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.

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.

It apparently took the personal intervention of Jacques Chirac, the French president, who has close ties toAssad, to persuade Damascus to take Washington's threats seriously. The border with Iraq was closed and Iraqi refugees turned away.

"The Syrians are rattled by what happened in Iraq and the pressure from the Americans... but they cannot be seen caving in to US demands," says a diplomat.

Syrians are still fuming over a visit last weekend to Damascus by Tom Lantos, the top Democrat on the House of Representatives' International Relations Committee and a longtime critic of Syria.

Mr. Lantos publicly chastised the Syrian government, declaring it had made a "historic mistake" in supporting Iraq, and saying that "the time is long overdue to correct the course of Syrian policy."

He delivered to Assad a list of conditions that Damascus should fulfill "if Syria is to forge a new relationship with the United States." Syrians regarded Lantos's demands as the height of American arrogance and bad manners.

"The Syrians are very sensitive to external pressure and unfortunately this is a factor that the Americans fail to appreciate," says Mohammed Aziz Shukri, a professor of international law at Damascus University.

Professor Shukri, who was involved in a Syrian-US dialogue program with Houston's Rice University last year, says he is at a loss to explain what he describes as Washington's hostility toward the Arab world.

"The US administration is acting so irresponsibly that they will end up paying for it," he says. "Sooner or later, the American people will realize that their government has led them into an unholy war with 1.5 billion Muslims."

Syrians argue that Washington fails to understand the complexities and dynamics of Arab and Islamic society. They point to the example of the Bush administration's apparent surprise at the rapid mobilization of Iraq's majority Shiite community and opposition to the presence of American troops in Iraq.

Syrian Foreign Minister Farouq al-Sharaa publicly mentioned this week what he called the "dangerous misunderstanding" between the Washington and Damascus in reference to US warnings for Syria and Iran not to interfere in nation-building efforts in Iraq.

Syria has indicated a willingness to engage with Washington, toning down its opposition to the "road map" charting the path to Palestinian statehood which was released to the Israelis and Palestinians on Wednesday. But at the same time, Damascus insists that the road map include Syria and Lebanon, underlining a concern here that the two countries will be overlooked as the Palestinians and Israelis move ahead with their peace plans.

On the more fundamental issues, such as Syria's support for groups like Hamas and Lebanon's Hizbullah, diplomats and analysts here believe that Damascus is unlikely to bend to Washington's demands if nothing concrete is being offered in return.

"It's like we are being ordered to not only drop our guns but to bend down and kiss the Americans' feet as well. And all we get in exchange is a promise of a smile," a Syrian analyst says.

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