Tuesday 15 April 2003

Would President Assad invite a cruise missile to his palace?

by Robert Fisk

click here to visit his website So now Syria is in America's gunsights. First it's Iraq, Israel's most powerful enemy, possessor of weapons of mass destruction – none of which has been found. Now it's Syria, Israel's second most powerful enemy, possessor of weapons of mass destruction, or so President George Bush Junior tells us. No word of that possessor of real weapons of mass destruction, Israel – the number of its nuclear warheads in the Negev are now accurately listed – whose Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, has long been complaining that Damascus is the "centre of world terror".

But Syria is a target all right. First came the US claim that Damascus was sending gas masks to the Iraqi army. The Syrians denied it – but what if it's true? Why shouldn't an Arab neighbour offer Iraqi soldiers protective clothing during an American invasion which has no international legitimacy? Then Syria was accused of sending, or allowing, Arab "volunteers" to cross into Iraq to fight the Americans. This is much harder for the Syrians to deny. I've met a few of them here in Baghdad, most anxious to return to their homes in Homs and Damascus, others – from Algeria and Morocco – telling me that they will be safe if they can reach the Syrian border because "there will be no trouble from there". But here, too, there's a whiff of hypocrisy.

Whenever Israel goes to war, there are hundreds of "volunteers" from the United States rushing to Tel Aviv to join the Israel Defence Force, and America never complains.

But then comes the nastiest accusation: that members of the Iraqi regime have fled to Syria for safety. Given Syria's increasingly warmer relations with Saddam Hussein's Iraq in recent years, and the joint nature of their Baathist past – the Syrian Christian Michel Aflaq was a founder of the Baath in the days when it was a creature of both nations – it's difficult to believe that the Tariq Azizes and Taha Yassin Ramadans couldn't seek refuge in Syria.

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