Administration is still sorting out its priorities, but that Syria "is going to be on the list, and it's not going to be at the bottom."

America, of course, has bigger fish than Syria to fry. The Afghan action must be seen through to success; Iraq's drive to obtain weapons of mass destruction poses a direct threat; India and Pakistan are at daggers drawn; the Israeli-Palestinian crisis goes on and on. The trouble is that America has always had bigger fish than Syria to fry. Syria's game is not to make trouble for the West but rather to play both ends of the field at once, weaving between respectability and terror-sponsorship while maintaining a high profile in the region but a low profile beyond.

This adept gamesmanship may have been tolerable before September 11. But it is time for a new game now, one in which, as Bush said on September 20, "either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists." The very fact that the West has for decades taken Syria's terror-sponsorship for granted, always subordinating it to other concerns, is the best argument for parking the war against terrorism on Damascus's doorstep and showing that Bush meant what he said.