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Last Updated: Monday, 14 April, 2003, 22:20 GMT 23:20 UK
US attention turns to Syria

Paul Reynolds
BBC News Online World Affairs correspondent

After the fall of Saddam Hussein, the United States is turning its attention to Syria.

There are fears across the Arab world that one day American guns might be turned on Syria, too.

And that, even if they are not, American policy will be directed towards reshaping the Arab world just as Britain and France did after World War I.

The British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw says that Syria is not "next on the list" after Iraq.

But the Americans are certainly angry with Syria.

The Secretary of State Colin Powell is threatening sanctions.

Washington is making specific charges. The two most immediate are connected to the war.

The (Syrian) government's making a lot of bad mistakes, a lot of bad judgment calls, in my view, and they're associating with the wrong people
Donald Rumsfeld
The first is that Syria has helped Iraq over the past few months by providing equipment such as night vision goggles and by allowing Syrian and other fighters to enter Iraq to fight for Saddam Hussein's forces.

The second is that Syria is giving refuge to senior associates of Saddam Hussein.

Charges denied

The US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld summed up the American attitude saying: "The (Syrian) government's making a lot of bad mistakes, a lot of bad judgment calls, in my view, and they're associating with the wrong people."

There are two further charges against Syria. One is that it is developing chemical weapons and the other that it continues to help or harbour those whom the US regards as terrorists - the Lebanese Hezbollah and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas in particular.

Syrians reading Iraqi news
Syrians are keeping a close eye on what happens in Iraq

Syria remains on the US list of "states sponsoring terrorism."

Syria has denied the first three charges by saying that it has not helped Iraq, that is not hiding any senior Iraqi figures, (indeed that historically it has been hostile to Saddam Hussein, which is certainly the case), and that it has no chemical weapons programme.

As for the fourth charge, it says that the groups named by the US maintain only "press offices" in Damascus.

Domino effect

American attitudes towards Syria appear to be part of a wider policy. There are some in the Bush administration who favour the advancement of democracy in the region through the "democratic domino" effect which is supposed to follow the establishment of representative government in Iraq.

Their view was reflected in Britain in an article in the London Times by William Rees-Mogg who declared: "The American victory on Iraq is a warning to the tyrants and terrorists of the world. The momentum of liberty continues to accelerate."

Others in Washington simply think that now is the time to exert American influence in the region, whether democracy happens or not.

Force unlikely

Syria is generally regarded in Washington as an ossified regime despite the arrival of the young President Bashar al-Assad. He is seen as continuing the policies, certainly the foreign policies, of his father.

Bashar al-Assad
Despite his youth Syria's president is regarded as a conservative leader

Unlike Britain, which prefers an active but discreet dialogue with Damascus, the US prefers to make its demands very publicly.

Jonathan Stevenson, Senior Fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London said that he did not think that the US would use military force against Syria.

"Even the Bush administration would think that unduly provocative," he told BBC News Online, "having alienated swathes of Arab opinion by not getting the second resolution for action against Iraq."

However, he did think that the US would give "more attention to Hezbollah."

"And Syria is Hezbollah's landlord," he added.

Israeli pressure

Israeli is certainly hoping for pressure on Syria. The Israeli Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz has said that Israel has a "long list of issues that we are thinking of demanding of the Syrians."

"It starts with removing the Hezbollah threat from southern Lebanon," he said. Israel has for long accused Syria of fomenting trouble along its border with Lebanon by supporting Hezbollah.

Hezbollah guerrillas
Syria is accused of supporting Hezbollah

Syria itself sees the hand of Israel behind the American attitude and suspects that the US is now picking off the enemies of Israel one by one to facilitate a settlement with the Palestinians along Israeli lines.

Dr Buthamiah Sha'ban of the Syrian Foreign Ministry said that US accusations against Syria emanated from Israel, which she described as the "main instigator" in harming US-Syrian relations.

Whatever the origin of the policy, Syria is in the frame. And perhaps Iran will follow.

The BBC's Frank Gardner
"For years this regime has supported militant Arab causes"

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