U.S. ponders sanctions on Syria

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A banner reads "Peace and occupation cannot meet" in downtown Damascus on Tuesday. — AP  

WASHINGTON APRIL 15. With the major military phase now seen out of the way in Iraq by the Pentagon, the Bush administration is intent on turning the heat on Syria and at the same time making the point that the United States is not going the route of a military strike.

The chilling rhetoric against Syria is coming from many directions and from different and senior players in the Bush administration and all with the same message — that Damascus must change its ways and start to cooperate with the U.S.

"They should review their actions and their behaviour not only with respect to who gets haven in Syria and weapons of mass destruction, but especially the support of terrorist activity," the Secretary of State, Colin Powell, said as he held out the prospect of economic and diplomatic sanctions. "We will examine possible measures of diplomatic, economic or other nature as we move forward... We'll see how things unfold," he said.

The White House spokesman, Ari Fleischer, seemed to go a step further in saying that Syria is a "rogue nation," its leader "untested" but one who had a chance to make "right decisions." In the view of Mr. Fleischer, Syria's chemical weapons programme has been "well corroborated" and that Damascus "needs to cooperate."

The President's National Security Advisor, Condoleezza Rice, stressed that harbouring "remnants" of the Iraqi regime by Damascus was unacceptable but stopped short of warning Syria of military action.

"The President has made clear every problem in the Middle East cannot be dealt with the same way," Dr. Rice remarked.

In the past two weeks, particularly in the last few days, the Bush administration has been turning the heat on Syria on a number of fronts; and the repeated denials of top authorities from Damascus do not seem to make any difference here. The Pentagon, the State Department and the White House have all talked about Syria's weapons of mass destruction, its chemical weapons especially; assisting the Saddam Hussein regime militarily in the recent war; and shipping fighters across the borders, including the Hezbollah, to kill and harass coalition forces.

But the Republican administration is also making it known that the U.S. is keen on having Syria on board the West Asia peace process and in the process have some of its unresolved issues out of the way.

It is no secret that Syria would like to get back the Golan Heights it lost to Israel in the 1967 war. "As we go down the road to peace, we want it to be a comprehensive peace, and ultimately, of course, that would have to include finding a way to settle the outstanding issues with Syria, as well," Gen. Powell said.

The tone and tenor of the statements of the President, George W. Bush, and senior administration officials have led to a sense of apprehension among many foreign diplomats and at the United Nations.

In a statement issued on Monday, the United Nations Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, said that he was "concerned that recent statements directed at Syria should not contribute to a wider destabilisation in a region already affected heavily by the war in Iraq."

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