RAY SUAREZ: Syrian president Bashar al-Assad's government faces a growing list of accusations from the Bush administration, chief among them that Damascus has weapons of mass destruction. President Bush spoke yesterday at the White House.
PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: We believe there are chemical weapons in Syria, for example, and we will... each situation will require a different response, and of course we're... first things first. We're here in Iraq now, and the second thing about Syria is that we expect cooperation.
RAY SUAREZ: The administration says Damascus supports radical Islamic groups like Hamas, credited with suicide attacks in Israel, and has let Iraqi weapons and Iraqi leaders cross the border into Syria. Those leaders, said Secretary of State Colin Powell, include members of the Pentagon's Iraqi most-wanted list. That list is in the form of playing cards.
SECRETARY OF STATE COLIN POWELL: The card deck of 55, 53, plus others who have knowledge about weapons of mass destruction development activity over the years. These are the kinds of individuals who should not be allowed to find safe haven in Syria. We will examine possible measures of a diplomatic, economic, or other nature as we move forward.
RAY SUAREZ: The administration says Damascus has also let Syrian fighters cross into Iraq to fight the Americans. Yesterday Syria's deputy ambassador in Washington dismissed the charges as a disinformation campaign.
IMAD MOUSTAFA, Deputy Ambassador, Syria (NBC's Meet the Press, Sunday): And this is just an ongoing series of false accusations, and let me tell you this today: Every day you will have new reports against Syria, accusing Syria of things it has not done.
It's not about what Syria has done; it's about how they are trying to portray Syria here.
RAY SUAREZ: The diplomat suggested Pentagon leaders are taking a harder line against Syria than the CIA and State Department would like, despite Colin Powell's public talk of sanctions against Damascus.
And today outside the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld rejected the Syrian denials.
SECRETARY OF DEFENSE DONALD RUMSFELD: First I would say that we have seen the chemical weapons tests in Syria over the past twelve, fifteen months, and second, that we have intelligence that shows that Syria has allowed Syrians and others to come across the border into Iraq, people armed and people carrying leaflets indicating that they'll be rewarded if they kill Americans and members of the coalition. And we have intelligence that indicates that some Iraqi people have been allowed into Syria, in some cases to stay, in some cases to transit.
RAY SUAREZ: And from the U.S.'s principal partner in the Iraq War, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw said Syria is not "next on the list" for the U.S.-led coalition.
RAY SUAREZ: We get two views of the situation from Danielle Pletka, who is a former staff member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee -- she's now vice president of foreign policy and defense studies at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington; and As'ad AbuKhalil, who is a professor of political science at California State University at Stanislaus -- he was born in Lebanon, and is now an American citizen.
Professor, why are we hearing these warnings against Syria now?
AS'AD ABU KHALIL: Well, I mean, it is easy to say that perhaps the administration, intoxicated with the results of the military victory, feel overly self-confident in order to threaten and intimidate other enemies of Israel and the region.
But the key question one should raise is this: For how long the U.S. administration can think it can go on to speak about weapons of mass destruction and to ignore entirely the 50 elephants in the room. I am referring, of course, about the most massive collection, arsenal of weapons of mass destruction -- nuclear, chemical and biological -- that are inside Israel.
Or, is the United States going to try to convince Arabs that weapons of mass destruction in the hands of Arabs are harmful, and in the hands of Israel they should be enjoyable and pleasurable? That line, of course, is not going to far.
In addition to that, if the United States thinks that they will win more Arab support and favor and sympathy by threatening or launching more wars against Syria, I mean, they are totally mistaken. They have to realize, the United States may, of course, prevail in Iraq, and of course nobody should and nobody did shed tears over the disappearance of Saddam Hussein and his brutal tyranny, but there is a lot of resentment against the United States in the region because of the war which many people feel victimized innocent civilians. Just today I woke up and watched on Arabic television, there was demonstration in Najaf today. People were chanting, "no Saddam and not America."
You cannot ignore those signs. They will spread as the United States will increase to intensify the campaign against Syria.
RAY SUAREZ: We'll get to Israel a little later, but let me ask the same question to Danielle Pletka. Why, from Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Powell, indeed the president himself, new warnings against Syria while the United States is still trying to get its arms around Iraq?
DANIELLE PLETKA: Well, I think it's important to understand this in the context of Iraq. In fact, what the government of Syria has done -- despite many, many weeks of very quiet warnings not to do so -- is aid and abet the regime of Saddam Hussein, not only before the war, during the war, throughout the war, but continuing to this day.
That's really the problem we see. There's no "who's next?" Nobody has picked anybody. The problem is that Syria has exploited what it perceives as a weakness or a vacuum inside Iraq to continue this behavior, believing, I guess falsely, that they can get away with it. It's terribly dangerous, and it's quite a large miscalculation on their part.
But make no mistake, this is not something that was plucked from the air, otherwise we could talk about Libya, we could talk about Iran, which is another Iraqi neighbor. Instead, what we are doing is seeing a reaction to terrorists coming across the Syrian border, armed with Syrian passports, not all of them, by the way, from Syria, not withstanding carrying Syrian-provided documentation, some of them with leaflets in their hands saying that there will be a reward for the killing of American soldiers.
What we saw throughout the course of the war and prior to the war was Syrian facilitation of the export of things like night vision goggles to the Saddam Hussein regime and other things. And what we saw prior to the war was that Syria was the number one violator of U.N. sanctions against Iraq and the number one source of illegal foreign exchange to the Saddam Hussein government.
