Targeting Damascus

No one was expecting Syria to take center stage. But when 30 international delegations met this week in London to bolster support for Palestinian political and economic reform, the gathering was overshadowed by increasingly harsh rhetoric against Damascus.

Unscheduled meetings and communiques between the U.S. delegation, led by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and her European counterparts, focused on coordinated calls for the immediate withdrawal of Syrian military and intelligence forces from Lebanon. The Syrian-backed government in Lebanon collapsed Monday, just as Rice's plane was flying to London for the Palestinian conference.

"These are momentous times in the Middle East," said Rice. She noted that within the past two months there have been elections in the Palestinian territories, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, moves by Egypt to hold open elections and what she described as "dramatic outpouring" in Lebanon after former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri died in a car bombing that many believe was orchestrated by Syria.

For a U.S. administration that has staked its foreign policy on the idea of spreading democracy in the Middle East, events--for now--couldn't look better. But the London conference only underscored how many roadblocks lie ahead. Damascus, Rice made clear, was roadblock Number One--responsible for undermining and meddling with progress in Iraq, Lebanon, and the Palestinian/Israeli conflict.

"The Syrians are out of step with where the region is going, and out of step with the Middle East," said Rice, adding that the United States was prepared to help the Lebanese hold free and fair May elections that would be "independent of the contaminating influences of foreign interference." (Rice would not offer specifics of what form the aid was likely to take.)

Rice further ratcheted up the pressure on the Assad regime by citing Friday's bombing outside a Tel Aviv nightclub that killed five and strained a fragile ceasefire declared by Israeli and Palestinian leaders as another example of Syrian interference. For the first time, she mentioned unspecified evidence that, she said, directly linked Syria with the attack. "There is evidence that Islamic Jihad, headquartered in Syria, was in fact involved with the planning of those attacks in Tel Aviv. And so the Syrians have a lot to answer for," Rice announced in an interview with ABC News. "We don't know the degree of Syrian involvement, but certainly what is happening on the territory of Syria, in and around Damascus, is clearly threatening to the kind of Middle East we're trying to grow."

Rice's comments came in spite of apparent attempts by Syrian President Bashar Assad to take the heat off his government by giving the United States a tip that led to last week's arrest of Ibrahim al-Hassan, Saddam Hussein's half brother, and by agreeing to reduce Syrian troop numbers in Lebanon.

Also speaking at the conference, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas promised to chase down and punish what he called "saboteurs of peace." The problem, he said, was that suspects lived in an area controlled by Israeli security forces who were blocking Palestinian investigators. To help in such efforts, Rice will be sending General William Ward to coordinate international security training for Palestinian forces, but said Ward would remain based in Germany, and would only rotate into the Palestinian territories for training and supervision.

Asked whether Washington would consider force if Syrian military and intelligence forces did not agree to leave Lebanon, Rice said that sanctions and international pressure on Syria should be enough to convince the Syrians to draw back from Lebanon under U.N. Security Council resolution 1559, which calls for "all remaining foreign forces to withdraw from Lebanon." "The president always looks to see what else is needed, but pressure of the international community is quite palpable on Syria," she added.

Unexpectedly, the upheaval in Lebanon seemed to give Paris and Washington a chance to reconnect on foreign policy. A joint statement by the United States and France, issued after a meeting between Rice and French Prime Minister Michel Barnier, said the two nations would "work urgently together and with the international community" to support the Lebanese people in their pursuit of an "independent, democratic, and sovereign Lebanon." Both leaders called on their Middle East advisors to hold unscheduled meetings on Syria during the conference.

In a brief statement after meeting with United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan, Rice also stressed the need for U.N. reform, to make it "fit and ready for the challenges of the 21st century." Asked if the U.S. was in discussions with the U.N. about sending forces to Lebanon if Syrian troops left, Rice said U.S. officials would coordinate with U.N. special envoy to Lebanon, Terje Larsen. European Union representative Javier Solana, however, told a small group of reporters that there was "no talk" at present of sending U.N. peacekeeping forces into Lebanon were Syria to withdraw.

The conference, designed to coordinate international support for the Palestinian authority, also included some focus on Iran. Rice said Washington would respond in a "timely fashion" to questions as to whether it might join European initiatives that include offering several carrots to Iran, such as World Trade Organization membership, in exchange for Tehran giving up its quest for nuclear weapons. Solana said he expected some form of answer from the U.S. within a few weeks.

As U.S. pressure mounted, British Prime Minister Tony Blair argued that the key to peace in the Middle East is the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. "Much of the poison we want to take out of international relations has swirled around because of our failure to make progress on this issue." But even if Blair is sticking to the theme of the conference, the U.S. seems to only have eyes for Damascus.