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
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.