"Syria still allows its territory, and parts of Lebanon, to be used by terrorists who seek to destroy every chance of peace in the region ..." -- President George W. Bush, State of the Union Address, Feb. 2, 2005
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- On Thursday, President Bush named former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq John Negroponte as the first director of national intelligence. At a press conference following the appointment, reporters badgered the president about budget numbers, who would get how much money and imagined "turf wars" between Negroponte and Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld.
From there, the masters of the media moved on to Social Security, the Kyoto Treaty and the administration's perceived inability to "work with Congress." Unfortunately, the questioners barely addressed what will likely become one of Negroponte's most challenging priorities: Syria.
In fairness, my "colleagues" in the Fourth Estate did ask the president three questions on Syrian complicity in last Monday's assassination of Lebanon's former prime minister, Rafik Hariri. The president admitted that it's unclear who detonated the massive bomb in Beirut that killed Hariri and 16 others, and he delivered a warning to Damascus: "Syria's out of step with the progress being made in the greater Middle East ... democracy is on the move, and this is a country that isn't moving with the democratic movement. ... It's not in their interest to be isolated."
All true, but no one thought to ask, "Who's running Syria?" Negroponte's answer to that question is crucial to many of our hopes for a tranquil outcome in Iraq -- and the Middle East.
For the last two years, Syrian President Bashar al Assad has been treated as the man to lead Syria into a better future. Our State Department has described him as "a Western-educated optometrist" and an "anglophile," instead of "son of the previous dictator." Israeli government officials hoped that Assad would "end the long stalemate over terrorist refuges" in Southern Lebanon. All of this now appears to be a false hope.
Whether by malicious design or impotence, Assad is either unwilling or unable to be the reformer or partner for peace that Foggy Bottom had hoped.
No one knows how much power the generals wield behind the scenes in Syria. Therein lies Negroponte's challenge: to discern who's calling the shots in Damascus.
Monday's deadly blast in Beirut isn't the only issue. Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad continue to flourish in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. The Syrian army maintains nearly15,000 troops in Lebanon, treating the country as a semi-autonomous satellite of Damascus. It appears Syria welcomed Saddam's former Baath Party operatives and has been helping terrorists get into Iraq. On Wednesday, following a meeting between Syria's prime minister and Iran's vice president, the radical Iranian proclaimed that, "We are ready to help Syria on all grounds to confront threats."
Though Bush rightly refused to name Hariri's assassins until "all the facts are in," that hasn't stopped the Lebanese from drawing their own conclusions. In the days following the explosion that ripped through Hariri's armored motorcade, anti-Syrian demonstrators stoned the Syrian Baath party headquarters in Beirut. Crowds gathered at Hariri's mansion chanted, "Syria is the enemy of Allah." One bold mourner at Hariri's funeral said: "There has never been a demonstration against Syria before. You would have been arrested. No one dared to say anything before. ... It would kill me if they had my name." But demonstrate they are.
It's now time for the United States to help facilitate the kind of "march toward freedom" that President Bush articulates, without sending in the Marines. That requires Negroponte to lead a careful, quiet collection of good intelligence with a determination of who is in charge in Syria -- if anyone.
The international community -- even the despot-doting U.N. -- has demanded that Syria cease its nearly 30-year occupation of Lebanon. The U.N. Security Council passed a resolution calling on "all remaining foreign forces to withdraw from Lebanon." Syria isn't mentioned by name, but no one misses the pink elephant in the room -- or the Syrian troops in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley.
Last Tuesday, the United States recalled our ambassador to Syria, officially citing a need for "urgent consultations following the brutal murder of (Hariri)." That tacit accusal, along with a stern diplomatic note delivered by the ambassador to the Syrian regime, signaled a change in Washington's posture toward Damascus: shape up, fast. Syria appears to have taken the opposite tack.
Iran's nuclear ambitions are about as secretive as Syria's control of Lebanon. Iran brazenly refuses to comply with International Atomic Energy Administration directives and refuses to cease enriching uranium.
Syria and Iran, two Islamofascist thugocracies, are pitted together on the wrong side of history. They are both flanked by democratic governments and violently suppress such movements within their own spheres. Israel insists that Iran is very close to realizing its nuclear ambition. Syria, by partnering with Iran, has shown a willingness to stand against the West.
In the press conference, after stern words for Syria, President Bush made it clear the United States will not abide a nuclear Iran: "The objective is to solve the issue diplomatically, is to work with friends ... to continue making it clear to the Iranians that developing a nuclear weapon will be unacceptable."
Syria and Iran both feel the approaching "untamed fire of freedom" President Bush spoke of in his Inaugural Address and are doing everything they can to stomp it out before they get burned. Negroponte's job is to see to it that they do.