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AFTER THE WAR / USING DIPLOMACY

Syria and U.S. Still Face Core Political Issues

April 27, 2003|Azadeh Moaveni | Times Staff Writer

DAMASCUS, Syria — Efforts by Syria to seal its border with Iraq and prevent smuggling of Iraqi antiquities through its territory are easing tensions with the Bush administration.

However, trickier challenges lie ahead that are expected to keep alive the political conflicts between the United States and Syria. Foremost is Washington's demand that Syria expel extremist Palestinian groups operating here in the Syrian capital and cut ties to the Lebanese militia Hezbollah.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell is expected to press Syria to cease supporting militant groups when he visits Damascus next month. The United States also may demand that Syrian troops withdraw from Lebanon, a Syrian client state.

The redeployment of Syrian forces is a prerequisite to better U.S.-Syria relations, Rep. Tom Lantos of San Mateo, a Democrat and a ranking member of the House International Relations Committee, said Saturday during a visit here.

The drive to alleviate at least some of Washington's concerns is supported by Syrian President Bashar Assad, who is resisting a push among some members of his ruling Baath Party to confront the U.S. more aggressively, analysts here said.

The clearest signal of Syria's receptiveness to U.S. complaints came Friday when authorities in Damascus sent former Iraqi spy chief Farouk Hijazi back into Iraq -- and into the custody of U.S. troops.

Washington had publicly attacked Syria for allegedly granting refuge to Iraqi officials fleeing the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime and for allowing Arab fighters to enter Iraq.

Security forces in Syria also have been closely monitoring the border to ensure that looted Iraqi antiquities don't slip into the country en route to European markets.

"There's no way we're going to allow this to happen in Syria," said Tammam Fakouch, director of antiquities in the Ministry of Culture. "Any pieces we find will go straight to the United Nations for return to the people of Iraq."

A few pieces reportedly have turned up, according to high-end antique dealers. But the government has enough controls in place, mainly a tight law against buying and trading historical artifacts, to discourage a market for the Iraqi pieces in Damascus, Fakouch said.

Syria is seeking a detailed catalog of the stolen artifacts to enable tighter policing.

While these steps have temporarily reassured Washington that Syria appears, in the words of President Bush on April 20, to be "getting the message," analysts are less certain that the two countries can face the core issues ahead with anything short of a diplomatic showdown.

The U.S. lists Syria as a state sponsor of terrorism for its support of Hezbollah activity in Lebanon and its hosting of extremist Palestinian groups -- from major organizations such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad to smaller groups such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine -- who opposed the 1993 Oslo peace accords with Israel.

Washington wants Syria to expel the representatives of these groups, close their offices and cut support for Hezbollah.

Syria argues that Palestinian groups exist in response to Israeli occupation and that the U.S. should resolve the decades-long conflict that drives their armed resistance. The militants distribute only information here, Syrian officials insist, and run their military and logistical operation out of the West Bank and Gaza.

The presence of nearly every Palestinian group in Damascus has been one important facet of Syria's hard-line image as the last bastion of Arab nationalism in the region. But intense pressure from Washington could compel Damascus to send them packing.

"There could be some maneuvering, some flexibility around this issue, particularly if there is agreement on a road map to peace," said Mohammed Muhaffil, a University of Damascus professor.

However, Hezbollah is universally acknowledged as a different matter. The militia remains the only tool by which Syria can press for the return of the Golan Heights, which Israeli troops seized during the 1967 Middle East War.

The militia's attacks on the Israeli border, in an area known as the Shabaa Farms, have been cut back, but without gaining something in return, Syria has little incentive to end political support for Hezbollah or to stop facilitating the transfer of arms to the militia.

Should the United States demand that Syria withdraw its troops from Lebanon, analysts expect Damascus to refuse.

"At this point, Lebanon is part of Syria's strategic depth and Syria can't do without it," said Haithem Keilani, Syria's former ambassador to the U.N. "Especially in the event Israel tries to penetrate Syria through Lebanon."

Syrian officials have pointed out in recent months that their country is willing to accede to a political agreement negotiated with the Palestinian Authority -- provided Israel withdraw to its pre-1967 borders.

The obstacles to a proper rapprochement between Washington and Damascus, analysts here say, need to be resolved with a settlement that addresses the fundamental issues that divide Israel and the Arab states.

"The major hope here is that 'road map' will solve all these problems," Keilani said of an evolving Bush administration proposal for Middle East peace. "Syria is prepared to deal with U.S. demands, but it distinguishes those from demands made on behalf of Israel."

When it comes to resisting U.S. pressure to shut down Hezbollah, Syria can count on Iran, the militia's other main patron. Iranian President Mohammad Khatami dispatched a senior Foreign Ministry official to Damascus last week, with a letter of support to Syria's president.

Khatami plans to make his first visit to Lebanon in early May, around the time of Powell's visit to Syria.

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