Syria: A New Iraq in the Making

DAMASCUS – Syria is almost visibly wilting under a double American onslaught.

The Bush administration made it clearer than ever this week that it regards Syria as an important source of unrest in Iraq. At the same time President George Bush made hardly any attempt to hide his conviction that Syria was involved in the murder last February of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri.

The United Nations team investigating the assassination of Hariri will start questioning Syrian officials next week.

Detlev Mehlis who heads the inquiry held talks in Damascus Monday to work out the details of interrogations. He had said earlier that there were "problems" over Syria’s cooperation with the investigation.

People in Damascus are apprehensive about the effects of the UN investigation on the country. Several talk of an "Iraq scenario" where the country would come under heavy sanctions. Syrians are worried they will not be able to get foreign goods and spare parts, and fear an embargo on international flights.

Marwan Kabalan from the Center for Strategic Studies at Damascus University says many people are worried about sanctions. "Everybody knows they will be aimed at the big guys, but it will be the regular people who get hit," he told IPS.

Joshua Landis, an American professor living in Damascus said sanctions were on everybody’s mind. People also feared that reforms would be halted because the leadership would be too busy defending itself, he said.

Remarks from U.S. officials this week did nothing to alleviate such fears. U.S. ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad bluntly accused the Syrians of aiding the insurgents in Iraq.

But the real danger may come form the Mehlis investigation that has already netted some of Syria’s top allies in Lebanon.

The four most important chiefs of security services in that country when Syrian troops were still present were charged last month with complicity in the Hariri murder. Many in Damascus believe these generals could not have acted without Syrian prompting.

The state-controlled Al Thawra newspaper repeated the government’s worries that Syria’s enemies will exploit the investigation. It voiced a "fear that the Mehlis mission could become politicized…to achieve political objectives that threaten the security of the region and its future." It went on to point the finger specifically at Israel.

The Lebanese newspaper AsSafir reported Monday that "the United States and France have agreed to raise the pressure on Syria."

The feeling of being under attack was reinforced when President Bashar Assad cancelled plans to attend the UN General Assembly session in New York. This was ostensibly to be in Damascus for the UN inquiry, but the decision came amid expectations that he would be snubbed by many world leaders.

Landis said government officials were shocked by the cancellation. They fear the investigation and its aftermath may "box in" the Syrian leadership the way Saddam Hussein was.

Lebanon’s pro-Syrian president Emile Lahoud is attending the meeting in New York despite being heavily criticized for it at home. Lahoud’s close personal aide Mustafa Hamdan who commanded the presidential guards is one of the four people charged with the murder.

The official SANA news agency said that "Syria will fully cooperate with the international investigation committee and offer it all possible facilitations, especially that Syria is very concerned in exposing the truth about the crime of the assassination of Hariri, since this will be in its interest."

But a Western diplomat in Damascus said the government may not yet have grasped the importance of fully cooperating with the UN probe. Kabalan says the government is aware of the importance of cooperation but the extent to which it will actually go will depend on Mehlis’s requests.

A Syrian political analyst said a "new guard" is now running foreign policy in Syria "and they don’t understand the first thing about foreign policy." He said they had not learned from their mistakes and they may well "mess up the cooperation with the UN team."

The Western diplomat said Syria may try to "get off the Mehlis hook" by doing more to prevent aid for insurgents in Iraq crossing the border, and by getting rid of the militant Palestinian factions in Damascus. But he said this was likely to be "too little too late" and that "they are reaping what they sowed."

The political analyst said the government may want to make a deal with the Americans "like Gadhafi in Libya" in which they give up some of the people who were involved in Hariri’s assassination in return for the U.S. not pushing regime change in Syria.