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Syria Finds Itself at the Center of an International Storm

Syria finds itself at the center of an international storm on two fronts. Israel says it is willing to consider returning the Golan Heights to Syria in exchange for full peace between the two states. At the same time, the U.S. intelligence community has released photos and other information about a suspected Syrian nuclear facility built with North Korea’s help and bombed by Israeli warplanes seven months ago.

Nadia Bilbassy, diplomatic correspondent for Al-Arabiya television, says the Arab press and people in the Arab world generally are suspicious about the timing of these two developments. Speaking with host Judith Latham of VOA News Now’s International Press Club, Ms. Bilbassy says Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas came to Washington last month and left with empty hands, even though King Abdullah of Jordan had flown to Washington “unannounced” the day before to warn U.S. President George Bush that “any peace talks between Israel and Syria would be at the expense of peace with the Palestinians.” It appears Israel wants to “do a deal with Syria at the expense of peace with the Palestinians” because it looks like an “easier track.” Israel has occupied the Golan Heights since 1967, and a peace deal would require Israel to withdraw from this land in return for normalizing relations with Syria, Ms. Bilbassy explains.

Israeli journalist Nathan Guttman of the Jewish Daily Forward says it is not clear what kind of peace agreement there can be between Israel and Syria, especially if Syria is seen as a country that is trying to obtain nuclear weapons that might one day be used against Israel. Mr. Guttman notes that Israelis have been carefully watching the revelations from the U.S. intelligence community about the reactor story, mainly because Israeli censorship prevented discussion of the September 6th attack on the Syrian site and Israeli government officials remain “tight-lipped” about it. But Mr. Guttman says he does not think the North Korean issue has anything to do with derailing prospects for an Israeli-Syrian accord as some people in the region have suggested. In the past, however, when Israel indicated a willingness to negotiate with Syria over the Golan Heights, he says, Washington was reluctant, mainly because of a concern that an Israeli-Syrian peace treaty might “distract public attention from other outstanding issues with Syria” – namely, its involvement in Iraq, its involvement in Lebanon, and its close ties with Iran.

In fact, President Bush now says that the recent intelligence briefings to Congress on the Syrian-North Korean nuclear link were designed to send a message to North Korea at a time when Pyongyang is dragging its feet in providing a detailed declaration of its nuclear activities. Mr. Bush adds that there is a message for Syria and Iran as well – that nuclear proliferation in the Middle East cannot be tolerated. He says Washington was concerned that an earlier disclosure would, in his words, “increase the risk of confrontation” in the Middle East.

American intelligence officials maintain the bombed nuclear site was nearing completion. Nathan Guttman says the Israeli press was prevented by government censorship from discussing the September 6th attack. He calls it a “strange news cycle" coming from Israel, through Washington, and back to Israel. For its part, Syria denies U.S. allegations that it was operating a secret nuclear weapons program or receiving nuclear help from Pyongyang.

Ahmed Salkini, press secretary of the Embassy of Syria, says that the Syrian reaction to these developments has been “critical and even sarcastic.” And that’s because the Syrian media remember what happened the “last time around when this administration came out with so-called evidence.” Mr. Salkini says that Syrians think it represents “another attempt to mislead the American people,” similar to what happened at the United Nations in 2003 when former Secretary of State Colin Powell showed what appeared to be evidence of Iraqi nuclear facilities for producing weapons of mass destruction, which later turned out to be untrue.

Nadia Bilbassy of Al-Arabiya television says that people in the Arab world tend to believe that Syria was not building a nuclear facility. But, she adds, there has been some kind of military agreement between Syria and North Korea for a long time. Nevertheless, the photographs that the U.S. intelligence community produced to demonstrate there were North Koreans at the Syrian site “need to be verified.” She calls it “very doubtful” that North Korea was providing Syria with plutonium to produce a nuclear reactor in the future. And the rationale for the timing of these disclosures is still “murky.” According to Ms. Bilbassy, Washington may be mainly trying to send a message to North Korea, but “if they can kill two birds with one stone, we should not dismiss the Syrian aspect” regarding peace talks with Israel. In fact, Nathan Guttman of the Jewish Daily Forward calls the possibility of an Israeli-Syrian accord involving the Golan Heights “one of those rare cases when Israel and the United States aren’t necessarily on the same page.” However, all the journalists agree that what lies behind the recent furor over Syria merits further investigation.

To listen to all of the comments, click on the audio link above.