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US Allegations Could Prove Damaging for Syria - 2003-04-16


Despite recent assurances by U.S. officials that the United States is not considering military action against Syria, the assurances have done little to ease concerns in Damascus. U.S. officials, for example, have not withdrawn allegations that Syria is producing chemical weapons and harboring senior officials from the government of Saddam Hussein.

Government officials in Damascus vehemently deny that Syria has been producing banned weapons or sheltering Iraqi officials. Yet the U.S. charges keep coming.

On Tuesday, the United States accused Syria of giving sanctuary to Iraq's ambassador to Tunisia, Farouk Hijazi, who was the director of Iraq's intelligence agency during the mid 1990s. That is when the agency allegedly launched a failed attempt to assassinate former President George Bush during a visit to Kuwait.

U.S. officials also believe Mr. Hijazi traveled to Afghanistan in December of 1998 to meet al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.

Suheil Zakkar is a history professor at the University of Damascus. He doubts Syria has given refuge to Iraqi officials because he says doing so would be against Syria's interests. What is more, he says Syria has already paid a price for what Saddam Hussein has done.

"When he started his support to terrorists [Hezbollah, Hamas, Islamic Jihad] in Syria, Syria has paid the bill," said professor Zakkar. "When he started his war against Iran, Syria has paid the bill from the other corrupt countries. When he started his topple against Kuwaitis, Syria has paid the bill. And, when he has been dead and his regime has been finished, Syria also is going to pay the bill."

According to the president of Syria's Chamber of Industries, Samir el-Divas, the latest U.S. allegations, whether proved true or not, will undoubtedly damage Syria. With a Syrian economy that has been suffering for several years and the recent loss of cheap Iraqi crude oil, Mr. El-Divas says the latest allegations will further deepen Syria's economic troubles.

Up until the U.S. led war in Iraq, Syria had been a major trading partner with Baghdad.

Mr. el-Divas, who oversees Syria's export industry, says the U.S. should extend friendship to Damascus, not issue, what he called, unsubstantiated allegations. But he doubts, under the present circumstances, whether Syria will get a hearing from U.S. officials.

"What is the use of saying it is unfair, because they are not listening to anybody. They tell you, you are either with us or against us. This is not the way to deal with the international community," he said. "They will succeed once and twice and three times. But, at the end, it will all blow up in the face of everybody. They should take us as a friend and a partner in the peace process in the Middle East, not put a stick on our head and say this is what you want to do."

Later this week, foreign ministers from countries neighboring Iraq, including Syria's foreign minister Farouk al-Shara, will meet in Saudi Arabia for an emergency session to discuss the situation in Iraq.

According to Sami Baroudi, who heads the political science department at Lebanese-American University in Beirut, Syria will try to use the meeting to strengthen its ties with its neighbors because Damascus is very worried about U.S. intentions in the region.

"They will probably look to mend their fences with all the neighbors of Iraq. I think that is what they are going to do, especially with Turkey, Iran, and with Saudi Arabia and maybe hope that, through some kind of arrangement with all the neighbors of Iraq, they will sort of contain any American attempts to go beyond Iraq," Mr. Baroudi said.

While he is surprised the issue of Syria has come up so quickly following the U.S. led war in Iraq, Mr. Baroudi says he is not at all surprised that the United States is putting political and economic pressure on a country that openly called for the defeat of U.S.-led forces in Iraq.

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