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Syria Works to Polish Its Image

Arab nation opposes war with Iraq but supported U.N. arms inspections. Its young president has made overtures to the West.

February 20, 2003|John Daniszewski | Times Staff Writer

DAMASCUS, Syria — If there's any Middle Eastern government with reason to feel nervous about a U.S. invasion of Iraq -- besides Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's -- it is probably here in Syria.

War next door could bring not only sharp economic pain -- Syria could lose its sweetheart deal for cheap Iraqi oil -- but also the risk of social unrest, waves of refugees and a chance that biological or chemical releases could spill across the border, analysts here say.

Beyond that, the government here knows that some influential Western opinion-makers and politicians think of Syria as little more than Iraq II, painting it as a dictatorship bent on supporting terrorism, suppressing human rights and acquiring weapons of mass destruction. The fear is that hawks in the West on the issue of Iraq would not mind someday leaning on Syria too.

But rather than retreat into a defensive shell, Syrian President Bashar Assad has been laboring to shore up his nation's image, renew friendships in Europe and Russia and mount a diplomatic offensive to solidify the Arab consensus against military action.

"War against Iraq would have a direct impact on our economy," Assad argued in December while visiting London. "It would widen the gap between the Arabs and the West, set us back decades and greatly stimulate terrorism."

The most visible symbol of Syria's cooperation with the West was its surprising vote on the U.N. Security Council in November to support a tough new round of Iraqi arms inspections.

But the 37-year-old Assad -- who came to power in 2000, shortly after the death of his father, President Hafez Assad -- has been reaching out in other ways, diplomats here say. The moves include providing intelligence on terrorism to the U.S., such as sharing information gained from interrogating Mohammed Haydar Zammar, an alleged recruiter of the Sept. 11 terrorists who is now in Syrian custody.

Bashar Assad's government has also appointed fresh faces to argue Syria's case to the world community and reined in violent incidents along Israel's border with Lebanon, a Syrian client state.

Assad's new spokeswoman, Bouthaina Shabaan, is upfront in saying her country has an image problem.

The picture of Syria held by many in the West is "almost the inverse of the reality," she argued. Rather than supporting terrorism, she asserted, Syria has been fighting Islamic militants of the Al Qaeda type for decades. And rather than wanting to acquire weapons of mass destruction, she said, Syria wants to rid the region of them.

She also denies her nation is unalterably opposed to Israel, saying Syria wants the Middle East's agony ended and offers peace, security and normal ties if Israel withdraws to its pre-1967 borders, restoring to the Arabs the formerly Syrian Golan Heights and other territories.

To a reporter strolling the shady stone alleys of Damascus, lined with its ancient churches and mosques, quaint antiques shops and busy cafes dispensing Lebanese wine, strong Turkish coffee and Oriental pastries, Syria does feel an oasis in a turbulent part of the globe.

Because of the nation's secular government, this capital recalls an era when the Arab street did not seem so at war with Western ideas and was less infused with religious zealotry. Cars from the 1950s and '60s -- old Mercedes and Chevrolets and Plymouths with huge tail fins -- drive by, reinforcing a sense of a time warp. A stagnant socialist economy, one of the things Assad says he wants to change, has kept people nursing along old jalopies.

Compared with regimes in the Persian Gulf states or even Jordan and Egypt, Syria's government keeps overt appeals to religion out of public life. Christians and Muslims abide in relative peace. Women who do not wear veils or men who smoke or drink alcohol in public, even during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, are not demonized. And the margins of political and economic freedom have widened a little, as witnessed by new TV programs and private newspapers that criticize government decisions and poke fun at the country's Alawite Muslim elite.

"I'll tell you the truth," said Pierre Ashkar, a craftsman in Damascus' Christian quarter, putting out wood inlaid tables for export to Europe and the U.S. on the street where St. Paul is said to have found his faith two millenniums ago. "This is a good country. People can live well here. And there is peace."

Of course, part of that peace is due to a tightly controlled system, in which multiple security forces limit dissent. There was a revolt against the government by the Islamic-extremist Muslim Brotherhood, but the dissidents were defeated in 1982 with iron-fisted tactics, and the country has been quiet internally since.

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