Oliver North

"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.

Oliver North

Oliver North is a nationally syndicated columnist, the host of War Stories on the Fox News Channel, the author of the new novel Heroes Proved and the co-founder of Freedom Alliance, an organization that provides college scholarships to the children of U.S. military personnel killed or permanently disabled in the line of duty. Join Oliver North in Israel by going to www.olivernorthisrael.com.