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In US 'war on terror,' Syria is foe – and friend

US-Syria relations will be jolted if a visa regulation passed last week becomes law.

By Special to The Christian Science Monitor / May 14, 2002



DAMASCUS, SYRIA

In the post-Sept. 11 world, US perceptions of Syria teeter between new ally in the "war on terrorism" and traditional enemy of stability in the Middle East.

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Since Sept. 11, Syrian information has been instrumental in catching militant Islamists around the world, say US officials. But at the same time, Syria's hatred of Israel – and the Jewish state's own "war on terrorism," directed at militant Palestinian organizations – has created a difficult balancing act for those who would seek better relations between the United States and Syria.

Even as the US prepares for a landmark Texas dialogue between Syrian and American intellectuals, businessmen and diplomats next week, a bill passed by Congress last week threatens to derail this mini-summit. The bill proposes the withholding of visas from citizens of countries considered sponsors of terrorism – a category that includes Syria.

"If the president signs the act, we will not go, as it will be an insult to our mission and would render it senseless. There's no sense in going to try and convince those that already believe we are guilty," says Mohammed Aziz Shukri, a professor of law at Damascus University who is among 10 prominent Syrians scheduled to attend the May 20 - 22 gathering at Rice University in Houston.

Relations run hot and cold

The spat is symbolic of the complicated relationship that exists between Washington and Damascus, that alternates between periods of wary cooperation and icy tension. Syria is classified by the State Department as a state sponsor of terrorism for supporting Palestinian groups opposed to the Middle East peace process, such as Islamic Jihad and Hamas, as well as Lebanon's Hizbullah organization. Syria says it rejects terrorism but backs groups that resist Israeli occupation of Arab land.

In the wake of Sept. 11, Syria cooperated with the CIA in passing on information on Islamist radicals suspected of having connections with the Al Qaeda network of Osama bin Laden. Damascus has little sympathy for Islamist militants, perceiving them as a potential threat to the secular regime. Many Islamist radicals arrested in Europe and the US after the Sept. 11 attacks are believed to have been identified from information provided by Damascus.

A new thaw

There were indications that, despite their differences, the relationship between Damascus and Washington was beginning to warm. In January, two congressional delegations and several American officials visited Damascus and held talks with Syria's youthful President Bashar al-Assad. Syria's relationship with the US has been bedeviled by a host of factors. Its strong stance against Israel, its backing of groups that Washington considers engaged in terrorism, its suspected acquisition of chemical and biological weapons, and the alleged smuggling of oil from neighboring Iraq in breach of United Nations sanctions have all caused diplomatic troubles.

"We are concerned about Syrian advances in its indigenous CW [chemical weapons] infrastructure [and believe Syria is] pursuing development of biological weapons and is able to produce at least small amounts of biological warfare agents," said Undersecretary of State James Bolton in a speech last week that listed Syria, Libya, and Cuba as "rogue states." Such accusations, however, enrage many Syrians.

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