RAY SUAREZ: Now, historically weren't these two countries at dagger points to each other?
DANIELLE PLETKA: Absolutely, they were. That changed after the death of Hafez al-Assad, the father of the current president of Syria, and instead, what happened in years past was that the border opened up for a vast illegal trade between the two countries, which didn't help the Iraqi people or, I might add, the Syrian people, facilitated the sale of oil outside the U.N. Oil for Food program in order to bring foreign exchange into Saddam Hussein's pockets.
RAY SUAREZ: Professor, do you agree that the death of Hafez al-Assad created an opening between Iraq and Syria and a closer relationship between the two?
AS'AD ABU KHALIL: Yes, there's no question that there were personal animosities between the previous two leaders, Saddam Hussein and Hafez al-Assad.
But I think the other guest is disingenuous if she points out about illegal trade between Syria, which exists, and Iraq -- because she didn't mention the illegal trade, which is massive between Jordan and Iraq, and as well as Turkey and Iraq.
So in other words, there was a lot of sympathy in the Arab world for the plight of the Iraqi people, not Saddam and his cronies.
And as a result many of these governments and all sorts of commercial benefits --oftentimes even in violation of United Nations sanctions, in order to, in their eyes, benefit and to help out and ameliorate the conditions of the Iraqi people.
AS'AD ABU KHALIL: But the question we should race is this: Does the United States think that it can really take a case to the international community on the basis of some illegal flyers and night vision goggles that they found across the border? Does this amount to a case they can convince the world?
In addition to that, they have to understand the credibility of the United States' allegation on Iraq even after the war, do not stand. Where are these al-Qaida members and leaders that we had heard so much about that were sheltered in Baghdad? Will they be turned over?
And also, where is the evidence of weapons of mass destruction? Yes, it's true, there have been volunteers who have been crossing the border, but this is an important point, and that's why many of us who are concerned and opposed to this war argue that this will make us much less safe than we were. In addition to that, this war we see is providing ready recruits for the fanatical fundamentalists like bin Laden, and these are the volunteers -- often they were violating their own governments in Lebanon, Syria and Jordan to cross the border to do anything.
So in many ways, we can see we have a lot to worry about in the next two or three years. The war in Iraq, which is far from being resolved, this is only a beginning to what we will see in terms of the political consequences.
We will see a new fanatical movement -- just as the 1991 war produced bin Laden -- I brace myself and wonder what kind of a new fanatical fundamentalist movement we'll have on our hands, and when something nasty and sinister occurs a year or two from now, Americans will innocently wonder, "why do they hate us?"
RAY SUAREZ: Well, take that narrative and try to get it to the professor's core question. Can you limit this kind of drastic regime change in one country in a very disturbed neighborhood, to one country?
DANIELLE PLETKA: Well, first of all, I don't think that anyone should argue that we want to limit the kind of regime change that there should be. Let's face it, whatever the government of Syria is up to right now-- and, of course, we are fully justified in defending the lives of even a single American soldier that people are trying to kill -- but whatever the Syrian government is up to, let's face another separate fact:
Foreign policy aside, the Syrian government is a brutal dictatorship. It is... the government is in the clutches of a minority despised by a vast majority of the Syrian people. Now, that doesn't mean that tomorrow or the next day or indeed at any time that the third ID should be marching down the road into Damascus.
To the contrary, that is not what must happen. But the idea that somehow change is not good in the likes of Syria or Libya or Iran is ridiculous. What we want to do is promote regime change, we want to promote democratization, we want to promote Arab governments that are responsive to the needs of their own people. More interest in local government...
AS'AD ABU KHALIL: May I respond to that?
RAY SUAREZ: Well, no, let me just interject. The professor wasn't just suggesting that there be change in these countries, but that the kind of fire that spread from one country to another, the radicalization of certain elements of those societies, was now a possibility where it might have been avoided before?
DANIELLE PLETKA: No, I don't agree with that in the least. In fact, what we see in Iraq should be an inspiration to the rest of the people of the Middle East.
And that is that Iraqis are, in fact, dancing in the streets, thrilled to be liberated from the yoke of this hideous dictator. Now, that doesn't necessarily mean that in every single country people want to be liberated, as I said, by the third ID, but the idea that people do not wish for liberty, freedom -- that's absolutely unconscionable and not sustainable.
AS'AD ABU KHALIL: May I respond?
RAY SUAREZ: Professor, your response is going to have to be quick, please.
AS'AD ABU KHALIL: Yes. What I say first that -- I mean, I don't speak for the Syrian government, and of course I'm critical of all Middle East governments without an exception, but if the United States -- I mean, again, the guest is so disingenuous.
If she is concerned about the promotion of human rights and democracy, will she join me in asking for the promotion of human rights in the most sexist, oppressive regimes on face of the earth -- Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain. So we notice that we only promote it in countries that oppose the United States; if they happen to do what they're told, they can oppress their people and torture them like they do in Jordan, in Israel, as well as Egypt.
But if they disagree with the United States, then we suddenly become concerned about their human rights.
In addition to that, we should pay attention to Iraq. What is going to emerge in Iraq, and there are signs in it in the south, the new leaders in Iraq are not going to be those who are supported by the Americans, who have been struggling against Saddam in the casinos and nightclubs of Europe.
There will be a new fundamentalist group in Iraq, and this will be a new violent anti-American force which the United States did not prepared itself for, so the results of this war may be far-reaching and far more serious than we had anticipated.
RAY SUAREZ: Professor AbuKhalil, Danielle Pletka, thank you both.