Syria yields - a bit - to pressure

As the US contemplates sanctions, Syria ruled out admitting weapons inspectors Thursday.

Diplomatic pressure exerted by the United States against Syria could force Damascus to moderate its tone, but is unlikely to usher in the radical changes that would satisfy hard-line administration officials, analysts say.

Secretary of State Colin Powell has deflected speculation of a possible military strike on Syria, instead raising the prospect of imposing political and economic sanctions against Damascus. But even sanctions may only have a limited impact, analysts say.

The imminent use of military force against Syria has been effectively ruled out, with Mr. Powell stating on Tuesday that Washington has no "war plans" for regime change in any other country. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice is known to oppose military action and President Bush has reportedly rejected a contingency plan for an attack on Syria drawn up by the Pentagon. Powell is even reported to be planning a trip to Damascus shortly.

But the stunning demonstration of US military might in removing the regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq has left a powerful impression on other Arab countries that have earned Washington's ire, says Patrick Seale, the biographer of Hafez al-Assad, the former Syrian president who died in 2000.

"I don't think one should underestimate the alarm felt in the region. There is real fear," he says.

Mr. Seale suggests that Syria, which has won praise from US officials for cooperating in the fight against Al Qaeda since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, may place restraints on Hizbullah in Lebanon and may lower the level of its opposition to the US occupation of Iraq. The first public indications of a more accommodating stance from Damascus came Wednesday with expressions of willingness to cooperate with the US over Iraq and a proposal by Syrian Foreign Minister Farouq al-Sharaa to submit a resolution to the United Nations Security Council calling for a total ban on weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East.

"I think diplomacy is working," says Mohammed Aziz Shukri, professor of international law at Damascus University. "We need to avoid any confrontation with the US, either directly or indirectly."

But Damascus Thursday appeared to reverse its previous acceptance to allow weapons inspectors to search for weapons of mass destruction, saying the proposed UN resolution would make inspections unnecessary. Also, Damascus has ruled out one key US demand - closing offices of groups Washington calls terrorist organizations such as Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Syria argues they are legitimate resistance groups opposing Israeli occupation of Arab land. Similarly, Syria is not expected to curtail its support for Hizbullah, which it views as a strategic asset in fending off potential Israeli aggression.

Seale says that Syria is still answerable to Arab nationalist policies and therefore cannot be seen as yielding completely to US dictates.

"The Syrians are in for a rough landing. It will be a big test for young Bashar [al-Assad]," he says, referring to the 37-year-old Syrian president.

The sanctions threat hardened last week with the resubmission to Congress of the Syria Accountability Act. The bill demands that Damascus end support for groups such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Hizbullah; end its pursuit of weapons of mass destruction; and withdraw its forces from Lebanon.

Failure to comply with the act would lead to punitive sanctions which could include freezing Syrian assets in the US, a ban on American companies doing business in Syria, and reducing diplomatic contacts with Damascus. Syria is the only country on the State Department's list of nations supporting terrorism with which Washington still maintains diplomatic relations.

Last year, the White House intervened to block the bill, despite "relentless pressure" on the administration to allow it to proceed, according to a diplomatic source in Washington. The bill could be used by the administration as a further diplomatic tool to pressure Syria.

"Syria is seen as an extremely important interlocutor in issues of the region," the source says. "Many issues of that dialogue are problematic. If Congress pushes the act again, the administration will come under a lot of pressure again, and we have to make sure that the relationship with Syria works for us."

Yet would the sanctions recommended by the bill make a difference to Syria? No, says Nabil Sukkar, a former World Bank economist who runs the Syria Consulting Bureau for Development and Investment in Damascus.

"I don't know what kind of economic sanctions they can impose on Syria," he says. "These are only American sanctions. There's no foundation for any international sanctions, so I can't imagine they would go the United Nations. They are not hurting Syria anyway because trade and business relations with the Americans are minimal, with or without the sanctions."

Washington would find little support, even among its closest friends, for introducing sanctions against Syria. Britain and Spain, both key allies of Washington in the Iraq war, have taken a softer line on Syria and publicly ruled out a military strike.

The bulk of Iraq's external trade is with Europe and the Arab world. Trade between Syria and Iraq from 1998 to 2002 generated some $5 billion, with many Syrian factories working solely for the Iraqi market. The disruption of the lucrative trade ties with Iraq, including the cessation of Iraqi oil imports, because of the war should not have a serious impact, Mr. Sukkar says.

Sukkar says he is "absolutely confident" Syria could ride out the crisis with the US and overcome sanctions, especially as bilateral trade with Iraq should resume once a new government has been established in Baghdad.

"If there is an American military regime in Baghdad then definitely nobody is going to collaborate with it," he says. "But once Iraqis take hold and there is a national Iraqi government I am sure that trade relations will go back to normal between Syria and Iraq."

He adds: "Iraq is a capital surplus country, Syria is a labor surplus country. There is tremendous room for [complementary relations] between the two countries."

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