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While the Democratic presidential contenders squabble among themselves over an exit strategy from Iraq, most of them agree that Israel had the right to attack Syria last week. That gives Bush a political green light to have at Syria, if not with American troops then at least through Israel.
And thanks to Tom DeLay, invigorated by his recent trip to the region, Congress is near ready to pass legislation giving the president authority to impose sanctions on Syria. The House plans to act this week and the Senate later in the month. Syrians laugh off sanctions on the grounds that they trade with Europe, not the U.S., but Syria is heavily dependent on Iraqi oil, and the U.S. has shut off the pipeline.
Vermont's Howard Dean, lambasted by the other flyweight contenders as a lefty for being against the Iraq war, had this to say on CNN: "If Israel has to defend itself by striking terrorists elsewhere, it's going to have to do that. " Wesley Clark, whom the press is dying to see win, told a group of Iowans, according to C-SPAN, "The Israelis have the right to self-defense. Nobody can deny that. When they receive word that terrorists are coming in to attack and kill innocent Israelis whose only crime is to live in the State of Israel, they not only have a right to strike first, they have an obligation."
Last week there were press reports from Israel describing U.S. troop movements on the Iraq-Syria border, with Americans capturing chiefs of various nomadic tribes who live there and finding large caches of weapons in the process. These tribes are thought to provide a protective umbrella under which foreign fighters and materiel can go into Iraq. While this border stuff was going on, Israel struck at targets inside Syria for the first time in 26 years. Bush welcomed the attack, saying, "We would be doing the same thing."
Israel is becoming more and more active as a U.S. military surrogate in the Middle East. Last weekend Der Spiegelreported that Israel was ready to launch an attack against Iran's nuclear sites to prevent them from becoming operational. And, basing its reports on U.S. government sources, the Los Angeles Times claimed that Israel could fire nuclear-modified U.S.-made Harpoon cruise missiles from its submarines. The Israeli nuclear arsenal is believed to include 100 to 200 warheads that can be delivered by missiles, planes, and submarines. The Israelis claim there are no restrictions on converting Harpoons so that they can deliver nuclear warheads.
Syrian vice president Abdel-Halim Khaddam said in September that U.S. threats were a waste of time because his country's primary commercial partners are in Europe. But there's the matter of that oil pipeline from Iraq to Syria, which in Saddam's day was the source of $1 billion a year for Syria.
A survey last week in Forward, the New York Jewish paper, quoted Dick Gephardt as saying, "This was an attack on terrorism, not on Syria. I hardly think we can disagree with a country that is trying to protect itself from a terror attack. It's self-defense." Said John Kerry: "Israel, of course, has the right to defend itself." A spokesperson for Joe Lieberman said the Connecticut senator "understands why Israel had to do it."
But as the war in the Middle East expands, Israel's role is coming under scrutiny. Israel has been getting about $3 billion in U.S. aid every year, but now because of its own economic problems and the cost of fighting off suicide bombings, it is asking for $4 billion in additional military aid and $8 billion in loan guarantees.
Additional reporting: Ashley Glacel