WASHINGTON - In the wake of Lebanon's first elections following Syrian withdrawal, American policy toward the world's remaining Ba'athist government is approaching support for regime change.
President Bush's top foreign policy advisers met last week to discuss the government of Bashar al-Assad, mulling, according to two administration officials briefed later, a tougher policy that would allow American forces or encourage Iraqi soldiers to pursue terrorists that escape to Syria from Iraq for safe haven.
At the State Department, the Bureau of Near East Affairs and the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor have asked Congress for explicit legal authority to fund liberal opposition parties inside Syria through regional initiatives that have hitherto focused on reforming American allies such as Jordan and Egypt, two administration officials told The New York Sun.
The White House is also pressing to expand the U.N. inquiry into the assassination of a former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri, to include a probe of the June 2 murder of the anti-Syrian journalist Samir Kassir in Lebanon. Later this month, the White House is expected to apply tougher sanctions to Syria, possibly freezing bank accounts of the regime's top leaders, in accordance with the 2003 Syria Accountability Act.
The new approach is also palpable in routine diplomatic matters. Last Friday, when envoys from the Arab League arrived for a State Department briefing on Mr. Bush's meetings with the Palestinian Arab leader, Mahmoud Abbas, Syria's representative was turned away from Foggy Bottom and told his government was not invited, according to one diplomatic source who requested anonymity.
The latest developments in Washington suggest a more concerted effort by the Bush administration to foment the collapse of the regime, according to America's ambassador in Damascus between 2001 and 2003, Theodore Kattouf.
"My sense is that this administration is willing to roll the dice and take a chance on a post-Bashar al-Assad leadership if he is not willing to drastically change Syria's internal and foreign policies," Mr. Kattouf said in an interview yesterday. "However, Bashar is not the regime, and his fall would not necessarily lead to the result this administration would welcome."
America's message to the Arab world has been stern regarding Syria. A front-page story ran yesterday in the influential, Saudi-owned Arab newspaper Asharq al-Awsat, which quoted anonymous Bush administration sources as saying that their "advice to Mr. Assad is to retire." Arab journalists here on Monday were briefed by Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs David Welch.
The story yesterday prompted an exiled opposition group, the Reform Party of Syria, to send out an e-mail proclaiming that the State Department for the first time had endorsed "regime change" for Syria. "These are the pre-steps to the final countdown of the Assad regime. America is already preparing for the alternative, which is democracy," the president of the Reform Party of Syria, Farid Ghadry, said yesterday.
The Washington bureau chief for al-Hayat, Salameh Nematt, told the Sun yesterday, however, that the Asharq al-Awsat story will be read by the Syrians as a message from the Saudis. The paper is published by Prince Faisal bin Salman, the son of the deputy prime minister and head of the air force.
"The Syrians are going to read this story as a message from the Saudis, whom the Syrians fear might get excited about a prospect of a regime change that will bring the Sunni Muslims, who are the majority, to power in Syria," Mr. Nematt said.
Damascus has taken steps to meet, on the surface at least, the demands of the international community to end its occupation of Lebanon. Not only have the Syrians withdrawn troops, but yesterday at a Ba'ath party conference, the Syrian vice president who exercised so much influence over Lebanon, Abdul-Halim Khaddam, announced his resignation.
The message to Syria is being carried by some of the president's domestic opponents. On Monday, after meeting with U.N. Secretary-General Annan regarding the inquiry into Hariri's death, Senator Leahy, a Democrat from Vermont and harsh critic of the president's foreign policy, said he believed Syria was squarely behind the slaying of the former prime minister.
"There is no question, no question in mind from all I've seen, they were behind the assassination, and I think that the only good thing could be said from that assassination is that they so overstepped, maybe it was the arrogance of power, so overstepped their position, Syria did, that we've all seen the public reaction against it," Mr. Leahy said.
An administration official familiar with the U.N. report also said that it shows very clearly that Syria was behind the murder of Hariri.
"Could we prove this in a criminal court? Not beyond a reasonable doubt. But there is no other plausible explanation. There were movements of individuals before the assassination who would have been known by Syrian intelligence, the preparations for the attack could not have escaped Syrian intelligence," the official said.