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Syria fears unknown

By Neil MacFarquhar
New York Times

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DAMASCUS, Syria -- Last week, Syria's main scientific research institute staged its first air-raid drill in recent memory.

Damascus residents, who just days ago were either bemoaning the humiliation of Baghdad's rapid collapse or whispering about the chances of it provoking change at home, now wonder aloud if the United States Army plans to march on their city.

The Syrian foreign minister, Farouk Al-Sharaa, in his sole news conference since the war began, expressed bewilderment this weekend over what, exactly, Washington wanted from its barrage of threats against his country.

These are unsettled days in Damascus, a city that has long prided itself as the capital not just of Syria, but of all things Arab. The government of the young president, Bashar al-Assad, gained widespread popular support for its heated oratory against the United States over the war against Iraq. Indeed, hundreds of Syrian and other Arab volunteers rushed to fight in Iraq's defense.

But now Syria finds itself caught between burnishing its pan-Arab credentials by criticizing America and facing a new, painful fact: the United States is now on Syria's doorstep, across the border in Iraq, and the American administration has already shown it is ready to flex its muscles again even before the battlefield smoke clears.

Some reflective souls still muse about the chances of change in Iraq rattling the Baath Party's iron grip here, but the debate on possible American military action garners more attention.

"Some might believe that Rambo can move in many directions at once, but this is incorrect," Imad Fawzi Shueibi, a Damascus University professor and analyst, said on television last week. "Damascus has grown accustomed to political pressure."

Such confidence began to fray under the daily threats from Washington, however.

The warnings issued by President Bush himself, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and other senior advisers mostly seem to reflect American concerns that the Iraqi leadership might escape to Syria. But for good measure, the Bush administration is warning Damascus, in terms once reserved for Baghdad, against providing a place where groups the United States accuses of terrorism might find weapons of mass destruction. At the same time, the Bush administration has made clear it is not contemplating military action against Syria.

The United States issued no specific details about which senior Iraqi officials might have gone to Syria. Diplomats report no confirmation that any of the 55 most wanted members of Saddam Hussein's government, including Mr. Hussein himself, have entered the country. Rather, there is a sense that the repeated American warnings could be preemptive or could be based on information that rarely surfaces publicly.

There have been scattered press reports in Europe and the Middle East suggesting two possible scenarios. First, that the Russian diplomatic convoy that was fired on as it left Baghdad on April 6 actually smuggled out several senior Iraqis. Second, that Mr. Hussein's first wife, Sajida, traveled through Syria on her way to Moscow with several daughters, grandchildren and truckloads of goods.

Syria denies that senior Iraqis of any stripe have crossed the border. When American military officials noted that one of Mr. Hussein's half brothers was caught Sunday near the Syrian border, Buthaina Shaaban, the foreign ministry spokesman, noted drily that he was still in Iraq.

Damascus seems the most likely haven due to its broadsides against Washington over the war. But Syrian officials argue that senior Iraqis would not be welcome here.

First, the two countries have long been ruled by bitterly competitive branches of the Baath Party. Baghdad used to refer to the late President Hafez al-Assad as the "dwarf ruler" for joining the military coalition to evict Iraq from Kuwait, although trade relations have improved dramatically in recent years.

In addition, there has also been a marked public backlash against the tens of thousands of Iraqis living here, with Syrians cursing them in the street for failing to go back to fight for their country.

As to the other accusations, Syria denies facilitating the travel of any volunteer fighters across the border or allowing weapons across. Top American military officers have said they know of no official Syrian role in recruiting volunteer fighters, although Syrian identification papers have been found on some of the dead.

But there is a belief in Washington that Syrian businessmen made a lot of money procuring banned goods for the Iraqi military, like night vision goggles. That trade could not have proceeded without at least the tacit knowledge of the government.

The United States has long accused Syria of having chemical weapons and the Scud missiles to deliver them, charges that Syria has always strongly denied.

Such issues used to be buried in the background when the United States was seeking Arab-Israeli peace. But they have gained new prominence since the Bush administration began focusing on Iraq and the whole question of weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East. The United States has long accused Damascus of supporting groups it calls terrorists, especially Hezbollah. But analysts here note how fast Washington turned to Syria for help in fighting Al Qaeda and how positively Syria responded to those requests for assistance.

Indeed, governments in the Middle East and beyond say they are at a loss to explain why the United States is being quite so vociferous in comparing Syria to Iraq. The brewing crisis with Syria has already alarmed moderate Arab states worried that a prolonged American presence in Iraq would create greater regional instability.

Mr. Hussein, they point out, was a vicious ruler bent on dominating the region. They believe Syria's sole regional objective is to get back territory occupied by Israel since 1967.

"They just want to get back the Golan Heights, not fight the United States," said Mohamed Ismail, the Egyptian ambassador in Damascus.

Syrians believe that what seems like an orchestrated campaign from Washington is intended to thwart that very goal. Having weakened the Arabs by occupying Iraq, they think the United States wants to undermine Syria.

"I tell you frankly, sometimes they don't know what they want," Mr. Sharaa said in a news conference on Saturday, the only time a senior official responded. "Sometimes they say you have weapons of mass destruction smuggled from Iraq to Syria, the next day, in the Israeli press, they say the opposite."

Mr. Sharaa said Washington had yet to present any evidence.

Washington's pique likely also stems from its experience with Syria's past record of wily meddling, in Lebanon and Iraq. Syria denied pumping some 200,000 barrels of Iraqi oil during the past two years bargain-priced oil that kept its economy afloat but put money in Mr. Hussein's coffers.

With the war, Mr. Assad made some rather pointed remarks, expressing the wish that the United States would either be defeated militarily or forced to flee by internal resistance. His comments clearly had some resonance across the Arab world. At a demonstration at Al Azhar mosque in Cairo last Friday, the chant booming off the walls was "Bashar, Bashar, set the world on fire!"

Some analysts believe that such popular sentiment will help Syrians overlook the fact that the president has not delivered much by way of promised economic or political change in the nearly three years since he inherited the presidency from his late father. But it clearly also drew the ire of Washington.

One Western analyst expressed puzzlement as to "why senior Syrian leaders had gone far beyond what was necessary to satisfy regional public opinion in backing the dying regime of Saddam Hussein."

"It would seem to leave Syria in a very exposed position," he said.

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