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

Times Staff Writer

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 That coterie -- abandoned by most Arab rulers who view its ideology as outdated -- is struggling to maintain its political relevance with the fall of Hussein's regime.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.

Damascus is seeking an agreement with the European Union that would facilitate trade and assist the country's transition to a more open, market economy. That pact is linked to improvements in Syria's human rights record and may falter on the government's hesitation to safeguard freedom of speech. Human rights groups have recommended the release of prisoners as an important first step.

The process of adapting to a changed region is a challenge made even more complicated by internal fractures within the Syrian regime. Since taking office, the inexperienced president has struggled to assert his control over a closed and secretive system controlled by powerful old-guard groups loyal to his father.

Some argue that the president's drive to reform the system has been a success unrecognized by the West. "There is no old guard; they've all been neutralized," said Shuebi, the Damascus University analyst. "The president is now the strongest man in a system. Maybe this isn't tangible from outside, but from here it's incredibly concrete."

Assad's supporters say his administrative reforms, such as a mandatory retirement age of 62 for civil servants, have been effective in weeding the old guard out of the government.

But the pace of private-sector economic reform has been very slow, and economists attribute this to the entrenched resistance from some military officers and ruling Baath Party officials who are accustomed to kickbacks from the state-run economy.

"There's domestic opposition to reform because there are many benefiting from the status quo," Sukkar said.

Western diplomats point out that steps such as the mandatory retirement do not go far enough, and sometimes even backfire. The government was forced to rehire many retirees, for example, after it found institutions unable to cope with the gaps in experience.

"Bashar is definitely not in full control, and has had lots of difficulties in consolidating his power," said a Western diplomat in Damascus who requested anonymity. "Not the least being that he was put in power by these very figures whose influence he's now trying to curb."

Even if Assad manages to consolidate power behind the scenes, the official Syrian position on peace with Israel and other well-known issues is unlikely to change dramatically.

Assad's public face, from fierce speeches in Arab League meetings to his domestic statements, suggests he is committed to the uncompromising Arab nationalism of his father.

The president's lack of political experience -- he was an ophthalmologist only groomed for succession after the 1994 death of his older brother, Basil -- makes him collaborate heavily with old hands like Foreign Minister Farouk Shareh in crafting policy.

The slow pace of internal change matches Syria's caution in pursuing its regional role after the war in Iraq. Many analysts here believe that economic and political progress are inexorably linked to Washington and how it chooses to deal with Syria in the months ahead.

"We can't speak about Syria anymore without its relation to the United States," said Mohammed Muhaffil, a Damascus University professor and leading intellectual. "Everything here has been politicized by the American position."

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