Why Syria May Be the Next Target: Amid Allegations of Syria's Military Cooperation with Iraq, Speculation Grows That the Bush Administration Is Laying the Groundwork for Regime Change in Damascus. (the World: Syria)

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U.S. and coalition forces now canvassing Iraq for weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) may need to expand their search area, according to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. In December, Sharon told Israel's Channel 2 he has reviewed reports confirming that Saddam Hussein had transferred chemical and biological weapons to Syria. This involvement with Iraqi WMDs provoked veiled warnings from Washington, including expressions of alarm about the possibly related shipment by Syria of weapons to Iraq. Ambiguities abound, but there is speculation at senior levels that the Bush administration may be laying the groundwork for action to facilitate regime change in Damascus.

Warnings by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that Syria would be held "accountable" for aiding the Iraqi military with transfers of technology are being cited by diplomatic insiders in the region as indicating that Syria, and such client terrorist organizations as Hezbollab, may have had a deal with Saddam to store some of the Iraqi dictator's stockpile of chemical and biological weapons--even for their contingent use against Israel.

In hearings before the Senate Armed Services Committee the day after the fall of Baghdad, Undersecretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz assured senators the Pentagon has no plans for military operations in Syria. But British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon has made veiled threats.

The deputy ambassador and chief of public diplomacy for Syria, Imad Moustapha, strongly denies allegations that his country had military arrangements with Iraq. "Syria has never, ever, been involved in any military cooperation with the Iraqi government. Never. It has always been very critical of the Iraqi government. This has not changed because we opposed war against Iraq," Moustapha tells INSIGHT. He also casts doubts about the involvement of Hezbollah. "The Syrian-Iraqi border has not seen any trafficking of any weapons or chemical materials or anything. Hezbollab--which is based in Lebanon, has been active against Israeli occupation forces in Lebanon--has not a single channel of access to Iraq through Syria." Lebanon is a client state of Syria.

But a U.S. State Department official tells INSIGHT, "We continue to watch the Syria-Iraq border quite closely, and we have reason to believe that Syria continues to engage in transshipment activity."

For some time all the administration has been willing to do publicly is to raise concerns, both acute and oblique, about possible Syrian aid to Iraq. In the second week of April, however, the Daily Telegraph of London reported that discussions between President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair had given priority to the Syria issue. "One of the main subjects on the agenda of the Belfast summit was ... Syria, the Pentagon's next likely target for `regime change' amid suspicions it allowed Saddam Hussein to transfer weapons of mass destruction within its borders," according to the Telegraph. "Some U.S. officials also are convinced that [Syrian President Bashar] Assad has actively collaborated with Saddam and agreed to take weapons, including Scud missiles." The Telegraph cited unnamed Bush administration officials as the source of the story.

Until recently the administration has sought to keep a lid on its intelligence concerning these matters, fearing that it could complicate the war in Iraq. But leaks about human intelligence and satellite imagery have been building to a crescendo as pressure increases on the Bush administration to find the WMDs it insisted Iraq was maintaining.

In October 2002, the CIA issued a report, Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction Programs, that concluded: "Since inspections ended in 1998, Iraq has maintained its chemical-weapons effort, energized its missile program and invested more heavily in biological weapons." Speaking of Iraq's chemical capability, the CIA report says, "Baghdad has begun renewed production of chemical-warfare agents, probably including mustard, sarin, cyclosarin and VX. …