Syria says won't give US 'pretext' to attack
Syria cannot imagine a scenario that would warrant moving its troops back to Lebanon, and will avoid giving the United States any such "pretext" to attack, Syria's ambassador to Washington said on Monday.
Imad Moustapha said Syria welcomed a visit to Lebanon by United Nations officials to confirm whether Damascus had truly withdrawn all its military and intelligence agents, in hopes of reducing the chances of confrontation with the United States.
Long-running tensions between the two states have risen recently over Syria's role in Lebanon and U.S. allegations that Damascus was undermining efforts to stabilize Iraq.
The U.N. team headed for Beirut on Monday.
Syria pulled its 14,000 troops out of Lebanon in April, bowing to world pressure after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri on Feb. 14 sparked mass street protests and intensified international pressure.
"Our enemies would love to see Syria trapped in a situation (such as civil war in Lebanon) where it considers going back to Lebanon. But we will not do this," he said.
"If we send back our troops, this is a dream, a wish list for the Bush administration. ... We're not going to put ourselves in a confrontation with the tiger."
The White House said on Friday it had information that Damascus had drawn up an assassination list of Lebanese political leaders, a charge also made by a prominent anti-Syrian Lebanese opposition leader.
Moustapha repeated his country's rejection of accusations that it had such a hit list.
Moustapha said Syria had "no problem" with U.N. verification visits to prove its full withdrawal.
A three-member U.N. team issued a report in May verifying that Syrian forces had pulled out after 29 years. Syrian troops had deployed to Lebanon as part of efforts to stabilize the country during its 1975-1990 civil war.
But they said it was difficult to determine whether plainclothes agents had also left. U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan had been reluctant to return the team, but decided to do so on Friday.
"Actually it's better if they keep on coming ... every fortnight. This is the only way to deal with this (Bush) administration," Moustapha said.
The envoy said suggestions that Syria was fomenting instability and violence in Lebanon to legitimize a redeployment were "stupid and preposterous."
He said Syria would work with whatever political power structure emerged from ongoing elections in Lebanon.
The envoy said Damascus was also doing its best to promote stability in Iraq and ensure foreign fighters did not use Syria as a transit route, for fear this could "provoke" Washington.
"We are not that stupid. We understand what are the ulterior motives of this administration," Moustapha said. "We're not going to give them a pretext on a plate of silver and say we 'will do everything possible to provoke you into attacking Syria."'
U.S. officials have repeatedly accused Syria of undermining its efforts in Iraq and allowing militants to funnel fighters and cash through its territory, a charge Syria rejects.
The ambassador said Syria wanted to renew security and other cooperation with the United States, which had petered out in recent months, and assured officials including President Bush himself of Syria's good intentions.
"I'm continuing to repeat the same message but it's falling on deaf ears," he said.
"The day the Americans want to re-engage with Syria, we are more than willing," he said. "We are a small country. The United States is a world superpower. We don't want to put ourselves in a position in which we are considered as candidates for the next target."