President Bush on Thursday said Syria is “out of step” with other nations in the Middle East and that the United States will work with other countries to pressure Damascus to remove its 15,000 troops from Lebanon.
Bush criticized Syria and Iran as destabilizing forces in the region but stopped short of threatening new U.S. action against either. Expressing sympathy with Israeli worries about a nuclear-armed Iran, the president said America would protect its ally.
The president accused Syria of harboring terrorist groups and assisting Iraqi insurgents.
He did not assert involvement by Syria, as many suspect, in the assassination this week of a former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri.
“I’m going to withhold judgment until we find out what the facts are,” Bush said at a news conference where he announced the appointment of John Negroponte, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, as director of national intelligence.
Going over one global hot spot after another, the president repeatedly chose the language of negotiation over intimidation.
Bush silent on consequences for Syria
He did say that “some of the behavior in the Middle East is unacceptable” — a reference to Iran’s alleged pursuit of nuclear weapons and support by Iran and Syria of terrorist organizations. But Bush emphasized diplomatic solutions. “There’s a lot of progress that can be made,” he said.
Bush dodged several questions about potential new penalties against Syria. “The idea is to continue to work with the world to remind Syria it’s not in their interest to be isolated,” he said.
His approach contrasted sharply with that recommended by a bipartisan group of 11 senators, who urged Bush to expand on trade penalties and to “take strong action” against Syria. “Neither the U.S. nor our allies can afford to let Syria off the hook,” the lawmakers said in a letter Thursday.
Bush reaffirmed that Iran is not now in danger of a U.S. attack, despite the administration’s belief that Tehran is developing nuclear weapons; Iran denies that charge. “There’s more diplomacy, in my judgment, to be done,” the president said.
Support for Israel
Asked about his level of concern that Israel might attack Iran to prevent its Tehran from acquiring nuclear arms, Bush responded with an assurance to Israel of U.S. protection.
“If I was the leader of Israel and I’d listened to some of the statements by the Iranian ayatollahs that regarded the security of my country, I’d be concerned about Iran having a nuclear weapon as well,” he said. “We will support Israel if her security is threatened.”
Turning to North Korea and its nuclear weapons program, Bush said diplomacy involving countries in the region is the right strategy. “Now is the time for us to work with friends and allies who have agreed to be part of the process to determine what we’re jointly going to do about it,” he said.
The president, in the 30-minute session with reporters, also previewed his trip next week to Europe. He said he would use the meetings to discuss Syria, Iraq, and Iran. But he declined to support the European tactic of offering Iran technological, financial and political support in return for its scrapping of its uranium enrichment program.
He offered an overture to allies, promising to try to rebuild trans-Atlantic trust damaged by the war in Iraq by also focusing during his travels on topics of importance to Europeans, including global hunger, disease and climate change.
Syria says charges unfounded
“Differences, at times, frankly, caused us to talk past each other,” Bush said. “I want to make sure the Europeans understand I know that, and that as we move beyond the differences of the past, that we can work a lot together to achieve big objectives.”
The news conference was dominated by talk of the administration’s stance toward Syria in the wake of the bombing Monday in Beirut that killed Hariri and 16 others.
The United States withdrew its ambassador from Damascus after the bombing, and Bush said curtly: “The relationship is not moving forward.”
The president endorsed an international investigation into the assassination and said he hoped it soon would identify those responsible.
In Damascus, officials with the Syrian foreign and information ministries could not be reached for comment Thursday evening. A Syrian legislator, Suleiman Haddad, said Bush’s charges against Syria are unfounded.
“We know and Bush deep down knows that Syria has nothing to do with” all these accusations, he said.