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Last Updated: Saturday, 10 April, 2004, 05:17 GMT 06:17 UK
Syria benefits from Iraq unrest

By Kim Ghattas
BBC correspondent in Beirut

Syrian President, Bashar al-Assad
Syria's President Bashar al-Assad has been under US pressure
The growing unrest in Iraq is a source of worry for all Arab countries, but in Damascus there is also some satisfaction at the failure of the American experiment in bringing democracy to the Arab world.

As they watched statues of Saddam Hussein being toppled, many Syrians wondered whether the day would come when statues of the late Syrian president Hafez el Assad would also be brought down.

Syrian officials anxiously watched the events unfold and wondered whether they would meet the same fate as their Iraqi counterparts.

But one year on, if there is anything that Syrians and their government agree about, it is that the American way is not the way to bring about change.

Breathing space

Still, with American tanks just 250km (150 miles) from Damascus, Syrian officials must have had many sleepless nights over the last year.

President Bashar al-Assad's regime clings to the hope that the US will remain too busy in Iraq to look next door.

Other events in the Middle East are also giving Syria some breathing space.

US President George Bush had been about to slap sanctions on Syria when Hamas' spiritual leader Sheikh Ahmad Yassin was killed - the sanctions were postponed so as not to increase tension in the region.

But even a week into the Iraq war last year, Washington's sights were already on Syria.

The US accused Damascus of supporting Saddam Hussein's regime by sending military equipment to Iraq and allowing Arab volunteers to cross the border to fight American troops in Iraq.

It has also accused Syria of supporting radical militant Palestinian groups such as Hamas.


The border remains a source of friction, with the US repeatedly accusing the Syrian authorities of not doing enough to prevent fighters from crossing into Iraq.

For a few weeks during the war itself, hundreds of young Arab men were bussed into Iraq.

Syria says its border with Iraq is too long to control tightly and refers again and again to the difficulties the US faces in controlling its border with Mexico.

Last month, one American and one Syrian soldier were killed in skirmishes on the border.

Statue of late Syrian president, Hafez Assad
Will statues of late Syrian president, Hafez Assad, be toppled one day?

Newspapers in Lebanon reported this week that, following the incidents, the US changed jurisdiction of Syria and Lebanon from US command in Europe to Central Command in Qatar.

One opposition figure in Damascus, who wished to remain anonymous, said Syria was wrong to think it could get away with doing as little as possible for as long as possible in terms of responding to American demands.

"This time Syria will not be let off the hook. The US is serious about its threats towards Damascus," he said.

"The US preparations for the Iraq war took several years, from setting up an opposition abroad, to sanctions and so on. But in just seven months, the US has already done all of the same in relation to Syria," he added.

Other observers say Washington will not do more than impose symbolic sanctions on Damascus.


Still, there is a growing sense in Syria that the Baath regime can be challenged as it faces uncertain times following the collapse of its Iraqi counterpart.

Last month, Kurds in Syria rioted after several were shot by police during a football match.

In the following days, more clashes took place and statues of the late president Assad were defaced in the Kurdish areas in the north-east of Syria.

But as Syrians watch events unfold across the border, they are worried about the void that would be left behind if the regime was brought down or collapsed.

More and more intellectuals and human rights activists are openly calling on the Syrian regime to bring about change itself.


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