Arabs Would Keep a Leash on the Dogs of War

They question US motives for any strike on Iraq - and worry the US will alienate its friends in the region.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

When the American-led Gulf War coalition lined up in 1991 to expel Iraq's invading troops from Kuwait, Syrian armor and soldiers took their place among the allies. The Syrians trained for chemical attack, sweated in the desert, and did as their allied commanders ordered, though in the end they didn't fire a single shot.

Egypt was there, too, and Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf friends of America. But the fact that Syria, the most strident Arab enemy of Israel, was lined up alongside Israel's best friend, the United States, showed the breadth of support for US policy against Iraq.

But now as the drums of war beat again - especially in Washington and London - Arab states this time say military strikes against Iraq will be counterproductive and question US motives.

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America is seen in Arab eyes as too eager to pull the trigger.

"The diplomacy went on for six months in 1991, and the Arabs did their best [to avoid war]," says Fayez Sayegh, the head of the Syrian Arab News Agency.

"When diplomatic means were no use, Arabs armies helped liberate Kuwait. But this time diplomacy is still available, and only 10 days old. "So we believe that if a strike takes place now, this was a decision that was made before the crisis began."

Arab and Western analysts say that Syria views the standoff with Iraq through the prism of the faltering Arab-Israeli peace process. Talks between Syria and Israel have been defunct for two years. Many Syrians argue the Clinton administration is using Iraq to divert attention from Israel's reluctance to make peace.

Washington denies that it has any objective other than forcing Iraq to comply with United Nations Security Council resolutions. These require full and unfettered access for UN inspectors to suspected weapons sites. Iraq has said that sensitive "presidential" sites are off limits.

Syria doesn't see the same threat the US does. "After seven years under boycott and embargo, ... starvation and UN inspections, Saddam Hussein can't pose a danger to any of his neighbors," Mr. Sayegh says. "America is creating this threat for its own strategic aims."

Says a Western diplomat: "The eagerness to consult and include Syria in 1991 is contrasted negatively with today's [US] readiness to strike Saddam Hussein. The Syrians resent all this, that the cards have become so completely shuffled."

The stated US aims of denying Saddam Hussein weapons of mass destruction and preventing Iraq from threatening its neighbors may be legitimate, the diplomat adds, "but how can a military strike ensure that? People here argue that a different benchmark should be set up, in which Iraq would be told 'don't use such weapons, and don't threaten your neighbors, or else.' "

With a diplomatic flurry under way - UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan is looking to expand the oil-for-food deal with Iraq, "technical assessment" meetings are being held with UN experts in Iraq, and diplomats from many countries are seeking a solution in Baghdad - some wonder how to justify an immediate strike.

"I don't fully understand why [the Americans] are are pushing so hard now," says another Western diplomat, who asked not to be named. "I can see that Iraqis will be killed, and not too many weapons sites will be nailed - and we are uniting Arabs [against the West] more than they were before."

Syrian analysts agree that this will be the fallout here, if a military option is used before diplomacy is exhausted.

"Syria would have allied itself with the devil in 1991 to liberate Kuwait," says Muhammad Aziz Shukri, a professor of International Law at Damascus University. "But today the situation has changed. Saddam Hussein is not a threat to anybody. The only loser in a military strike will be the Iraqi people. If [America] thinks they are weakening Saddam Hussein, they are wrong - his people will rally around him."

"He might have biological weapons, but so does Israel, so does the US," Mr. Aziz Shukri says. "I have to ask why Iraq is singled out for punishment."

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