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Outside Pressure May Create Resentment, say Pro-Reform Syrians - 2004-02-24


The ouster of Saddam Hussein and the U.S. occupation of Iraq have fueled some anxiety in neighboring Syria. It has also increased European and U.S. calls for reform inside Syria.

Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Bushra Kanafani says Syria is closely monitoring developments next door in Iraq.

"We are very worried about the situation in Iraq, very worried because it is tending to be chaotic," she said. "The most important things is when you have such a situation it is difficult for all the region."

Syria recently took steps to improve relations with Turkey, after decades of hostility. Ms. Kanafani says both countries, with sizable Kurdish populations, are concerned about the unity of Iraq, where Kurds in the north are calling for more autonomy.

"We have mutual interests in this situation of Iraq and we think that when Syria and Turkey work together as Middle Eastern countries - Turkey is partly a European country - we help stabilize the Middle East, which is vital and important," said Ms. Kanafani.

Syrian analysts say the country now feels squeezed between U.S. allies to the north, south, and east.

They say improving relations with Turkey to the north and Iran to the east of Iraq are a logical act of self-protection. They see Syria's renewed calls for peace talks with Israel, its southern neighbor, partly as a way to placate Washington, which is taking a tougher approach toward Damascus on several fronts.

The Bush administration has called for Syria to tighten control of its border with Iraq to stop the flow of weapons and fighters.

"We are trying to stop any infiltration to Iraq but the problem is this: these borders are Syrian-Iraqi borders," she said. "The Americans are on the other side. They need to do their piece. We are doing our piece, but it is a long border.

"How could anyone protect his long desert line? Think of the border between the United States and Mexico and the U.S. and Canada," continued Ms. Kanafani. "Infiltration can take place any time. We are doing what we can."

The U.S. administration sees a democratic Iraq as a model for reform across the region. Washington has stepped up pressure on Syria and threatened sanctions unless Damascus responds to demands to halt its support for terrorism and its efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction.

Syria denies charges of a weapons program. Ms. Kanafani says her government is cooperating with the U.S. anti-terrorism campaign.

"We want to make our position clear and we want to talk with the Americans about the future of the region," she emphasized. "They are the superpower that is responsible for the peace process. You have no alternative but to talk with the Americans about the future of the region, the future of peace and security."

Human-rights activists like Haitham Maleh voice hopes that U.S. pressure will also help spur political reforms.

Mr. Maleh spent eight years in jail in the 1980s for his outspoken criticism of the government. He now heads the private Human Rights Association of Syria.

He says the recent release of 130 of an estimated 3,000 political prisoners is a step in the right direction, but says more needs to be done.

"I cannot say it is better because there is no better here, maybe less bad," he said.

Political analyst Aziz Shukri links the slow pace of reform to opposition within the ruling Baath party.

"People who flourished and became prestigious and even became rich from the old and closed system during the last 30 years, and so are not willing to give up the privileges, immunities, and money they have made from the people," said Mr. Shukri.

Mr. Shukri, who runs Kalamoon University's School of International Relations and Diplomacy, says the pace of Mr. Assad's reform plans are also affected by regional instability.

"No sooner did Bashar assume power then September 11 took place and the war on Iraq started," he said. "So he has been under immense pressure from the Untied States."

Mr. Shukri says Syrian nationalists resent European and U.S. demands for reform. But, he says the pressure could help speed up the pace.

"Here is the irony," he said. "There are some people who say that because the U.S. is asking Syria to do this and that we should not do it.

"My philosophy is I do not care about what the U.S. wants," continued Mr. Shukri. "Is he telling us to do something I want? If he is asking me to recover the democracy which I enjoyed, sometimes I would say why not."

Pro-reform voices warn that democratic reforms cannot be imposed from the outside.

Human-rights activist Haithem Maleh says the government could help by ending the emergency laws that have governed Syria for four decades.

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