US uses 'Libya model' to boost pressure on Syria

UN report on killing of former Lebanese leader may further isolate Damascus.

Once considered key to Middle East stability, Syria is facing growing marginalization as the United States maintains a policy of unrelenting pressure against the Baathist regime.

American and Iraqi officials have stepped up their criticism of Syria in recent days in what some analysts believe is the beginning of an attempt by Washington to repeat the "Libya model" - total political and economic isolation to compel a U-turn in regime behavior.

"They are going to grab Syria by the throat and squeeze and shake, and see what kind of change falls out of the Syrian pockets.... It's going to be the harshest isolation they can manufacture," says Joshua Landis, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at the University of Oklahoma, presently based in Damascus and author of

These are lonely times for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. His planned trip to attend the United Nations summit in New York last week was cancelled at the last minute amid clear indications that he would not be welcome in the United States.

By contrast, leading Lebanese officials, who a few months ago were at the forefront of the anti-Syrian opposition in Lebanon, were feted in New York.

On Monday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice hosted a multilateral gathering in support of Lebanon that brought together UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan and the foreign ministers of Britain, France, and Russia, among others. They agreed to sponsor an international donor conference for Lebanon in November and encourage Lebanese domestic reforms while furthering Syria's international isolation.

US and Iraqi officials have accused Damascus of failing to prevent militants from crossing into neighboring Iraq to join the insurgency. President Bush warned last week that President Assad must understand that the US "takes his lack of action [on stopping insurgents] seriously."

If persistent US pressure is not enough, Assad also faces the disagreeable prospect that some of his closest regime colleagues could be implicated in a UN report into the assassination of Rafik Hariri, a former Lebanese prime minister who was killed in February. Tuesday, Detlev Mehlis, a German prosecutor who heads the UN investigation commission, traveled to Damascus to interview several senior Syrian military intelligence officers who were serving in Lebanon when Mr. Hariri was killed.

Four senior pro-Syrian Lebanese intelligence and security chiefs were arrested last month on suspicion of involvement in the assassination. The release of Mr. Mehlis's conclusions are expected at the end of October. If the report implicates senior Syrian officials, it could lead to UN sanctions and the severing of diplomatic relations with the US and European countries.

The effect, according to analysts, would be to recreate the economic and diplomatic embargo slapped on Libya in the 1990s. Isolating the pariah state eventually persuaded Libyan leader Col. Muammar Qaddafi to seek a return to the international fold.

US officials often refer to Syria as "low-hanging fruit" - requiring little effort to pick off. Yet, perhaps the Syrian regime's greatest defense is the lack of an organized and credible opposition that could ease into power if the ruling Baath Party was overthrown. Syria's sectarian and ethnic mix is as potentially turbulent as Iraq's, and many analysts say it's only the Baath Party's ruthless grip on society that has ensured stability.

Still, a weak opposition may have resulted in a false sense of confidence.

"They still act with the mentality of the Clinton era, when they were treated like the strongest regional power," says Sami Moubayed, a Syrian political analyst. "That is why they are reacting somewhat passively to the crisis with Washington, saying to themselves and to those around them: This won't last. They won't hit us. The neighboring scenario in Iraq just strengthens their argument" that there is no alternative to the Baath Party, he says.

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