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Last Updated: Tuesday, 28 September, 2004, 12:31 GMT 13:31 UK
Syria feels pressure to reform
By Kim Ghattas
BBC correspondent, Damascus

An angry crowd buried a man on Monday who met a violent death.

The funeral of Izz El-Deen Sheikh Khalil in Damascus
Syria says Khalil was not involved in terrorism
Izz El-Deen Sheikh Khalil, a member of Hamas, had lived in Syria since Israel expelled him from Gaza in 1992.

Now it looks as if Israel's long arm reached him here. He was killed in a car bomb on Sunday.

Israel has not officially admitted it was behind the killing, although Israeli security admitted as much - making it a rare Israeli foray into Syria.

Although Israel and Syria are still technically at war, this is only the second time in 30 years that Israel has struck at Syrian territory.

In Gaza, Mr Khalil's brother said the killing would not weaken Hamas. He promised Israel would pay the price for every Hamas leader it killed.

The Syrian government must take steps to halt the activities of states, organisations and individuals that engage in terror activities
William Burns
US Middle East envoy
There has been no word on retaliation from Syria. With its obsolete army it can ill afford a military escalation.

The killing is an embarrassment, a rare security breach in a country where the leadership likes to think it is in full control.

But the car bomb was not a total surprise - Israel had repeatedly warned that it would target Hamas leaders everywhere, including Damascus.

Syrian officials insist members of the radical Palestinian organisation living in the country are not politically active or engaged in any violence.

But Israel and the US think otherwise.

The US Middle East envoy, William Burns, said in Damascus recently: "President Bush remains committed to peace, but peace cannot be achieved against a backdrop of terror and violence.

"The Syrian government must take steps to halt the activities of states, organisations and individuals that engage in terror activities on and from its territories, and from Lebanon, and that direct such violence and terror."

The wreckage of the car of Izz El-Deen Sheikh Khalil in Damascus
The assassination is presumed to be a rare Israeli foray into Syria
Mr Burns said Syria had to take concrete actions on these demands by the American administration.

The US also wants Syria to stop anti-American fighters from crossing into neighbouring Iraq, and to withdraw its 17,000 troops from its other smaller neighbour, Lebanon.

Until now, Syria has been slow to act. It is finding it hard to face the changing reality in the region.

A popular play, The Night Baghdad Fell, has been showing in Damascus for almost a year.

Syrian state television is ridiculed on stage for the way it dealt with the war in Iraq. While statues were being brought down in Baghdad, Syrian TV was showing cultural documentaries.

Humam el-Hout, the playwright, says that without rocking the boat too much, he is trying to send a message to Arab leaders: that they need to wake up and heed the fate of Saddam Hussein's regime.

He says Syria might be the next target, and leaders of the country need to gain the support of their people to confront the threat.

'Youth deserve better'

Some believe the only way to do that is by opening up and bringing about reform.

But despite all the promises by Syria's young President Bashar al-Assad, change here is slow - too slow for young Syrians I met in a café. They did not want to be identified.

"I'm very disappointed, I lost hope, I don't want to think about it anymore," said one.

"What needs to change?" I asked.

"To open everything. It's enough - 40 years of being closed - to be deprived of the minimum needs. The youth deserve much better," says one.

"I'm positive towards Syria, I don't' see it as bad as it's seen from outside. Changing comes slowly, but it comes," says another.

"Do you agree with your country's foreign policy?"

"I don't agree at all with Syria relaxing its border, or sending people to Iraq. But I understand the need for this - because they don't want this example to succeed. If this example of Iraq being liberated by Americans [succeeds] and there is democracy, this is not in the interest of Syria or any other Arab regime, so they want this to fail.

We are worried, but we are trying to do our best. We are always willing to discuss the US concerns and Syria is ready to go half-way
Syrian adviser Riad Daoudi
Even before Sunday's car bomb, the Syrians were already feeling the squeeze.

It is not just the US putting pressure on Damascus. The Syrians are also losing allies like the French, who took Damascus by surprise by joining the Americans in sponsoring a UN resolution criticising Syria's role in Lebanon.

In a country where foreign politics is often about face-saving and posturing, there is now a humble admission that things are just not going that well.

Riad Daoudi, an adviser to the foreign ministry, says: "We are under pressure. We are worried.

"We are worried, but we are trying to do our best. We are always willing to discuss the US concerns and Syria is ready to go half-way."

It is not often that Syrian officials speak out so candidly.

That is perhaps why Damascus finds itself in the situation it is in today - isolated and under pressure.

The Syrians appear to have consistently misread the signs, maybe because they believe other leaders also rarely mean what they say.

But the Israelis certainly seem to mean every word. Last weekend's attack will have been a wake-up call, a clear message that things may only get tougher on Syria.

Israelis admit Damascus bombing
27 Sep 04  |  Middle East
Press alarm at assassination in Syria
27 Sep 04  |  Middle East
US tells Syria to leave Lebanon
11 Sep 04  |  Middle East
Israel and Syria swap peace barbs
08 Sep 04  |  Middle East
UN backs Lebanon sovereignty call
03 Sep 04  |  Middle East
Country profile: Syria
11 Aug 04  |  Country profiles

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