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War, U.S.' Greater Influence in Region Put Syria on the Spot

May 04, 2003|Azadeh Moaveni | Times Staff Writer

DAMASCUS, Syria — When the United States was pushing the U.N. Security Council to take action against Iraq last fall, Syria joined the unanimous vote demanding that Saddam Hussein surrender any weapons of mass destruction. Yet, according to U.S. officials, Syria helped ship sophisticated military hardware to the Iraqi regime.

The war in Iraq and the growing power of the U.S. in the region have put Syria on the spot. Seeking to strengthen its troubled economy, Syria wants to reach out to the West. Yet for domestic reasons, it must continue to carry the torch of Arab nationalism and support anti-Israel groups that are considered terrorists by the U.S.

It is an uncomfortable position for the government of President Bashar Assad, 37, who replaced his late father nearly three years ago. He tried to resolve some of those contradictions when he met with Colin L. Powell in Damascus on Saturday, assuring the secretary of State that Syria has begun to close the Damascus offices of extremist groups.

Surrounded by U.S.-friendly regimes and Arab states that have made uneasy peace with Israel, Syria holds a lonely vigil at the head of the hard-line Arab states. That coterie -- abandoned by most Arab rulers who view its ideology as outdated -- is struggling to maintain its political relevance with the fall of Hussein's regime.

Pursuing the familiar path of Arab nationalism now carries considerably more risks for this nation. But analysts here say the Syrian president, as well the old guard loyal to the legacy of his father, Hafez Assad, believe it holds the prospect of reward as well.

The younger Assad's government can shore up its domestic popularity, and earn the admiration of Arabs across the region, by standing up to the United States over issues close to the Arab cause.

"Syria could end up having the strongest position in the region, because if you accept being a satellite in the orbit of others, you're nothing," said Imad Shuebi, an analyst who teaches at Damascus University. But by behaving as a rival "and not an enemy, in a competitive field, you'll be dealt with as a sovereign power."

But rather than simply restating its old policies with stale rhetoric, Shuebi said, the government is trying to refashion its diplomacy to appear more dynamic and constructive. It is doing so by trying to build better ties with coalition members Britain and Spain, "the two most desirable allies in Europe," he said.

Syria is also using its seat on the Security Council to push for a declaration of the Middle East as a zone free of weapons mass destruction, an initiative designed to counter Washington's allegation that Syria possesses chemical weapons and put Israel, which is believed to have nuclear weapons, on the spot.

Repackaging of the government's policies, however, won't protect Syria from the risks they entail.

The government here is convinced that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will not negotiate a return of the Golan Heights, which Israeli troops seized during the 1967 Middle East War, and that the Bush administration will not broker a peace between the two nations. For those reasons, Damascus sees little incentive to entirely cut its support to Palestinian militant groups and to the Hezbollah militia in Lebanon.

"Syria is not likely to submit to demands -- these are an expression of colonialism, and will not work," said Nabil Sukkar, a former World Bank economist.

At the same time, the regime is worried that its policies could prompt more than warnings from Washington, and that short-term measures, such as sealing Syria's border with Iraq to prevent the entry of former Iraqi officials, will only temporarily alleviate American pressure.

Damascus is already struggling to cope with the economic consequences of the war. The oil pipeline from the Iraqi city of Basra that once pumped an estimated 150,000 barrels a day to Syria has been shut off, preventing Assad's government from exporting an equivalent amount of oil to earn an estimated $500 million a year.

Iraq was a major trade partner, and Syrian economists worry that its market will be off-limits to their nation's exporters as long as the American military controls Iraqi affairs. Factories that were built to supply the Iraqi market will probably have to shut down.

If tensions with Washington persist, the U.S. could levy economic sanctions against Syria and pressure international lending agencies to cut off funds. While such sanctions alone might not create an economic problem, as there is little trade between the two countries, a diplomatic campaign against Syria could discourage foreign investment.

"The effect would be mostly psychological, by putting Syria in a bad light," Sukkar said.

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