Syria waffles on militant groups despite US pressure

The US demanded this weekend that Syria shut down militant offices.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Syria is pondering its next moves after being told by the United States that it must adapt to the new realities in the Middle East following the Iraq war or face "consequences."

Analysts expect the Syrian regime to agree to some US demands - such as closing the offices of radical Palestinian groups in Damascus, and not interfering in Iraq. But with nothing concrete being offered in return, other demands will be difficult for Damascus to fulfill, such as dismantling Lebanon's Hizbullah organization.

An indication of the difficulties facing the Syrians emerged over the weekend when Hamas and other Palestinian groups denied an assertion by visiting Secretary of State Colin Powell that there "had been some closures" of Palestinian offices in Damascus.

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Osama Hamdan, the head of Hamas in Lebanon, denies that his group has been ordered to shut down in Damascus. "We have no information on this," he says. Mr Hamdan added that "maybe some groups are thinking of closing their offices" to spare the Syrians embarrassment, but "nothing is confirmed now."

Analysts in Damascus say the offices of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - General Command, a small secular hard-line group, may soon fully close down.

"At the moment they are keeping a low profile," says a Syrian analyst. "But Hamas and Islamic Jihad run their operations from the West Bank and Gaza, so they can afford to close their offices here as a gesture to Syria."

The US has criticized Damascus for hampering coalition war efforts in Iraq - dispatching Arab volunteers to fight US and British troops, smuggling weapons to Baghdad, and harboring fugitives from Saddam Hussein's regime. In response, Damascus closed its border with Iraq and asked some Iraqis staying in Syria to leave.

Syria has also reportedly made a surprise move toward Middle East peace. According to Israel's Maariv newspaper, Maher al-Assad, the brother of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, met with former Israeli foreign ministry director-general Eytan Ben-Tzur in Jordan before the Iraq war to offer a "detailed appeal" for a resumption of talks without preconditions. The two countries broke off talks in March 2000.

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon apparently rejected the appeal. However, the unprompted offer marked a significant gesture as it came before Washington's barrage of criticism and warnings midway through the Iraq war.

Syria maintains that it is willing to conclude a comprehensive peace agreement with Israel, one that would see the return of the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau captured by Israel in 1967. But Washington has made no specific commitment to press for an imminent resumption of peace talks between Syria and Israel.

Syria will have difficulty satisfying some key US demands, such as removing Hizbullah's military presence from Lebanon's volatile southern border with Israel.

In the absence of clear guidelines from Washington, Damascus will have difficulty in knowing where to draw the line with regard to Hizbullah's military wing, says Nizar Hamzeh, a professor of politics at the American University of Beirut. "The Syrians may be able to stop shipments of arms to Hizbullah and they may even be able to produce some of Hizbullah's weapons," he says. "But if the US demands mean dismantling the party as a whole, then it cannot be done."

Hizbullah has huge grass-roots support in Lebanon through its extensive social and political wings. "Trying to forcefully dismantle Hizbullah might mean sparking a civil war in Lebanon," Professor Hamzeh says.

Hassan Ezzieddine, the head of Hizbullah's media department, dismisses US efforts against the party as pressure tactics. "We don't believe that it will lead to any results. It will not change the national constants that Hizbullah and the country believe in, especially with regard to our weapons," Mr. Ezzieddine says.

The US has repeatedly called for the full deployment of Lebanese Army troops along the Lebanon-Israel border, replacing Hizbullah's fighters. There are presently some 1,000 troops based in the area, manning checkpoints and patrolling frontier roads. But there are no troops positioned along the border fence itself. Lebanon argues that its soldiers will not serve as border guards for Israel while there is no peace between the two countries.

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