US eyes second-tier threats in terror war

It signals hardening stance by focusing on Syria, Libya, and Cuba.

The "axis of evil" is back - and in expanded form. Anticipated congressional action against Syria this week is just one sign that the US plans to keep up the pressure on countries it places on the wrong side in the war on terror.

The triad of WMD-seeking states that President Bush first targeted in his January 2002 State of the Union address no longer includes Iraq. But the club otherwise made up of North Korea and Iran has grown to include Syria, Libya, and Cuba, in the administration's eyes, as it seeks to keep the nation and the world focused on the dual threats of weapons proliferation and state-sponsored terrorism.

Some experts see the new club members as minor threats compared to the original three - one former US official calls them "the ladies' auxiliary of the axis of evil." But the Bush administration is showing lack of patience with any state tolerance of terrorism, while making clear its determination to see development of and trading in weapons of mass destruction stopped. Some recent examples:

• With the administration dropping its opposition, stiff new sanctions against Iraq's neighbor Syria are likely to win House approval this week and a Senate nod after that. Called the Syria Accountability Act, the legislation would impose new sanctions against a country that has long been on the US list of state sponsors of terrorism - but which has also aided the US in efforts against Al Qaeda.

• John Bolton, undersecretary of state for arms control, has linked several states - including Syria - with the charter members of the axis of evil. In remarks last week at the American Embassy in London, Mr. Bolton said, "We're now turning our attention to Iran, Syria, Libya, and Cuba."

• The White House on Friday announced new travel restrictions and other measures against Cuba, which it accuses of pursuing biological and chemical weapons programs.

The stepped-up action against states like Syria and Cuba represents both new terror concerns and White House electoral interests, some analysts say.

Syria, for example, is getting new attention because of growing indications that it has allowed Arabs set on fighting a jihad against the US to filter into next-door neighbor Iraq. The longer-standing issue the US has with Syria is the haven it provides to Palestinian groups that continue to carry out violence and terrorist acts against Israel.

But at the same time the legislation targeting Syria has the strong support of pro-Israel lobbying groups that are very influential with Jewish voters. Similarly, measures aimed at Fidel Castro's Cuba play well with Cuban-American voters in key states like Florida.

Yet these latest targets in the war on terror aren't likely to raise the alarms - or level of action - that the original three "axis" members did, experts say, primarily because they are not growing nuclear threats.

"In terms of capability, population, economic weight, but principally because it differs from the 'axis of evil' with their active nuclear programs, Syria won't be going from the triple-A league to the majors," says Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "It's a different order of magnitude."

Even so, Undersecretary Bolton's comments draw new attention to the Bush administration's perspective that its list of violating states is not limited to seekers of nuclear arms, but includes developers of chemical and biological weapons.

At the same time, the administration appears to want to reassure the American public and the world that getting tough doesn't mean a rush to military action. Any new measures against Syria will be limited to economic and diplomatic measures - for now.

But taking on Syria at this point has its risks. Stanley Bedlington, a former senior analyst in the CIA's counterterrorism center, says Syria has long cooperated with the US in terms of intelligence-sharing. He and other intelligence experts say the cooperation only increased after 9/11.

Yet since the US went to war with Iraq, they add, the US and Israel are increasingly making the case that Syria sponsors terrorists and must stop.

Right after the war with Iraq began, for example, the US issued several warnings to Syria to close its borders. Over the months since, several officials, including Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, have accused Syria of allowing Arab foot soldiers to cross into Iraq and of harboring political and military refugees.

Robert Baer, a retired CIA operative with years of experience in the region, says Syria doesn't understand the new US position saying it's done everything Washington has asked.

Syria's case with the US was complicated earlier this month when Israel bombed a Palestinian terrorist training camp deep inside Syria. With congressional action on Syria imminent, the Israeli raid may have cemented the legislation's prospects.

US action against Syria won't have much economic impact, experts say, since the US already has some sanctions on the books against Syria. But it will send a message to the region that could complicate the US position there.

Richard Murphy, a former assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs and now at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, says it is not just the Syria Accountability Act, but Mr. Bush's strong words of support to Israel after its raid on Syrian territory, that are taken by both sides in the Middle East conflict as a green light to Israel for such actions.

But even in these circumstances, not everyone sees Syria responding to US action by closing its diplomatic doors. "The response may be to grill the US publicly but to work behind the scenes to find what more the US wants," says CSIS's Mr. Alterman.

Staff writer Faye Bowers contributed to this report.

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