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.

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.

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.

"When President Assad receives a letter from [Secretary of State] Colin Powell thanking him for his 'invaluable help' in pursuing terrorists, how in the name of heaven can we be called a terrorist state," asks Professor Shukri.

Syrians, like other Arabs, often accuse the US of adopting a policy of double standards in the Middle East.

"I am sorry to say that I feel George Bush is counting his ballots by hand every evening and trying to increase his share among American voters by supporting [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon," says Georges Jabbour, adjunct professor of law at Aleppo University.

Officials in Damascus say that regardless of the threats from Washington, Syrian policy will remain firm.

"What is really strange now in the American administration is that we hear many voices coming from different corners and a lot of contradiction. I wonder if this is a healthy sign especially when it comes to the policy of a superpower," says Adnan Omran, the Syrian minister of information. "We want to see good relations existing between the US and Syria based on mutual respect, commitment to international principles, and the UN charter and not to [Washington's] blindly prejudiced position and alliance with Israel."

A young hand at the wheel

Since assuming the presidency following the death of his father, Hafez al-Assad, almost two years ago, the new President Assad has had to consolidate his rule while surrounded by the hardliners who represented his father's closest advisers.

Analysts and diplomats in Damascus believe that Assad has had to restrain his desire for reform in Syria to appease the powerful old guard.

The lanky president has delivered some of the most uncompromising rhetoric against Israel of any Arab leader, in contrast to his unassuming demeanor.

Many individual Syrians say they have no hostility toward Americans, but reject the policies of the US government. Evidence of anti-American attitudes is, in fact, less obvious in Damascus than many other Arab capitals, although some shops here display posters of an American flag superimposed on an Israeli tank beside a dead Palestinian lying in a pool of blood.

"Don't participate in killing the innocents. Boycott American goods," the poster reads in English and Arabic.

Majd Tabaa, owner of the fashionable Oxygen restaurant in Damascus, became an instant celebrity in the Arab world last month when she ejected from her establishment Roberto Powers, consul at the US Embassy.

"Americans are good people, and Roberto is a nice person and a good customer, but I wanted to get my message across to America," she says.

Since then, the blond-haired mother of three has appeared on Arab television stations, received dozens of phone calls in support, and even discounts on a recent shopping trip to Beirut, the capital of neighboring Lebanon.

"Everybody is so depressed and angry, especially when Bush calls Sharon a 'man of peace,' " she says. Ms. Tabaa vowed that the ban on American diplomats visiting her restaurant will remain until Washington "shows just a bit of an unbiased stand in the Middle East."

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