Syria's credibility as Arab leader at risk. Terrorism charges hurt Assad's image but unlikely to isolate him

Syria's credibility as the Arab world's most respected radical member has been seriously damaged by Britain's accusation that Syria engages in state terrorism, Arab and Western analysts say. However, to say that Syria would be diplomatically isolated within the Arab world by Britain's severance of ties with Damascus Oct. 24 would be incorrect, diplomats caution. Britain broke off diplomatic relations on grounds that Syria was involved in a plot to blow up an Israeli airliner in April.

But Syria will be politically diminished -- a painful development for a nation that has painted itself as the champion of the Arab cause and defender of Arab dignity in the face of Israeli aggression, and an opponent of US efforts to broaden the Mideast peace process.

``[Syrian President] Hafez Assad has a grand notion of his importance and the importance of his country,'' says one Western diplomat who has served in Syria and other Arab states. ``In psychological terms, what the British have done has tremendous impact. They have ruptured the image of Syria as a powerful, radical state that is different from Libya.''

Libya's Col. Muammar Qaddafi has not been taken seriously for some time by most Arab regimes. But Syria's autocratic President Assad has earned respect as a power broker and defender of hard-line Arab nationalist principles, a leader who has forced the West to deal with him.

It has been widely acknowledged in the Arab world for years that Syria was willing to use terror -- sometimes against diplomats of other Arab states -- to achieve political ends. The United States routinely classifies Syria as a state that sponsors terrorist groups. But Britain's move marks the first time a Western nation has backed such an accusation with a complete break in ties.

``This obviously brings added pressure on the Syrians to control radical groups operating from Damascus and the Syrian-controlled Bekaa [region] in Lebanon,'' says one senior Jordanian official. ``. . .I think the Syrians will work harder now to restore their standing and to gain suport in the Arab world.''

British Foreign Secretary Sir Geoffrey Howe announced the break in ties immediately after a British judge imposed a 45-year sentence on Nezar Hindawi, the Jordanian citizen found guilty of trying to plant a bomb on an Israeli airliner at Heathrow Airport in April. Sir Geoffrey said Britain had conclusive evidence of Mr. Hindawi's links to Syrian intelligence. Britian ordered the Syrian Embassy in London to close and said it would close its own embassy in Damascus.

Syria's response was immediate and vehement. Syrian officials repeated their denials of any involvement in the Hindawi plot or in acts of terror. On Friday, Damascus ordered all British diplomats to leave within a week and ordered the British Council cultural offices to close. In the only move that will cause financial damage to Britain, Syria closed airspace and ports to British traffic.

But although Syria appealed to fellow Arab states for support and urged a trade boycott of Britain, few Arab analysts believed such action would be taken. In contrast to the US bombing of Libya on April 15, which brought immediate condemnation from Arabs angered by a Western power attacking any Arab nation, initial reaction to the British move against Syria was confused and muted.

By Sunday, most Arab governments, with the exception of Libya, had failed to comment directly on the British action. Libya, a Syrian ally, said it too would ban British use of its airspace. Iran, another Syrian ally, also voiced support for Syria and said that Syria was the victim of a British-US-Israeli plot.

Some Arab newspapers also endorsed the Syrian charge that the Hindawi incident was a frame-up by US and Israeli intelligence; but others merely deplored the severity of the British response, predicting it would make any further progress toward a Middle East peace conference even less likely. ``One can also not exclude the possibility that such hostility against Syria and the Arab world by the West could set the stage for Israel to commit aggression against Syria,'' the Jordan Times said. ``If this happens, it most probably will be the final blow to all peace efforts in the region.''

A sharp divergence between public statements of support for Syria and condemnation of Britain and private satisfaction that Syria was being taken to task was evident in conversations with officials and others.

``If the Syrians really were behind it, what else could the British do?'' asked a Jordanian journalist. This ques tion was echoed privately by Jordanian moderates.

Syrian officials over the weekend seemed determined to limit the damage caused by the British move. The US immediately withdrew its ambassador to Damascus, and Canada took the milder step of calling its ambassador home for consultations. Both men left Damascus Sunday. Attention in Syria then focused on the likely response of the West Europeans. Diplomats here say Syria is apprehensive about the outcome of the scheduled meeting of European Community foreign ministers in Luxembourg today. Howe has said he will ask for diplomatic support from Britain's 11 EC partners.

``The Spanish, French, and Italians all have reason to be mad at the Syrians,'' one Western diplomat said, alluding to terrorist acts carried out in those countries. ``The Syrians can't be sure they won't act.'' Reports from Europe said European officials were divided over how to react, with some saying Britain's response was too harsh and others, such as the Italian defense minister, saying that Europe was obliged to take a stand.

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