Syria is showing increasing signs of unease at Washington's plans to topple Saddam Hussein in neighboring Iraq, fearing it would be the first step in a wave of regime changes in the Middle East to suit US and Israeli interests.
As momentum builds for an attack on Iraq, analysts say that continued diplomatic and political pressure on Syria is backfiring by pushing Damascus closer to Baghdad. They cite the Syria Accountability Act, being considered by Congress, which seeks to impose sanctions on Damascus unless certain conditions are met.
Demands on the Syrian regime include ending its support for militant anti-Israel groups such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Lebanon's Hizbullah organization, ending its pursuit of weapons of mass destruction, and withdrawing troops from neighboring Lebanon.
"Nobody can call Syria to account," Syrian Foreign Minister Farouq al-Sharaa said at a meeting of Arab foreign ministers in Cairo last week. "There are some people connected by emotional ties and interests to Israel, and Israel directs them. They try to attack others morally, legally, politically, and through the media, and we reject this completely," said Mr. Sharaa.
While the United States has strong reservations about Syria's support of anti-Israel groups considered by Washington to engage in terrorism, the White House is opposed to Congress's bill. At risk is Syria's cooperation with the US in relaying intelligence information on Al Qaeda militants, as well as the administration's efforts to resuscitate the Middle East peace process. "The proposed Syria Accountability Act before the US Congress would, if passed, curtail President Bush's margin of maneuverability," US Middle East envoy David Satterfield said in Beirut last week.
Israel has stepped up its threats against Syria, warning that Damascus is "playing with fire" by permitting Hizbullah guerrillas to continue attacking Israeli army positions in a strip of territory known as the Shebaa Farms, running along Lebanon's southeast border. On Aug. 28, Hizbullah fighters attacked two Israeli military outposts in the Shebaa Farms, the first assault by the Shia Muslim group in four months.
US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said in Washington last week that the Iran- and Syria-backed Hizbullah had made "the A-team of terrorists."
"We're going to go after them just like a high school wrestler goes after opponents, we're going to take them down one at a time," Mr. Armitage said.
His comments, among the strongest yet made against Hizbullah by a senior US administration official, reignited fears in Lebanon of a military strike against the group, possibly by Israel in coordination with a US-led assault on Iraq.
Such comments are welcomed in Israel, which views Hizbullah and Syria as serious threats, analysts say.
"Some in the Israeli establishment smell the way the winds are changing and are saying we should try to knock as many of our enemies out of the way as we can," says Michael Young, a Lebanese political analyst here.
But squeezing Syria has usually had the opposite effect to the one intended.
"Damascus always works the opposite way when pressure is applied to it abroad, especially from the United States," says Murhaf Jouejati, a specialist on Syria at the Middle East Institute in Washington.
The strategic alliance between the US and Israel in the early 1980s pushed Syria closer to the Soviet Union, and the Turkish-Israeli military alliance in 1996 prompted Damascus to begin restoring ties with Baghdad.
"What Washington unwittingly is doing is throwing Damascus into the arms of Baghdad. And that is counter-productive for the United States," Dr. Jouejati says.
Syria and Iraq, which are both ruled by rival branches of the secular Baath Party, have spent the past five years patching up decades of mutual hostility. Although there is little love for Saddam Hussein in Damascus, the ailing Syrian economy has grown heavily dependent on Iraq. Trade between Syria and Iraq through the United Nations oil-for-food program is estimated to have achieved $1 billion in 2001, double the amount from the previous year. Syria is alleged by the West to have earned another $1 billion from illegally imported oil from Iraq, in breach of UN sanctions. Damascus and Baghdad agreed last week to establish joint industrial projects, totaling some $500 million.
"Syria, very much like Turkey, is comfortable with the status quo," says Jouejati. "It is comfortable that Saddam Hussein is strong enough to keep Iraq united, but weak enough not to threaten his neighbors. Damascus would not like to see the regime toppled and substituted by a pro-American regime because in that case Damascus would be totally surrounded by American power."
Syria believes that with Hussein gone and a pro-US regime installed in Baghdad, Washington would be tempted to continue the process of regime change in the Arab world.
Juan Cole, professor of history at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, says that the strong bonds between some administration officials and right-wing Israelis are creating the atmosphere for a broader agenda beyond simply deposing Mr. Hussein.
"I do not believe that the Bush administration wishes to invade Iraq primarily because it is afraid of Iraq's weapons of mass destruction capabilities," Professor Cole says. "That seems to me a smokescreen for the real ambition, which is to begin reshaping the political culture of the Middle East in ways that might favor the US and forestall increasing moves to radicalism, as in Al Qaeda."
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad recently called for "deeper unity and solidarity among Arab and Muslim countries in the face of American threats against the region."
Syrian officials have stepped up diplomatic contacts with key Arab states, such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt, as well as non-Arab Iran, an ally of Damascus and one of President Bush's three "axis of evil" countries.
The Arab League voiced strong opposition last week to an attack on Iraq, warning that it would "open the gates of Hell." Resolutions issued by the foreign ministers from 20 Arab states called for a "complete rejection of threats of aggression against some Arab countries, in particular Iraq."
Jouejati acknowledges "Syria's nervousness" as a US strike against Iraq draws closer, but says he had seen no evidence that Washington is seriously contemplating regime change in Damascus. Rather, the administration has good reason to encourage the reformist tendencies of Syria's youthful president and maintain his cooperation on Al Qaeda.
"It would be very unfortunate if there were forces in Washington that were thinking in terms of toppling a regime that is trying to push Syria into the modern age," he says.