Tue, Mar 01, 2005 - Page 9 News List

Syria's dangerous liaisons in Lebanon and Iraq create problems

By Michael Young

All eyes turned to Syria following the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. Opposition groups in Lebanon, as well as Hariri supporters, openly accused Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime of being responsible for the killing. The Bush administration, while not formally blaming Syria, virtually did so and recalled its ambassador to Damascus. The US is said to be extremely angry at Syria's refusal to withdraw its forces from Lebanon in line with a UN resolution.

Growing opposition to Syrian hegemony in Lebanon is but one of four related problems Syria faces, all of which it has addressed inadequately. The other three are Syria's behavior in Iraq, its relations with the US, and the need for domestic reform. While corrosive immobility is a trademark of the Syrian regime, these challenges threaten to reinforce each other and marginalize Syria internationally even more so than today.

In Lebanon, the Syrians have repeatedly misread the Bush administration's intentions. Last September, the US, together with France, sponsored UN Security Council Resolution 1559 demanding a Syrian pullout and the disarming of militias -- mainly Hezbollah. This came after Assad imposed an unconstitutional extension of Lebanese President Emile Lahoud's mandate last September, despite French and US warnings. Yet to this day, Syrian officials privately say that they don't think the US is serious about a withdrawal.

Syria's leaders also continue to dismiss demands from within Lebanon for an end to Syria's 28-year military presence. Such demands escalated dramatically after Hariri's death, as tens of thousands of the former prime minister's partisans, who previously sat on the fence when it came to Syria, shouted "Syria out."

Indeed, a broad multi-communal opposition front has formed in Beirut to demand Syria's departure. Yet rather than address the front's demands and shape a healthy bilateral relationship between equal countries, Syria has sought to divide the opposition and reassert control. Hariri's assassination makes that far more difficult, and Syria must prepare for a strong backlash from the US and France.

In Iraq, since the fall of Baghdad on April 9, 2003, Damascus has shown undue nostalgia for the old system. Though the Syrian and Iraqi Baath parties were bitter foes, there was consolation in that both were members of a confederacy of despotisms.

For the Syrians, a democratic Iraq friendly to the US was always far worse than former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein, the enemy they knew -- and later profitably traded with -- during the years of international sanctions against Iraq.

Syria's suspected support for Iraqi Baathist exiles threatens to damage relations with the new Iraq. Baghdad has repeatedly accused the Assad regime of allowing Iraqi funds to be channeled to insurgents, and recently notified the Syrians that the photograph of a senior Syrian intelligence official taken with an Islamist combatant was found on the latter's body in Falluja.

As a legitimate Iraqi authority emerges following the elections, the Syrians will have to show foresight in jettisoning their pro-Saddam acquaintances.

The Bush administration's growing impatience with Syrian involvement in the Iraqi insurgency is a major reason for Syria's deteriorating relationship with the US. Indeed, there is palpable disdain for Syria in Washington. That is why Syria's denials that it is playing a spoiler role in Iraq are rarely taken seriously, and why Assad has not gained American support for renewed negotiations with Israel over the Golan Heights.

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