Assailed by US rhetoric, Syria circles its wagons
Colin Powell is expected to deliver a tough message to Syria when he arrives Saturday.
Secretary of State Colin Powell arrives here tomorrow for crucial talks during which he is expected to pressure the Syrian government to drop its support for militant anti-Israel groups and abandon its alleged pursuit of weapons of mass destruction.Skip to next paragraph
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But the Syrians, stung by a recent barrage of criticism from Washington, are reluctant to yield to what they see as uncompromising American diktats.
From the presidential palace sitting on a bluff overlooking Damascus to the narrow passageways of the Old City, Syrians view the recent flurry of accusations and demands from Washington with a mixture of alarm and anger.
"We take these threats very seriously," says a Syrian engineer who works for a US firm. "Syria is now surrounded by American countries - Iraq, Turkey, Israel, and Jordan," he says, sipping a tiny glass of steaming tea. "What can we do?"
Syrians were stunned when during the war in Iraq senior administration officials turned on Damascus, accusing it of allowing Arab volunteer fighters into Iraq, harboring fugitives from Saddam Hussein's regime, and smuggling weapons into Iraq.
Although US rhetoric has died down in recent days, the foreign ministers of France and Japan each called upon Syria on Wednesday to withdraw support from radical Arab groups such as Hizbullah. The ministers also asked Syria to support the US-backed "road map" plan for ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
But it is Washington's words that have most deeply rankled Damascus. Most Syrians and many diplomats in Damascus believe that the Bush administration is riding roughshod over Syrian sensibilities and complicating the efforts of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to usher in domestic reforms.
"It's a very difficult business for Bashar," says a European diplomat. "If he feels he's being humiliated from outside, like with these public demands from the Americans, then he has to retreat into the old nationalist rhetoric. Otherwise, he will appear weak to the Syrian people."
Diplomats who have met Mr. Assad say that the president has a clear vision of how he would like to see Syria progress and speaks openly of the obstacles facing him, such as a sluggish and corrupt bureaucracy and the reluctance of the country's ruling elite to implement change that might threaten their influence.
He is forced to tread a narrow path through many conflicting interests in Syria. For example, Assad's staunch public opposition to the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq arose partly out of a genuine concern at US ambitions for the Middle East. But it was also a case of political expediency, reflecting the strong antiwar sentiment in Syria and the deep sense of Arab unity and pride felt by ordinary Syrians. Assad's stance lost him the sympathy of Washington, but he gained increased popularity among Syrians and other Arabs who viewed him as the only Arab leader willing to publicly challenge the US.
When Washington criticized Damascus midway through the war, Syria reacted defensively, denying the charges outright.