Mr. Assad's Medicine

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Tuesday, October 28, 2008

IT WAS interesting to observe the wails of outrage from Syrian officials yesterday following a raid on a target near the country's border with Iraq, carried out by helicopter-borne U.S. commandos. "Criminal and terrorist aggression," charged Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem. "The law of the jungle," bemoaned spokesman Jihad Makdissi at the Syrian Embassy in London. This from a regime whose most notable activities of the past few years have been the serial assassination of senior Lebanese politicians, including former prime minister Rafik Hariri; the continuous and illegal supplying of weapons to the Hezbollah militia for use against Israel and Lebanon's democratic government; the harboring in Damascus of senior leaders of Hamas and other Palestinian terrorist groups; and -- most relevant -- the sheltering of an al-Qaeda network that dispatches 90 percent of the foreign fighters who wage war against U.S. troops and the Iraqi government.

The logic of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad seems to be that his regime can sponsor murders, arms trafficking, infiltrations and suicide bombings in neighboring countries while expecting to be shielded from any retaliation in kind by the diplomatic scruples of democracies. For most of this decade that has been lamentably true: U.S. commanders and Iraqi officials have over and over again pointed to the infiltration of al-Qaeda militants through the Damascus airport and the land border with Iraq, and Syria's refusal to curtail it, without taking direct action. Yet in the past year Israel has intervened in Syria several times to defend its vital interests, including bombing a secret nuclear reactor. If Sunday's raid, which targeted a senior al-Qaeda operative, serves only to put Mr. Assad on notice that the United States, too, is no longer prepared to respect the sovereignty of a criminal regime, it will have been worthwhile.

Mr. Assad's government has lately taken a few cautious steps toward breaking out of its isolation, participating in indirect peace talks with Israel and granting formal diplomatic recognition to Lebanon for the first time. European governments have been quick with rewards, and the next U.S. president -- if it is Barack Obama -- may also hasten to upgrade contacts. If the Syrian regime is genuinely interested in making peace with Israel, distancing itself from Iran and the terrorist movements it sponsors, and rebuilding ties with the West, that is to be welcomed. What Damascus should not be allowed to do is reap the diplomatic and economic rewards of a rapprochement while continuing to plant car bombs, transport illegal weapons and harbor terrorists. Israel has let Mr. Assad know that it is prepared to respond to his terrorism with strikes against legitimate military targets. Now that the United States has sent the same message, maybe the dictator at last will rethink his strategy.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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