ABC News special probes Syria's growing influence

The United States did not take Syria seriously enough for many years -- and is now paying a high price for that neglect. That's both the premise and the conclusion of ABC News Closeup: War and Power -- The Rise of Syria (ABC, Thursday, June 14, 8-9 p.m.), an incisive documentary about the Middle East nation. Although seemingly balanced, the show tilts just a bit in Syria's favor, as there is much more stress on President Hafez Assad's power than on his abuse of power.

''War and Power,'' anchored by Peter Jennings, reported by John Cooley and Chris Harper, and written by John Fielding and Christopher Isham, all under the aegis of executive producer Pamela Hill, delves into several areas: It explores not only Syria's recent history, in which it managed to emerge as the dominant Arab power in the Middle East, and its present, in which it has seemingly won control of Lebanon, but also its grand historic past. The future -- and Assad's ambitions -- add a chilling aspect to this study of the transformation of Syria into what Mr. Jennings calls ''a powerful, modern military nation ruled with an iron hand by a minority group.''

According to Jennings in the broadcast, Syria is very difficult to penetrate. Although this broadcast allegedly marks the first time an American network has been granted extended access, ''even so our coverage, particularly of the military, was restricted,'' Jennings admits.

Although only about half of the documentary was available for previewing at press time, ''War and Power'' seems to be an earnest attempt to probe the sequence of events that has led to what appears to be a US humiliation in Lebanon. Peter Jennings's interview with Mr. Assad marks the first time in two years that a network news organization has obtained a meeting with the Syrian President.

Jennings treads warily in his interview with Assad. There are more probing interviews with the Syrian minister of defense and foreign minister and, in Lebanon, with Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, Shiite leader Nabih Berri, and President Amin Gemayel. Pro-Assad interviewees are allowed to make some outrageous claims about the achievements of their dictatorial leader. It seems to be the main purpose of both Assad and the men around him to convince Jennings -- and the world at large -- that despite Assad's precarious health, Syria is not a country out of control.

Whatever the political situation, the footage of Syria itself, by Jeremy Stavenhagen, will have viewers yearning for a time when tourism to that country is again encouraged. Meanwhile, ''War and Power'' is excellent preparation for a fuller understanding of the power struggle in the Middle East -- and the current high-riding status of Syria.

A chat with Peter Jennings

''President Assad of Syria takes a slightly plaintive approach to America,'' says Peter Jennings, anchor man of ''ABC World News Tonight.'' ''He wants us to take him more seriously.''

We are lunching at Shun Lee West, a Chinese restaurant close by ABC News headquarters here, where Jennings is still working on the Syrian documentary. He manipulates his chopsticks with a cosmopolitan dexterity that matches his dapper , world-class appearance.

Canadian-born Jennings, like some Hollywood actors, seems larger than life -- he is tall, handsome, articulate. But, unlike many Hollywood actors, he is also knowledgeable and seemingly eager to share his expert information with those around him. One has the feeling that if he had not made journalism his career, the diplomatic service would have been his home base.

''I asked Assad what mistakes he felt the US had made in Lebanon and he said: 'You Americans have a perfectly legitimate role to play in Lebanon and a more legitimate role to play in the Middle East. But you made the mistake of coming to us with your gunboats.' He reflects a general Syrian determination to be taken seriously, to be seen as less than a caricature, to explain themselves to Americans.

''Syria is a nation with an incredible history. It's a nation which at its grass-roots level is quite pro-American.''

So why has it become so closely allied with the Soviets?

''I asked the defense minister at one point why he took all those arms from the Soviet Union. He said: 'Israel has a superpower -- the US -- and I've got to have a superpower, too.'

''But when I asked him, 'Would you change superpowers?' he answered, 'Why not? Why not?' ''

Did Mr. Jennings get the impression that Syria wants not only to dominate Lebanon, but that it wants Lebanon as part of Greater Syria again?

He shakes his head. ''No, I didn't. But one senior political aide to the President of Syria once said to me: 'You have to understand one thing. While we don't want to control Lebanon altogether, we don't want anybody else to control it.' There really is no need for Syria to have Lebanon physically. Among other things it would simply extend their confronation border with Israel. There'd be no buffer zone. . . . What they actually want is a weak Lebanon, a Lebanon that cannot threaten them and a Lebanon through which a powerful Israel cannot travel.''

Did the Syrians place many restrictions on Jennings for the Assad interview?

''We were asked to put questions in advance, but then I just asked him what I felt like when we got talking. Although he understands English, he answers in Arabic, so there had to be translations. You lose the opportunity for debate in this kind of interview.''

Is it possible that the US and Syria can work together in the future?

''We have to work together. Not to the extent, perhaps, that the US and Israel work together, but if you don't include Syria in the ongoing peace process in the Middle East, there will be no peace. The Syrians are too powerful , have too much influence, and they are armed by the Soviets, although I do not consider them clients of the Soviets.''

Mr. Jennings feels that the US made a great mistake in ignoring Syria during the Lebanon-Israel peace talks last year. ''We have tended to see Syria much more as a factor of the East-West struggle than as part of the Middle East equation. The key factor is Syrian nationalism, Syrian Arabism, Syrian self-respect. And I believe this administration has not been as determined to see Syria in the Arab context as in the East-West context.''

Did Jennings see many signs of the Soviet influence in his visits to Damascus?

''Very little. It's difficult to get near the SAM-5 sites, which are run by the Russians. They have kept a low profile in the country. You rarely ever see Soviet soldiers on the streets, and usually they are dressed in uniforms without Soviet markings. They know they are not terribly popular.''

Based on long years in the Middle East, as well his recent journeys to Syria, if Peter Jennings were president or secretary of state, how would he improve US-Syrian relations?

He chuckles and the diplomat in him makes itself evident. ''First of all, I'm very lucky. I am constitutionally unqualified to be president. But if I had to make an overall judgment, I think if we enlarged the opportunities for a dialogue with the Syrians, they'd jump at it.''

How would he respond to those who tend to distrust Syrians as symbolic of the worst Middle East stereotypes?

''I would continue to distrust them. But that doesn't mean I wouldn't do business with them. The Assad regime has cracked down ruthlessly with all opposition -- there were 20,000 assassinated at Hama. They are cunning and shrewd and perhaps ruthless. But it's in our interest to try to deal with Syria in order to bring peace to the region. Just as it is in our interest to deal with Iran because we want peace in the Persian Gulf, so Iran won't be a ripe apple for Soviet plucking. But it doesn't mean you have to trust them.''

Finally, Jennings feels that there is too much emphasis on the anchor in television news. ''Anchors are just representatives of our news divisions. We have to have certain skills, of course, but I am not convinced that the audience is sitting around waiting for an anchor person to show up. I think they are waiting for the news, handled with accuracy.''

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