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Last Updated: Wednesday, 14 December 2005, 22:26 GMT
Syrians defiant as accusations mount
By Ian Pannell
BBC News, Damascus

You might have thought that Syrians would be getting rather used to the bad news these days.

After all, they have had plenty of time to adjust to their status as something of an international pariah.

Damascus street scene
Syria is isolated from changes taking place elsewhere in the region
They are under pressure from the United Nations and its investigation, and under political and diplomatic siege from Washington, Paris and London.

The country has few useful friends left in the region.

It has got war and instability on its border with Iraq, Israeli troops on the Golan Heights, and incoming verbal fire from its Lebanese flank.

Yet it is with a sense of wounded national pride and defiance that Syrians greet the latest news.

Raed Jabri and his family watch al-Jazeera TV to find out what is happening in the world, and it makes grim viewing.

Once again their country is suspected of complicity in the planning and execution of an assassination plot that left the former Lebanese Prime Minister, Rafik Hariri, and many others dead.

It is accused of being tardy and obstructive in its dealings with the investigating team.

Mr Jabri is dismissive of the latest charges, accusing the US of engaging in a much larger conspiracy.

"America thinks Syria is supporting the Iraqi resistance, Hezbollah and Palestinian fighters. Syria is a thorn in their side because it is the only country that didn't bow down and comply with their demands," he says.

It is a familiar charge made both by the government and the people.

Trapped in time

Since the UN team began its investigations, one key witness has recanted his testimony, another has been imprisoned, accused of lying, and a third has died in a mysterious car accident.

President Bashar al-Assad has successfully used these events to his advantage, undermining the credibility of the UN investigation at home and turning the issue into a national crusade.

Outside a flag-draped tent erected in central Damascus, a small crowd chants: "God, Syria and President Bashar". It has become a focal point for regular pro-government demonstrations.

However political analyst Professor Marwan al-Kabalan says that, behind the scenes, the Syrian government is trying to present a more co-operative front.

"Syria has recently been cracking down on infiltrators into Iraq, trying to send signals to Washington that they are willing to co-operate with the Palestinian authorities and make a deal with Israel," he says.

In a small cafe in old town Damascus, a crowd of men sit and smoke, sipping herbal tea and listening to traditional music. It is a charming image, sure to make any tourist's camera click.

But the city and the country feel trapped in time, isolated from the political and economic changes taking place elsewhere in the region.

Perhaps the UN investigation will be a catalyst for much-needed change, but there appears to be little in its latest report that will ease the tension in Syria or its relations with the outside world.

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