Syrian foreign minister reflects on war in the Arab neighborhood

President Bush's support among Arab nations is far from solid, even in a place like Syria that has a long history of uneasy relations with Iraq.

In a 90-minute interview earlier this month with Foreign Minister Farouq al-Sharaa, I sensed that while he was glad that Syria, a Security Council member, voted for the Council's recent resolution mandating tough inspections in Iraq, a large part of Syria's motivation in casting that vote was its desire to hold Washington back from launching any hasty or unilateral attack against Iraq.

The resolution "does not give the right to the US or anyone to use force automatically," Mr. Sharaa said. He based that assessment on verbal assurances he had received from Secretary of State Colin Powell, though he said he understood those assurances did not constitute a firm guarantee.

Sharaa said he was well aware that Syria's vote for the resolution sparked strong criticism from many Arab nationalists. But he argued that Syria hoped its vote would serve the best interests of "the Iraqi people" - which he differentiated from those of the Iraqi regime. He also said the aim of Syria's vote was to strengthen the role of the UN and international law.

His 18 years as foreign minister have spanned the presidencies of Hafez al-Asad, who died in 2000, and of Bashar al-Asad who succeeded his father that year. During his time in office, Sharaa has helped steer Syria through many tense confrontations with Israel regarding Lebanon, through Damascus's participation in the US-led coalition that liberated Kuwait in 1991, and then through nine years of direct negotiations at - and following - the historic 1991 Middle East peace conference in Madrid. At the launch of those talks, Sharaa cut a combative figure.

But since then he and his team have come to engage very seriously with the challenge of making a lasting peace with Israel. (The talks ran aground in April 2000, and have not resumed.)

Regarding Iraq, Sharaa and his government colleagues have maintained close relations with many portions of the Iraqi opposition over the years. He indicated to me that Syria would not mourn the end of Saddam Hussein's regime, but he expressed clear fears that an American- initiated war against Hussein would inflict a heavy cost on ordinary Iraqis.

"We have seen what happened in Afghanistan," he said. "There were so many civilians killed there, and the Americans don't seem to care. In Iraq, the casualties would be much more, because the population density is much greater.... To be frank, the Americans don't see the difference between the Iraqi people and the leadership."

He added that "Arabs and Muslims" saw this same lack of discrimination in many aspects of Washington's policy toward the Muslim world, especially in the frequent imposition of sanctions on Muslim countries. "These are all seen as anti-Muslim and anti-Arab," Sharaa said.

He warned that if the US does go ahead and attack Iraq without an international mandate, "then all the Arabs would stand against the Americans - and the Americans would fail in reshaping the Iraqi regime to their liking since even inside Iraq, the opposition to the Americans would be overwhelming."

He rejected accusations made by Israeli and American officials that Syria provides operational help to groups like Islamic Jihad that have used terror tactics against Israel.

"When Israel hears of actions of Palestinian refugees living in Syria, Israelis don't blame themselves for the fact of these refugees' dispersion. Instead, they blame Syria for giving them freedom of expression," he exclaimed. (Syria says that the offices that Jihad and other Palestinian extremist groups maintain in Damascus are used only for public-relations work.)

Damascus's refusal to cut ties with anti-Israel groups like Jihad or Lebanon's Hezbollah have prompted Washington to keep Syria on its list of "nations supporting terrorism" - a designation that automatically brings broad US sanctions. Now, despite evidence that Syria has cooperated with Washington in the global war on terror, many members of Congress are seeking to tighten the sanctions against Syria through the Syria Accountability Act.

Sharaa downplayed the idea that this legislation poses any real threat to his country's interests.

He also hit back at the degree of influence he perceives Israel enjoys over policymaking in Washington:

"People can't understand how it is that a superpower can't stand up to Israel, when even a small, unarmed portion of the Palestinian people in the occupied territories can withstand them."

Helena Cobban is the author of five books on international issues.

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