After months of brewing tensions, the United States yesterday ratcheted up the pressure on Syria, joining forces with France and pressing for action at the United Nations to get Damascus to curtail its military intervention in Lebanon.
In a diplomatic slap, the Bush administration yesterday announced the recall of its ambassador to Syria, Margaret Scobey, for what it called "urgent consultations" after the assassination Monday of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri. Scobey also delivered a strongly worded rebuke to the government of President Bashar Assad for not complying with a U.N. resolution that calls for the withdrawal of Syrian military forces from Lebanon.
U.S. Ambassador Margaret Scobey, shown meeting with Syrian President Bashar Assad in Damascus on Jan. 10, 2004, was recalled yesterday.
(Sana Via AP)
Photo Gallery: Blast in Beirut killed Lebanon's former prime minister Rafiq Hariri and at least nine others.
Video: Scene from downtown Beirut immediately following the blast.
Video: Leaders from around the region react to the death of Hariri.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said yesterday that the United States has a "growing list of differences" with Damascus. "The Syrian government is unfortunately on a path right now where relations are not improving but are worsening," she said after talks with Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit.
At the United Nations, the Security Council expressed grave concern about the killing of Hariri, who had played a central role in rebuilding war-ravaged Lebanon. The council called for a report by Secretary General Kofi Annan on the "circumstances, causes and consequences" of the assassination.
The Security Council's presidential statement, approved by all 15 members, expressed alarm about the potential for "further destabilization" of Lebanon. It called on all parties to "cooperate fully and urgently" on full implementation of resolutions calling for Lebanon's "territorial integrity, full sovereignty and political independence."
Syria deployed thousands of troops in Lebanon shortly after the outbreak of war in 1976 and refused to leave after the war ended in 1990, despite international pressure and U.N. Resolution 1559. In part because of its military presence, Damascus has had virtual veto power over many aspects of Lebanon's political system.
The United States has avoided linking Syria directly to the assassination but is clearly holding Syria responsible indirectly for one of the worst acts of terrorism in Lebanon since the civil war ended there 15 years ago.
"When something happens in Lebanon, Syria needs to help to find accountability for what has happened there. There is a part of the destabilization that takes place when you have the kind of conditions that you do now in Lebanon thanks to Syrian interference," Rice said. "So we are united with the rest of the world in wanting a full investigation into what happened here."
Scobey delivered a message to the Syrian government yesterday expressing "profound outrage" over the "heinous act of terrorism" against Hariri, State Department spokesman Richard A. Boucher said.
Even before Hariri's assassination, tensions had been growing for months between the United States and Syria over its failure to clamp down on insurgents and foreign fighters using Syria as a refuge and crossing the border into Iraq. Washington is also frustrated that Syria has not joined the Arab-Israeli peace process, and U.S. officials say the country provides havens for Palestinian and other Arab extremist groups.
Since last fall, the administration has given Damascus a list of 34 people linked to extremism and terrorist attacks to arrest, but Syria has detained only one, according to the State Department.
"The assassination is a sign of how badly messed up Lebanon is, and for that Syria is responsible," said a senior State Department official who spoke anonymously because of department rules. "On a host of issues, Syria has been largely unresponsive and it's coming to a head with movement on Mideast peace, the continuation of [Iraq's] insurgency after the elections, and now the assassination."
U.S. officials said the United States is exploring the possibility of imposing new sanctions on Syria under options laid out in the Syrian Accountability Act, passed by Congress last year.
Under terms of the Syria Accountability Act, the withdrawal of the U.S. ambassador may be indefinite as long as Damascus does not act on issues of dispute, a U.S. official said.
In an interview, Syrian Ambassador Imad Moustapha countered that his country has implemented five redeployments, so that Syrian forces are out of major Lebanese cities, and reduced its forces in Lebanon from 42,000 to 15,000. "We will continue to redeploy. This is something that both Syria and Lebanon are working on. Let us do this between ourselves," he said.
As for the list of 34 names, Moustapha said some are Iraqis that Syria does not know.
"The United States comes to us with lists [of people] they think may be in Syria or [with whom] Syria can help," he said. "The U.S. can't catch people in Iraq. We are more than willing to engage with the U.S. on this, but sometimes we don't even know those people. You can't ask us to do things that the U.S. can't do itself."
He called Hariri a "good friend" to Syria and said his slaying is "a tragic event of catastrophic dimensions."
To coordinate joint action on Syria, Rice talked Monday night to French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier. Syria is expected to be a top item on the agenda when President Bush dines with French President Jacques Chirac next week, administration officials said.