WASHINGTON — PRESIDENT Bush's controversial meeting with Syrian President Hafez Assad highlights the strangeness of the United States-led anti-Iraq alliance, and the difficulties in keeping that alliance as cohesive as possible. For most of the 1980s, the US fought Syrian attempts to project its power in the Middle East and, since 1986, it has kept Syria on its list of nations supporting terrorism.
Just last month, with world attention focused on the Persian Gulf, Syria in effect took control of Beirut by helping Lebanese government troops kick a rebel Christian general out of the presidential palace.
Now, Bush is seen smiling for the cameras with the Syrian president, whose reputation for brutality can rival that of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein.
Bush justified Friday's meeting, held at the advice of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, by calling Syria a ``front line'' ally in the struggle to get Iraq out of Kuwait. The president also sought Mr. Assad's support for possible military action against Iraq, which he hopes would include the Syrian contingent of the US-led multinational force.
Before the Geneva meeting, Bush declared that Syria was ``lined up with us with a commitment to force.'' But signals coming out of Syria in recent weeks have indicated otherwise. On Saturday, Syrian Army chief Gen. Hekmat Shehabi said his country was trying to ``cut short any internationalization'' of the conflict, and described Syrian troops' presence in Saudi Arabia as defensive. Furthermore, Syria has yet to send most of the troops it pledged to send to the Gulf. Only 7,500 are in place, out of a promised 20,000.
`Meeting is the message'
A White House statement issued after the Bush-Assad meeting revealed little about what the two leaders said. But the fact of the meeting itself was a victory for Assad, who has sought to warm up relations with the US. ``In the Middle East,'' said Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Arens, ``the meeting is the message.'' Israel was particularly upset by the Bush-Assad t^ete-'a-t^ete president quickly scheduled a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir for next month.
Some US analysts, including some State Department officials, argue that Assad has enough reasons of his own - namely, his longtime personal rivalry with Saddam - to join the anti-Saddam coalition without the US having to sweeten the pot now.
Syria stands to gain much from Iraq's August invasion of Kuwait, such as a great reduction in Iraqi power and the possible demise of Saddam himself. And if Assad plays along with the anti-Saddam alliance, he may be hoping farther down the road for favorable consideration in any Arab-Israeli settlement (such as a return of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights) and possible expansion of economic relations with the US. But despite these factors, ``Damascus might get cold feet'' about taking part in an offensive against Iraq's occupation, says Prof. Michael Hudson of Georgetown University's Center for Contemporary Arab Studies.
``For Syria, the real enemy is Israel, and the US is Israel's patron,'' says Professor Hudson. ``The Syrians aren't ready to take part in a US-led offensive.''
The US's warming relations with Syria have been particularly troubling to specialists on terrorism.
Vincent Cannistraro, the recently-retired head of the CIA's counterterrorism center, fears that history is about to repeat itself. Just as the US kept Iraq off the ``terrorist list'' to serve a temporary policy interest, he says he thinks the US will now take Syria off the list - even though Syria still sponsors terrorist groups.
Syrian acts overlooked
``We are now very anxious to cultivate good relations with Assad, because from a foreign policy view, it's important to have a larger Arab component in the anti-Iraq coalition,'' Mr. Cannistraro said in a meeting with reporters last week.
``And therefore we're overlooking some of the really horrible things that Assad has done and continues to do, and which made him not a terribly different person in character from Saddam Hussein.''
According to a well-placed administration official, the US is not about to take Syria off the terrorist list. In fact, the administration's embarrassment of having kept Iraq off the list until a few months ago - despite its well-documented support and sponsorship of terrorist groups - is precisely why Syria will stay on the list for now, says the official.
There are a lot of people who would urge trading Syrian cooperation on Iraq for its removal from the terrorist list, the official adds, ``but I don't think it would be politically saleable in the United States. There are just too many questions that need to be answered by the Syrians.''
Terrorism on the agenda
When Secretary of State James Baker met with Assad in September, he spent more than half the meeting talking about the terrorism issue, says the official. Bush hinted he would raise the matter in his meeting.
The State Department lists eight terrorist groups based either in Syria or in Syrian-occupied parts of Lebanon. One is Ahmed Jibril's Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command, which is a suspect in the 1988 bombing of Pan Am flight 103.
Syria is also implicated in the 1983 bombing of US Marine barracks in Beirut and the 1984 bombing of the US Embassy annex there, because it allowed the perpetrators, the Iranian-backed Hizbullah, to operate out of Lebanon's Bekaa Valley.