In a recent speech on the Middle East, President Bush called on Syria to close terrorist camps within the country and expel terrorist organizations. Some Syrians reply that is hardly a fair comment since their country has cooperated with the United States in hunting down al-Qaida. Their quarrel, they say, is with Israel, not the United States.
Yes, Syria has provided valuable information in the war against al-Qaida, says Talcott Seelye, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria. "The differences between us are based not on the fact that Syria itself, the Syrian government, is engaged in terrorism," he said, "but rather that it harbors a splinter Palestinian group in Damascus, which has committed terrorism, and also apparently facilitates some training in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon of forces which practice terrorism."
Terrorism is a matter of definition, replies Murhaf Jouejati, a Syrian scholar in residence at the Middle East Institute in Washington. President Bush's definition is not Syria's, says Mr. Jouejati. That is why the two countries remain at cross-purposes.
"For the United States, the organizations that Syria supports against Israel are viewed as terrorist organizations," he said. "In the view of Syria, these are resistance movements that are legitimately fighting for liberation of their land."
Palestinians are freedom fighters, says Mr. Jouejati. By supporting them, so are Syrians.
He believes President Bush made a serious mistake in appearing to support Ariel Sharon's aggressive policies. The consequences, he says, could be explosive.
"The perception in Israel is that Mr. Sharon has a green light," he said. "There is an enticement for Sharon to go after Hezbollah positions in the South of Lebanon, possibly Syrian positions in Lebanon and we hope not, but possibly even Syria itself," he said.
Prime Minister Sharon complains that Syria is permitting Iran to send an alarming amount of weapons to the Hezbollah in Lebanon.
But an Israeli attack on Syria would be a major escalation of the Arab-Israeli conflict, says Mr. Jouejati. Perhaps other states, like Iran, would get involved.
Don't count on it, says Ambassador Seelye, who also believes an Israeli strike is possible. No other Middle Eastern state is going to join a lost cause.
"Syria wants to avoid, as much as it can, any confrontation with Israel, knowing that Israel's military prowess is so far superior to Syria's that it would suffer an ignominious defeat. So they are leaning over backwards to avoid that."
In the meantime, says Mr. Jouejati, Syria, like other Arab states, is too preoccupied with the Palestinian struggle to come to grips with its domestic problems. He believes Syrian President Bashar Assad is a genuine reformer who has yet to make good on his reforms. A settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would make it easier for him.