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Archive for Wednesday, April 16, 2003

U.S. warnings to Syria get Arab attention

April 16, 2003

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— Mideast powers, including some friends of the United States, expressed alarm Tuesday over possible U.S. action against Syria for allegedly sheltering ousted Iraqi leaders and sponsoring terrorism.

Iran quickly came to Syria's defense, saying it will employ all nonmilitary means to prevent a U.S. attack on its ally. Iraq's neighbors are expected to discuss Washington's accusations when they meet this week in Saudi Arabia.

In Damascus, few Syrians understand why President Bush is coming after them. Their country, they feel, has cooperated in the war against terrorism, and gave Arab cover to U.N. Resolution 1441 demanding Saddam Hussein disarm or face the consequences.

"They are extremely disappointed," said Maggie Mitchell at the Washington-based Middle East Institute, who recently met with officials in the Syrian capital. "They helped in the fight against al-Qaida and they went against Syrian and Arab public opinion to back a resolution that the United States used to go to war against Iraq."

Diplomatic intervention

The six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council on Tuesday rejected U.S. threats against Syria and called on the United States and Britain to carry out a dialogue with Damascus.

"We reject the threats against Syria and we believe that the threats should stop," Qatari Foreign Minister Sheik Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabor Al Thani told reporters in Riyadh.

The foreign minister said the council has "good relations with the United States and the United Kingdom and we are talking to them now on the Syrian issue."

U.S. officials in the past two days have accused Syria of sheltering Iraqi fugitives, possessing chemical weapons and supporting terrorism.

Secretary of State Colin Powell, while emphasizing that the United States has no plans to go to war with Syria, had this warning: "They should review their actions and their behavior, not only with respect to who gets haven in Syria and weapons of mass destruction, but especially the support of terrorist activity. ... We will examine possible measures of a diplomatic, economic or other nature as we move forward."

The Syrians have flatly denied the allegations as misinformation inspired by its archenemy Israel.

"Even the Israelis will pay the price for it in the future if they don't tell their friends in Washington to stop it," Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa said. "They (Americans) shouldn't encourage them. ... They are encouraging a very sinister game."

Tense relations

Relations between Syria and the United States have always been uneasy, complicated by Syria's close ties to the Soviet Union during the Cold War and its hard-line stance on the Mideast peace process.

Despite its outwardly inflexible attitude to the United States, Syria has always been careful to keep the thin diplomatic ties from snapping.

In the 1991 Gulf War, Syria sent troops to join the U.S.-led campaign to oust Iraq from Kuwait. It has shed most of the closed image that characterized it when it was a Soviet ally.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, Syrian President Bashar Assad sent a warm letter of condolences to Bush, and there was intelligence cooperation on terrorism. Syria has for years been watching the extremist Muslim groups that it had fought in the 1980s.

In November, Syria stunned the Arab world by voting for the U.N. resolution against Iraq.

But complicating matters is that Assad is surrounded by an old guard who helped bring him to power after the death of his father, Hafez Assad, in June 2000. The father took over in a bloodless coup in 1970 and maintained a vast army of secret police and informers. He was accused of jailing thousands of political prisoners without trial.

For the old guard, close ties with the United States violate core principles of the ruling Baath party and go against the image Syria has cultivated for decades as the champion of Arab rights.

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