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How do Analysts View Bush's Warnings to Syria? - 2003-04-14

U.S. officials, including President George W. Bush, have accused Syria of possessing chemical weapons and of sheltering senior Iraqi officials. Syrian officials have denied possessing any weapons of mass destruction or that its government had ever cooperated with the regime of Saddam Hussein.

In remarks to reporters on Sunday, Mr. Bush said "there are chemical weapons in Syria" and that "the Syrian government needs to cooperate with the United States and our coalition partners and not harbor any Baathists, any military officials, any people who need to be held to account."

On Monday Syrian President Bashar al-Assad held talks with British and Saudi envoys in Damascus to, among other things, discuss the allegations. Other Syrian government officials flatly denied Syria possesses any weapons of mass destruction or is harboring Iraqi fugitives.

Mohammed Aziz Shukri is a political analyst in Syria and the former chairman of the international law school at Damascus University. He said President Bush's warnings to Syria cannot be seen as anything other than a provocation.

"For the president of the United States to come out on television and say that Syria must cooperate my question is who, in the name of heaven, does he think he is. Is he the god of this Earth? He has no right to address a sovereign country, however small it may be, the way he is doing that unless he is trying to provoke Syria into having a kind of conflict with the U.S.," Mr. Shukri said.

Senior U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Colin Powell, have said there are no plans to take military action against Syria.

Political analyst Hassan Nafae said he doesn't think such plans exist. However, the head of the political science department at Cairo University said he does believe U.S. officials, by speaking so bluntly, are trying to pressure Syria into ending its support for groups responsible for attacks on Israel.

"If Syria gets frightened, maybe it will try to push Hezbollah for more moderation. I don't know if this will be enough for the Americans or not but otherwise, in my opinion, the real target for most of the Americans and the Israelis, after Saddam Hussein is toppled, is to try to eliminate the so-called extremist groups, fundamentalists like Hamas, Jihad and Hezbollah," Mr. Nafae said.

With the whereabouts of Saddam Hussein unknown, there has been widespread speculation throughout the Middle East that the former Iraqi leader, if alive, may have attempted to seek asylum in Syria. It is known that in recent days Iraq's ambassador to the United Nations, Mohammed al-Douri, arrived in Syria saying he plans to stay there until he can return to Baghdad. And a half-brother of Saddam Hussein was taken into custody near Iraq's border with Syria.

According to Uraib el-Rantawi, who heads the al-Quds Center for Political Studies in Jordan, there is reason to believe Syria may be offering asylum to fleeing Iraqis. "When it comes to the asylum for some Iraqi leaders I cannot ignore such a possibility because Iraqi and Syrian leaderships, I think, established a good relationship over the previous years and I think such a possibility is there, we cannot ignore it," he said.

But not all analysts share this view. Abdel Moneim Said is the head of the al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. He said the political relationship between Damascus and Baghdad had only recently begun to improve.

"There is a connection, at least a historical connection. However, they have been in animosity most times. During the Iran-Iraq war Syria sided with Iran against Iraq. And those countries were holding the opposition of the other country in its own territory. So, you get opposition to Iraqi Baath in Syria and opposition to Syria in Baghdad and they continued this way until the last few years in which things mellowed. But as far as I know there was no full diplomatic relations between Damascus and Baghdad," he said.

But while the U.S. administration has issued strong warnings to Syria, most analysts in the region say they believe Washington has no intention of backing up the warnings with military action.

Instead, they say, the United States is trying to maximize economic and diplomatic pressure on President Assad to change the course of his country and, in the process, help reshape the political landscape of the Middle East.