Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad has been handed an opportunity by the United States' victory in Iraq that will decide his place in history. Bashar can follow his father, Hafiz al-Assad, into the pantheon of ruthless tyrants who have killed thousands of their own people and threatened the peace and stability of the Arab world. Or he can decide to cooperate with the United States, turning over fleeing Iraqi officials, eliminating Syria's chemical weapons, and closing down terrorist training camps in Syria and Syrian-controlled Lebanon.
If Assad is smart, he'll learn from Saddam Hussein's mistakes and avoid the wrath of the United States military.
This week, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld accused Syria of conducting chemical weapons tests over the last 12 to 15 months, allowing Syrians and others to cross into Iraq during the fighting there, and offering monetary rewards for anyone who killed American soldiers. White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer has repeatedly called Syria a "rogue nation" over the last several days, and even Secretary of State Colin Powell has signaled that the United States' patience with Syria is at an end. Powell warned that the United States is exploring both economic and diplomatic sanctions against Syria if the government there doesn't start cooperating.
The 30-year rule of Hafiz al-Assad was marked by horrific repression of the Syrian people and the export of terror to neighboring countries, most notably Israel and Lebanon. Syria and Syrian-controlled Lebanon -- which Syria has occupied, at least partially, since 1976 -- is home to several of the world's most notorious terrorist organizations, including Hezbollah, HAMAS, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine General Command and Palestine Islamic Jihad. These groups have been responsible for thousands of deaths among innocent civilians, including Americans.
When Bashar al-Assad assumed the presidency upon his father's death three years ago, there were high hopes in some circles that he would lead Syria along a new path. The 37-year-old Bashar is a British-trained ophthalmologist, not a military man like Hafiz, so optimists at the U.S. state department and elsewhere believed he might rule Syria with less of an iron fist. But those hopes have all but vanished of late as the weak-chinned Bashar, who may not look much like his father, shows every sign that he emulates him in other ways.
Perhaps worried that his lack of military credentials will make his people perceive him as vulnerable, Bashar has even done some saber rattling recently, which has resonated beyond Syria's borders. When the war started, Bashar said that he hoped the United States would be defeated in Iraq, instantly drawing praise among the most radical elements on the Arab street. Attendants at the Al Azhar mosque in Cairo shouted, "Bashar, Bashar, set the world on fire!" If he's not careful, however, it may be Syrian territory that goes up in flames.
The United States does not have to invade Syria to make its point. A few well-targeted attacks on terrorist training camps in Syria and Lebanon could just as easily accomplish U.S. aims. The president has made it clear that no country or leader who harbors terrorists is safe from attack. If Bashar al-Assad won't shut down the terrorist training camps operating on territory he controls, why shouldn't we do it for him?
Sure, the French would go into a snit again, as would the Germans, Russians and the blame-America-first crowd here in the U.S. But the world would be a better place -- not to mention safer -- if the ranks of Hezbollah, HAMAS and other terrorist groups joined their fellow "martyrs" in whatever deepest region of hell is reserved for those who slaughter the innocent.
We have given Bashar fair warning. If he wants to save himself and his country, he ought to take heed.