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Last Updated: Saturday, 3 May, 2003, 23:53 GMT 00:53 UK
Analysis: Washington's demands on Syria

By Lyse Doucet
BBC correspondent in Damascus

US Secretary of State Colin Powell speaks of a new dynamic in the Middle East. It is not surprising that Damascus was his first stop in the region since the fall of Saddam Hussein.

Ever since American forces went into Iraq, Arabs have been asking, "Who's next on Washington's list?"

Mr Powell took pains to say there was no list of military targets. But his visit to Damascus and Beirut has made it clear Washington has a new agenda and expects them to be part of it.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad (left) and US Secretary of State Colin Powell, in Damascus, 3 May 2003
Damascus and Washington know they need to work together

Colin Powell said the Syrians had been getting a "pretty steady message" from Washington.

For weeks now, there have been accusations and threats regarding Syria's alleged development of chemical weapons, its support for militant Palestinian and Lebanese groups, as well as remnants of Saddam Hussein's regime who have fled into Syria.

Mr Powell said these were serious concerns but he said he had come here to look at the bigger picture. He wanted to hear President Bashar al-Assad's views on the "new strategic situation" following the fall of Saddam Hussein and the publication of a road map for an Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Pressure on militants

In Mr Powell's diplomatic speak he said he wanted to see whether Syria now wanted take a look at its old polices in light of this new situation.

The secretary of state spelt out what that meant - an end to Syria's support for militant groups Washington classifies as terrorist.

They include the Lebanese Hezbollah. It is an organised political party with seats in Lebanon's parliament. But its armed militia threaten Israel's security along Lebanon's southern border.

Mr Powell was categorical. Hezbollah was carrying out terrorist acts in the Middle East and around the world. They had to stop, and he made it clear Syria was the right address for help.

But for Syria, Hezbollah's activities are legitimate resistance to what it considers to be Israeli occupation of Palestinian and Syrian lands.

Washington will have to push hard on this front.

Mr Powell admitted he was not expecting immediate results from this trip. But he did announce some unexpected progress.

Syria has now closed the offices in Damascus of some anti-Israeli groups, and Mr Powell said he expected more steps to come.

Syria's balancing act

Syria says it wants dialogue not ultimatums from Washington, but it is clear Damascus recognises that in this new regional dynamic the US is taking the lead.

If President Assad wants to play a leading role in moves to achieve a broader Arab-Israeli peace, and if he wants to see the return of the Golan Heights captured by Israel in the 1967 war, he knows he must try to work with the United States.

Mr Powell knows that for Syria and the rest of the Arab world, movement on the Israeli-Palestinian track is a litmus test of Washington's intentions in the Middle East.

Arab leaders want to know if demands on them will be matched by pressure on Israel.

Mr Powell would only say that all sides have to fulfil their obligations and take risks.

President Assad inherited his father Hafez al-Assad's mantle in 2000 as a defender of Arab causes.

His unflinching opposition to the war in Iraq earned him credit on Arab streets.

He must somehow maintain Syria's traditional interests but avoid the threat of sanctions now being pushed by hardline elements in Washington.

Syria has some hard choices to make, but Mr Powell made it clear that in this new regional dynamic there is only one direction to take.

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