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The World | U.N. ULTIMATUM ON IRAQ

Syria's Surprise Vote Could Be an Eye-Opener for Iraqi Leader

November 09, 2002|John Daniszewski | Times Staff Writer

DAMASCUS, Syria -- Everyone was expecting a tough U.N. resolution on Iraqi weapons inspections to pass Friday, but the shock for Baghdad must have come when Syria, the only Arab country on the Security Council, signed on at the last minute to make the vote unanimous.

The surprise "yes" from Fayssal Mekdad, the Syrian envoy at the United Nations, sent a clear signal to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein that few--if any--Arab states will rally to his side if Iraq evades or defies the U.N. arms inspectors who plan to travel soon to Baghdad, observers said.

A long and intense decision-making process by Damascus, coupled with the high-level lobbying of Syrian President Bashar Assad by world leaders such as U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan and French President Jacques Chirac, persuaded Syria to back the resolution rather than abstain, as had been widely expected.

In the end, analysts and government officials here in the Syrian capital said, Syria decided that the resolution was balanced and that voting for it would help preserve the credibility of the Security Council. And, they said, Assad and his advisors realized that a symbolic abstention by their country wouldn't help Iraq much but would leave Syria seeming dangerously out of step with the world community.

"Syria does not want to alienate the United States right now," said political analyst Murhaf Jouejati of the Washington-based Middle East Institute think tank. "But this does not mean Syria will bend over backward for the United States, either."

He said Syria remains "vehemently opposed" to a U.S. war against Iraq but saw the resolution as the best way to avoid that outcome by giving Baghdad a chance to comply fully with the disarmament demands.

Immediately after the vote, Mekdad offered up Syria's reasoning. He said his country had received assurances from permanent Security Council members that the resolution "would not be used as a pretext to strike Iraq and does not constitute a basis for any automatic strikes."

Under the resolution, he said, Iraq's sovereignty and territorial integrity would be preserved.

Recalling that Assad's late father, Hafez, had joined the anti-Iraq coalition in the 1991 Persian Gulf War and even sent troops against Iraq, Jouejati said the situation today is different: Hussein has not invaded any country, and even the accusations that he has developed weapons of mass destruction are in dispute.

What was important for the Syrian government this time, he said, was not to dilute the Security Council's "international credibility" by allowing the United States to carry out attacks on its own. Under Friday's resolution, Washington is expected to consult with the council again before beginning any military operation against Iraq.

The resolution itself had been considerably "mitigated" during the last eight weeks of negotiations to remove any automatic trigger for war, said Georges Jabbour, a political analyst and longtime advisor to Hafez Assad.

"What we are really witnessing is not Syria's change of attitude but America's change of attitude," he said.

Assuming that Iraq cooperates with the new inspections and is not harboring secret weapons of mass destruction, war will be averted, he said.

During the last two months, Jabbour said, President Bush came to realize that most of the world doesn't consider war against Iraq a necessity. By joining in the milder resolution, Syria endorsed a compromise that both "preserved the face of the United States and preserved the state of peace in the region," Jabbour said.

He noted that Syria had been cooperating with the United States in the war on terrorism during the last year by turning over to the United States intelligence it had about Al Qaeda terrorist operations and suspects. The vote on the U.N. resolution, he said, was another example of Syria's moderation and would confound those U.S. politicians who wish to portray Syria as extremist, he said.

"This will isolate the American extremists who would like to see Syria in difficulty," he said.

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