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Angered by Syria, U.S. Wonders How to Change Damascus’ Behavior

May 7, 2003
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Secretary of State Colin Powell may have heard what he wanted to on his recent visit to Syria, but few in Washington are putting much faith in Syrian President Bashar Assad’s words.

Powell returned from Damascus this week with assurances from Assad that he would stop hosting terrorist organizations and would try to constrain the activities of groups like Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

“The clear message to President Bashar Assad was that there is a new situation in the region with the end of” Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq “and with the commitment on the part of the United States and President Bush to go forward” with the “road map” toward Israeli-Palestinian peace, Powell said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.”

Assad “can be a part of positive developments in the region if he chooses to do so,” he added.

But as he made the rounds of TV talk shows Sunday, Powell made it clear that he does not anticipate real changes in Syria’s behavior.

He repeatedly cited previous promises by Assad that had gone unfulfilled, such as agreeing to stop the flow of Iraqi oil through a Syrian pipeline in contravention of U.N. sanctions on Iraq.

Indeed, even as Powell spoke, leaders of the terrorist organizations with headquarters in Damascus denied that they had been ordered to close up shop.

A British-trained ophthalmologist, Assad was expected to be a modernizing force in a country held back for decades by his father’s repressive, Socialist-oriented dictatorship.

But while Syria pledged its support for the United States in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks — Assad reportedly may have saved American lives by sharing intelligence information on Al-Qaida activities in Syria — U.S. officials have been frustrated by the direction of Syrian policy since then.

The tension reached its height during the recent war in Iraq, when Syria allowed military equipment and irregular fighters to stream into Iraq and may have offered shelter to top officials of Saddam’s regime.

In addition, some reports claimed that Saddam had moved biological and chemical arms to Syria before the war so they wouldn’t be detected by U.N. inspectors or seized by U.S. troops.

Astonished by Assad’s recent behavior at a time when other Arab states clearly realized who was calling the shots in the Middle East, some have speculated that Assad seeks to assume Saddam’s mantle as the self-proclaimed defender of Arab honor against Western, pro-Israel outsiders.

Many in Washington now believe that a policy of offering Assad inducements to change his behavior has not worked, and that it’s time to take a tougher approach.

Powell’s trip established strong requirements for Syrian performance. But Powell was vague on what would happen if Syria continued to flout the United States.

“We’re in a situation right now where we want to see proof,” one State Department official said. “If not, there are options available to us.”

The list of demands on Syria include ending support for terrorism, turning over Iraqi officials who took refuge in Damascus, cutting ties with the Lebanese terrorist group Hezbollah and stopping the pursuit and development of weapons of mass destruction.

The Bush administration also is pushing issues on Israel’s agenda, such as pressuring Syria to end its occupation of Lebanon and seeking information on Israeli soldiers kidnapped by Hezbollah along the Israel-Lebanon border.

A State Department official said the Syrians were non-committal about a timetable for withdrawing from Lebanon, but Powell “underscored the Syrian presence in Lebanon should not be open-ended.”

The Syrians also said they would look into the case of the Israeli soldiers, but made no promises.

Mark Heller, principle research associate at Tel Aviv University’s Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, said the pressure on Syria now is too great for it simply to finesse the issue as it has in the past.

“Whether or not the United States and Syria avoid a more serious confrontation therefore depends, to a greater degree than in the past, on the ability of the Syrian leadership to accommodate American concerns,” Heller said. “And that depends on Assad’s ability to break with his pattern of behavior.”

Once dismissed by the organized Jewish community and opposed by both the Clinton and Bush administrations, the bill now has become the underpinning of Bush administration pressure on Syria.

The bill would ban military and dual-use exports to Syria and ban financial assistance to U.S. businesses that invest in Syria.

It also would ask the president to impose two additional penalties from among several options, such as restricting the movement of Syrian diplomats in the United States, prohibiting U.S. exports to Syria or preventing U.S. businesses from investing and operating in Syria.

The Bush administration has stopped short of endorsing the bill, but has made it clear that it could support it if Syria doesn’t change its ways.

The administration has “moved from opposing it to where it’s part of the tool box,” one Democratic congressional staffer said. “We’re in that phase of pressure-filled diplomacy where the markers have been laid down and we are waiting for performance.”

But sanctions aren’t the only option at Powell’s disposal if Syria does not comply. Israel also could be allowed to handle the Hezbollah problem itself.

“There is no doubt that Israel would like to deal effectively with Hezbollah and is currently being held back,” said Avi Jorisch, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “The U.S. administration is presently not giving Israel the green light, but that could certainly change.”

If Syria complies with at least some of the U.S. demands, analysts say it might be taken off the State Department’s list of states that sponsor terrorism, or it could be rewarded with U.S. pressure on Israel to restart peace talks over the Golan Heights.

State Department officials downplay that possibility, noting that Israel and the United States share many of the same frustrations with Syria, and that their diplomatic efforts in any case are focused on solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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