Syria Chastises U.S., Warns Israel

Syria said Saturday that relations with the United States were deteriorating because of an Israeli airstrike, and warned it has the right to defend itself if Israel attacks again.

The Foreign Ministry comment came nearly a week after Israeli warplanes bombed a camp outside Damascus on Sunday, saying it was a training camp for the Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad. The group had claimed responsibility for a suicide attack in Israel the day before that left 19 people dead.

"Syria has the right to exercise its right to self-defense ... in all available ways," Syrian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Bushra Kanafani told reporters in Damascus.

She declined to elaborate on what means Syria would use, saying self-defense has different forms.

Kanafani also said relations between Syria and the United States were worse than they had been for years because of U.S. support of Israel.

Separately, The Associated Press has learned from officials involved that Israel's attack on Syrian soil is threatening to derail secret European and U.N. diplomatic efforts to bring the two Mideast enemies back to the negotiating table and could stall a planned Israeli-Hezbollah prisoner swap.

The exploratory diplomatic efforts, which until now have been kept quiet, are the results of a yearlong negotiation for the prisoner swap and an offer this summer from Syrian President Bashar Assad to restart peace talks with Israel that fell apart in March 2000, diplomats said on condition of anonymity.

In other Mideast developments:

  • Israel has modified American-supplied cruise missiles to carry nuclear warheads on submarines, giving the Middle East's only nuclear power the ability to launch atomic weapons from land, air and beneath the sea, according to senior Bush administration and Israeli officials quoted by the Los Angeles Times in a story prepared for its Sunday editions. The newspaper says the "previously undisclosed submarine capability bolsters Israel's deterrence in the event that Iran — an avowed enemy — develops nuclear weapons. It also complicates efforts by the United States and the United Nations to persuade Iran to abandon its suspected nuclear weapons program."
  • Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and his new prime minister fought bitterly Saturday over who should be the new Palestinian security chief, in a deepening dispute that threatened to bring down the Palestinian government appointed less than a week ago. In an earlier argument with Arafat two days ago, Prime Minister Ahmed Qureia hinted he might step down, a possibility that appeared more likely as their fight continued into the night Saturday. Qureia's success is considered crucial to efforts to salvage the U.S.-backed "road map" peace plan.
  • In the Gaza Strip, a Palestinian man was killed Saturday as battles continued in the Rafah refugee camp along the Egyptian border, where Israeli troops were searching for weapons smuggling tunnels.
  • Members of Israel's opposition parties and Palestinian officials met Saturday for informal talks at an isolated resort on the Jordanian shore of the Dead Sea. The unofficial talks, which did not have the backing of the Israeli government, touched on ways to revive peace negotiations and end violence by Palestinian militants.

    Syria presented a motion to the U.N. Security Council calling on the world body to condemn Israel, but the council postponed a vote. The United States has warned it would veto any motion that did not also condemn the suicide bombing.

    "When the United States says that Israel is defending itself when it attacks an abandoned civilian target under untrue pretexts and threatens to use its (U.N.) veto against condemnation ... this will have negative results on relations," she said.

    Kanafani said the camp targeted by Israel was abandoned by Palestinian militants years ago.

    Tensions have been rising in recent months between the United States and Syria, mainly over Iraq. The United States says Syria lets insurgents slip across the border to fight coalition soldiers.

    Kanafani denied those claims, saying it is difficult to control such a long border. She hinted that Syria could help calm the situation in Iraq.

    "Syria has many friends in Iraq and ... we can play a constructive role in the advancement in the chaotic situation in Iraq," she said. "Cutting the dialogue with Syria, accusing Syria of raising problems through people going through the border is not going to help our constructive role in Iraq."

    On Wednesday, Congress gave preliminary approval for sanctions to be imposed on Syria, a move that Western diplomats said could lead to more damaging U.S. measures. The Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act accuses Syria of sponsoring terrorists, seeking weapons of mass destruction and occupying Lebanon with more than 20,000 troops.

    Kanafani said "those who are concerned about punishing Syria in the United States are specific groups who work for Israel first and for the interest of America after that."

    The measure itself will not have much impact on Syria, Kanafani said, adding that U.S.-Syrian trade is less than $400 million a year. Syria, which hosts leaders of Palestinian militant groups, is already under several U.S. restrictions because Washington considers it a sponsor of terrorism.

    Kanafani said Syria wants "a constructive and objective dialogue that takes into consideration our interests and national interests and this is what we are seeking if this is possible with the current American administration."

    She said the United States "seems to want to change the world on its model ... but interfering in domestic problems is not accepted."