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Last Updated: Monday, 28 February, 2005, 20:42 GMT
Syria's Lebanon conundrum
By Jon Leyne
BBC News, Damascus

Syrian troops in Lebanon
Syria has had troops in Lebanon since 1976
For the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad, recent developments in the Middle East have been very bad for business.

This is the country in the Middle East that stands to suffer most from the new international climate in President Bush's second term.

The rapidly developing situation has left President Assad unwilling or unable to respond.

For years Syria survived. Nobody in Washington much liked it, but successive US presidents felt they needed to keep open the channels to Damascus.

To listen to President Assad today you would think nothing has changed.

"Sooner or later (the Americans) will realise that we are the key to the solution," the Syrian leader told the Italian newspaper La Repubblica.

"We are essential for the peace process, for Iraq. Look perhaps one day the Americans will come and knock on our door."

That is exactly the logic that used to be favoured by Yasser Arafat, and before him by the former Serbian leader, Slobodan Milosevic.

New rules

As the analyst Michael Doran put it in Monday's New York Times: "Ever since the 1980s, Syria has played this game of being both the arsonist and the fire department."

Bashar Assad
How much real power does Assad wield?
The trouble is, the Bush administration has changed the rules of the game.

And there are many who believe Syria could be the next target for an administration that believes in massive demonstrations of American power.

Not that a US invasion, or even limited military action, is imminent. Indeed for the moment that would be counter-productive.

But Syria could be in for the sort of sustained diplomatic pressure that helped undermine the Iraqi government, long before US tanks rolled over the border.

The last visit from a US secretary of state is now a distant memory.

The US ambassador has returned to Washington for consultations, with no date set for her return.

A UN resolution, number 1559, has been passed demanding Syria withdraw its troops from Lebanon.

Reverting to type?

And Syria has precious few friends in the Arab world, as countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia struggle to stay in favour in Washington.

Syria is now in trouble over three issues - its involvement in Lebanon, alleged support for the insurgency in Iraq, and now new claims from Israel that Syria ordered the Tel Aviv bombing on Friday.

There is no sign yet that the Syrian government understands the depth of the crisis. Even if it did, it is hard to see what Damascus can do to placate Uncle Sam.

"This regime has shown that throughout the last five years, at times of crisis, it always falls on hardline positions," says Amman Abdulhamid, one of the loudest critics of the Syrian government.

"The lack of vision in this regime, and the inability to carry out a clear process of reform always ends up creating crisis."

"We have a really bad regime here, really stupid," explained another Syrian dissident, Haitham al-Malih.

"They can't see what's going on in the rest of the world."

Fiefdoms

Most critics of the government insist they nevertheless respect President Assad himself, whom they believe is a reformist.

The problem, they say, is that he does not have much power.

By most accounts Syria is now ruled by a series of fiefdoms, a series of private empires - particularly the intelligence services.

It makes changing course difficult if not impossible.

It also makes it possible to believe that elements in the government could have ordered the assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik Hariri, despite the fact that such an order would, in the words of President Assad himself, have been suicidal for Syria.

It is also true that Washington is blocking off Syria's room for manoeuvre.

Offers by the Syrian government to reopen peace talks with Israel, for example, have been firmly rebuffed. It is hard to see what Syria could do to ease American pressure.

The situation is compounded by developments in the rest of the Middle East.

The more peace there is between Israel and the Palestinians, the more isolated Syria becomes.

The more democracy appears to be taking hold in the region, the more Syria's one party rule looks an anachronism.

Little mobilisation

So whatever the truth of Israeli or American allegations, there would be a certain logic if Syria really is trying to sabotage peace in Iraq or Israel.

By all accounts, this is not Eastern Europe in the 1980s. Crowds are not about to take to the streets to overthrow the regime.

The standard of living here is poor, and political freedoms non-existent.

But years of repression have left the people apathetic. There is no real opposition movement.

But unless there is a sea change in the international climate, Syria faces years of growing isolation and economic decline, perhaps even one day UN sanctions.

And the only answer the Syrian government seems to have at the moment, is to play for time.


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