Syria coming under pressure as US targets "low hanging fruit"

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The US occupation of Iraq, which has destabilised the country, driving it into effective civil war, may have unsettling consequences for neighbouring Syria. US president George W. Bush is exerting strong pressure on Damascus to cooperate with Washington’s colonial schemes, to end its links with Lebanon, and to help the UN’s enquiry into the murder of Lebanon’s late ex-prime minister, Rafique Hariri. Not surprisingly, president Bashar al-Assad is alarmed by what is required of him, as this includes declaring war not only on insurgents in Iraq but also on Palestinian Islamic groups such as Hamas, while close cooperation with the UN enquiry may even lead to his getting personally involved.

Bush stepped up the pressure during the recent visit of Iraqi president Jalal Talabani to Washington and the two held a press conference, at which Bush asserted that the Syrian regime could "do a lot more to prevent the flow of foreign fighters to Iraq." He said: "These people are coming from Syria into Iraq and are killing a lot of innocent people… the Syrian leader must understand we take his lack of action seriously and the government is going to become more isolated."

Accusing Damascus of not being straightforward with the UN investigators, Bush threatened to align US allies against it. He said: "Syria is not being fully transparent about what they did in Lebanon. This is a subject of conversation I’ll have with other allies" –” a reference to other heads of state gathering in Washington for the UN summit. He concluded that in his discussions with US allies, he would insist that Syria must be made to change its behaviour. He had already exerted strong pressure on EU member-states to isolate Syria unless it cooperated fully with the UN investigators. This appears to have worked already, as Brussels has suspended EU association negotiations with Syria pending the conclusion of the investigation.

Not unexpectedly, president Assad took Bush’s threats very seriously as they formed part of a continuous anti-Syrian campaign by US government officials, while American specialists on the Middle East –” and Arab analysts –” publicly asserted that Washington was determined to drive Bashar Assad out of office. Equally seriously, Iraqi officials or advisors to government officials warned openly that the Syrian regime would be in serious trouble if it failed to prevent insurgents from crossing the border and entering Iraq. Recent comments by Muaffak al-Rubbaie, Iraq’s national security advisor, are typical. "The Syrians are playing with fire and if the regime doesn’t stop or do things to stop foreign elements coming into Iraq, I’d be very surprised if the regime is around for long."

American analysts are more specific about how the US government is planning to remove Assad from office –” claiming that it will use disgruntled members of the Assad family, such as Bashar’s uncle, Rifaat, who lives abroad. To take only one example, Flynt Leverett, a former US government official and expert on Syria, explained in a recent comment how Bashar will be driven out of office. He said: "This administration is determined to push Bashar al-Asad out of office. It is working with Syrian opposition members in exile and, it would seem, Rifaat Assad, to bring this about." Bashar succeeded Hafez al-Assad, his father, who died in 2000, and ambitious members of the family who lost out were naturally disgruntled. Moreover, many members of the Ba’ath Party, which had backed Hafez, are now dissatisfied with his son, dismissing him as weak.

The effect of all this on Bashar is evident from his reactions. He has now withdrawn his refusal to allow UN investigators to travel to Damascus to interrogate senior members of the regime and high-ranking security officials about Syria’s alleged responsibility for Hariri’s assassination. The UN team, led by Detlev Mehlis, are now questioning officials in Damascus, and there is serious speculation that the investigations may lead to Bashar’s being implicated in the killing. Certainly the president of Syria showed signs of being convinced that at least the US government would hold him responsible for the assassination when he suddenly cancelled his trip to New York to attend the UN summit. He had planned the visit as a propaganda exercise for his government and for his "reforming" activities, and the cancellation was a serious disappointment to him.

Jalal Talabani’s more recent assertions, following his return from Washington, that the US government is not planning to remove the Assad regime from power, is unlikely to reassure Bashar and his supporters. In an interview with the Arabic daily al-Hayat on September 19, he said that the US "wants to change the Syrian regime’s position on Iraq and Lebanon but not the regime itself" –” adding that his personal relations with Damascus were "excellent" and that he was seeking to resolve differences with it through dialogue.

Bashar knows that the US government is not merely exercised about his regime’s position on Iraq and Lebanon but that it is also keen to force him to establish diplomatic relations with Israel, and to fight radical Islamic organisations and groups in the region, such as Hizbullah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine. Washington has always urged Arab regimes to declare war on Islamic groups and to establish peaceful (though not necessarily diplomatic) relations with Israel. But since Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza and the dubious claim that there is now a Palestinian state, the US government has been exerting strong pressure on Arab regimes to establish diplomatic relations, despite Tel Aviv’s continued attacks against Palestinian territories (including Gaza) and Palestinian groups.

However, there is very little doubt that the establishment of diplomatic relations by Syria –” and other Arab countries –” with Israel, and the suppression of Islamic groups will engulf the entire region, let alone Syria and Lebanon, in violence. Bashar and his supporters would, therefore, be wise to resist the temptation to give in to US pressure. He would also be wise to consider resigning his office peacefully, as the rise of Islamic resistance in the region means an eventual end to corrupt and divisive regimes like his.

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