Gen. Powell goes to Damascus.

Gen. Powell goes to Damascus.

Gen. Powell goes to Damascus.

What the foreign papers are saying.
May 5 2003 1:23 PM

Powell Play

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell kicked off a new phase in post-Iraq-war Middle East diplomacy Saturday when he traveled to Syria and Lebanon to issue a warning and some embedded reassurances. Lebanon's left-wing Al-Safir headlined with the gist of what Powell told the Syrians: "We Want Action, Not Words, and We'll Be Watching Syria."

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Before his travels, Powell indicated he would raise several contentious issues with the Syrians, including their harboring of Palestinian groups the United States deems to be terrorist organizations, supporting Hezbollah attacks against Israel in a disputed area of south Lebanon, sheltering members of the former Iraqi regime, and developing weapons of mass destruction. The English-language Daily Star focused on Hezbollah's response to the American pressures, noting the party "remained defiant … vowing continued resistance, despite … Powell's warning ... that there is no longer room for militancy given the 'new strategic situation' in the Middle East resulting from the war in Iraq." Beirut's French-language L'Orient-Le Jour specifically mentioned the secretary's implied threat of economic sanctions against Syria if it fails to comply with his demands, perhaps in the form of congressional legislation known as the Syria Accountability Act (which has yet to be voted on by the Senate or the House) and the U.S.A. Patriot Act.

A more subtle reality underlined Powell's statements. Neither the Bush administration nor Syria is eager to square off against the other. By mentioning economic sanctions, Powell consciously downplayed the prospect of using military force against Syria, an option favored by some administration neocons. As the Daily Star observed, Powell also avoided describing Syria's presence in Lebanon as an "occupation," something he did last March in congressional testimony. In turn, the Syrians played up cooperation with the United States. The International Herald Tribune highlighted Powell's Sunday statement that Syrian President Bashar Assad promised to close down offices of militant Palestinian groups Islamic Jihad, Hamas, and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command. On Monday, the groups denied being the target of a crackdown, but Assad might privately accede to U.S. demands—especially since the closures would largely be symbolic. On Sunday, Beirut daily Al-Nahar indicated what Syria hoped to gain, in its headline, "Syria and Lebanon to Powell: … We Also Want a 'Road Map.' " This referred to the "road map" to peace (proposed earlier this week by the United States, the European Union, the United Nations, and Russia), underscoring Damascus' and Beirut's fear they will be left by the diplomatic wayside while attention is focused on the Palestinians and Israelis. Syria wants its own agreement that would lead to an Israeli pullout from the occupied Golan Heights.

Last Thursday, U.S. President George W. Bush declared the Iraq war officially over. The administration wants to spread the burden of "stabilizing" postwar Iraq, and the Arab press is watching what Al-Safir referred to as a plan to "internationalize the American occupation of Iraq … outside the United Nations." Washington is apparently considering subdividing Iraq into three districts, with the United States controlling a central district including Baghdad, Britain a southern district including Basra, and Poland a northern district including Mosul and Kirkuk. On Sunday, the London-based Al-Hayat quoted a U.S. official saying that British Defense Minister Geoff Hoon proposed the plan at a gathering in London last week. Italy's Il Giornale, owned by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's brother, pointed to the obvious absences in the multinational venture: France and Germany, which received "outward smiles, but little else" in postwar Iraq. The paper also offered a useful map of the three districts, though it noted that its final contours had yet to be set.

No less definite are the contours of Israel's political game, following Labor Party leader Amram Mitzna's announcement Sunday that he would step down, because "[n]ot a few members spent more time battling my leadership than battling for peace and social justice." The Jerusalem Post noted, "It is widely assumed that Mitzna's bitter resignation remarks [were] directed primarily at [Binyamin] Ben-Eliezer," the former party leader whom Mitzna defeated before leading Labor into January's elections. Mitzna has adopted a relatively soft approach to talks with the Palestinians, promising to unilaterally dismantle certain Israeli settlements and negotiate even while violence continues. Ha'aretz quoted a colleague of Mitzna's saying the resignation "could spell the end of the Labor Party." What it could do before then, however, is spell the end of Mitzna's strategy of keeping Labor outside the government coalition, which he considered essential to provide an alternative to the hard-line approach advocated by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Justice Minister "Tommy" Lapid of Shinui suggested Labor will alter direction. He said Mitzna's resignation paves the way for the party to join a "wide, secular coalition government that would both strive for peace and reinvigorate Israeli society."