Syria's support for the collapsed regime of Saddam Hussein may have goaded Washington into seriously considering the use of military force against Damascus.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld charged on Wednesday that Syria is taking in fleeing members of Hussein's regime and continues to supply Iraq with military equipment, an accusation he first leveled two weeks ago.
"I have accurately advised that they not provide military assistance to Iraq," Mr. Rumsfeld said. "They seem to have made a conscious decision to ignore that.
"Senior regime people are moving out of Iraq into Syria, and Syria is continuing to send things into Iraq. We find it notably unhelpful," he said.
John Bolton, the undersecretary of state, speaking in Rome Wednesday, said that the fate of Hussein's regime should serve as a stark warning to Syria.
"This is a wonderful opportunity for Syria to forswear the pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and, as with other governments of the region, see if there are not new possibilities in the Middle East peace process," he said.
Most Middle East analysts rule out an imminent attack on Syria, saying that the US has its hands full in Iraq and is unwilling to engage in a new Middle East conflict likely to rile the Arabs even more. But Robert Baer, a former senior CIA operative, says he believes that the Pentagon has "pretty much decided to go after Syria," taking advantage of the presence of US military forces in neighboring Iraq.
The Syrians are "easy to get, they're vulnerable. There's been this buildup of rhetoric and, of course, the Israelis would like us to do it," he says.
Syria is the staunchest opponent in the Arab world to the US-led invasion of Iraq. It has openly called for the defeat of coalition forces and allowed hundreds of Arab volunteer fighters to cross its border into Iraq.
The presence of some 200,000 US troops in Iraq has allowed Washington to back its warnings and threats with carefully selected military action. Two weeks ago, a bus traveling through Iraq, 100 miles from the Syrian border, was struck by a US missile, killing five Arab volunteer fighters. Reports of bombing and low-flying American aircraft near the Abu Kamal crossing midway along the 400-mile desert border have been interpreted as an attempt to deter vehicles from traveling along the road to Baghdad.
Kuwait's Al-Rai Al-Aam newspaper reported last week that a pipeline between Kirkuk in northern Iraq and the Syrian port of Banias was blown up by US forces. The pipeline is believed to have supplied Syria with some 200,000 barrels of oil a day, in breach of United Nations sanctions. The report remains unconfirmed, but a diplomatic source in Damascus says that the supply of Iraqi oil to Syria appears to have dried up. "The oil pipeline has not been used for some time, and the oil was being brought in by rail. But the oil is not flowing now as it was a couple of months ago."
In marked contrast to the muscle flexing rhetoric from the Pentagon, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage struck a conciliatory note Wednesday, telling Lebanon's As-Safir newspaper "We will not attack Syria."
But the different statements from Washington are sending mixed signals to Damascus. "We are very concerned and we are not taking these threats lightly," says Mohammed Aziz Shukri, professor of international law at Damascus University. "But we can't understand what the Americans want from us. We are not going to start a war with Israel nor the United States."
Professor Shukri, a member of a US-Syrian dialogue organized last year by the James Baker Institute for Public Policy in Houston, blamed the spat on an "unholy alliance" of "hawks" in Washington and the right-wing Israeli government. "If they continue like this, it's going to cause trouble for all of us. Neither the US nor Syria will benefit from this. Only Israel will benefit."
While the government in Damascus may not win Washington's approval, it has been a rare example of stability in the fractious Middle East for more than three decades. Dismantling the regime by force or coercion won't guarantee an outcome favorable to the US, analysts say.
Michael Young, a Lebanese political analyst, says that Washington was being "very severe" with Syria to deter any threats to its position in Iraq. "The Syrians have behaved in a way that has only increased American antagonism, as I think the Americans, too, have done nothing to reassure the Syrians nor even offer them a diplomatic way out in terms of the conflict with Israel."
Diplomatic sources in Damascus say that the American Embassy has communicated "very clearly" to the Syrian authorities the State Department's assurance that Washington has no intention of attacking Syria.
But Mr. Baer, the former CIA operative who is visiting Beirut and Damascus to film a documentary for ABC television, says that the Pentagon appears to have triumphed in the debate in Washington over whether to use military action against Syria. "The Pentagon has won over the State Department.... They [the Pentagon hawks] have clearly hijacked US foreign policy from the State Department and even intelligence from the CIA," he says.