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Arab world looks to Syria

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By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN, Times Senior Correspondent

© St. Petersburg Times
published April 15, 2003


Now that Saddam Hussein is gone, Syrian President Bashar Assad may be the Bush administration's least favorite Arab ruler. But that's making him all the more popular on the Arab street.

Assad's staunch opposition to the war in Iraq has endeared him to millions of Arabs, especially in Jordan and other countries whose leaders publicly denounced the war yet let U.S. forces use their bases and airspace.

And at an antiwar rally in Syria itself, demonstrators carried a giant poster of Assad alongside one of the late Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Decades after his death, Nasser is still revered for his vision of a united Arab world free of Western domination.

The posters' message was clear -- Assad is heir to Nasser's legacy.

"Syria traditionally is perceived in the Arab world and by Syrians as the bastion of Arab nationalism. In fact, Nasser himself called Damascus 'the beating heart' of Arab nationalism," says Murhaf Jouejati, a Syrian expert at George Washington University.

With the departure of Saddam Hussein -- until recently considered another great hero -- "the Arab world now looks to Syria to give it some kind of leadership," Jouejati says.

But whether Assad, 37, can provide that leadership depends on how Syria emerges from the ongoing war between hawks and doves in Washington.

Syria has been a target of neoconservatives because of its support for Hezbollah and other groups with a history of attacks against Israel. In recent days, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld also has accused Syria of harboring chemical weapons, smuggling military equipment to Iraq and sheltering top officials of Hussein's regime.

The allegations -- which Syria has denied -- have convinced many Syrians that their country is the next U.S. target.

But Secretary of State Colin Powell and other dovish members of the Bush administration have repeatedly said there are no plans to attack any other nation. And Sunday, President Bush seemed to strike a more conciliatory tone: "We expect cooperation, and I'm hopeful we'll receive cooperation."

It's irrefutable that some top people in Hussein's regime have sought refuge in Syria; his half brother was captured late last week while heading there. There have been rumors, too, that other Hussein relatives are in the Mediterranean city of Latakia, on the so-called Syrian Riviera.

But most experts doubt that Syria would take in Hussein or do much else to help the doomed regime.

"Bashar wants to survive and get closer to the West, and he wants to protect himself," says Nadim Shehadi, an expert on Syria at Oxford University. "He's not going to be stupid enough to challenge the United States and protect Saddam."

Syria has long been a difficult case, given its problematic relations with both the West and neighboring Iraq.

Syria and Iraq share an ideology rooted in the Baath Party, a secular, socialist, pan-Arab movement that began in Syria in the 1940s and later spread to Iraq. Although committed to Arab unity, the party was unable to unite its branches in Iraq and Syria, resulting in a split that hurt the countries' relationship for years.

During the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, Syria supported Iran. It also joined the U.S.-led coalition against Hussein's regime during the 1991 Gulf War. But alarmed by a growing military alliance between Turkey and Israel, his neighbors to the north and south respectively, Syrian dictator Hafez Assad began a rapprochement with Iraq in the late '90s.

After Assad died three years ago, his son, Bashar, a British-educated eye doctor, took power and began instituting social and economic reforms. Syria has cooperated in the war on terror and, as the only Arab nation on the U.N. Security Council, voted for the resolution ordering Iraq to disarm its weapons of mass destruction.

But Assad has angered Washington with his harsh criticism of the strike on Iraq, which he claims is part of a U.S. plot to control the Middle East. Syria also delayed closing its border after the war began, allowing fighters from other Arab countries to pour into Iraq and take up arms against Anglo-American forces.

Experts doubt the United States will attack Syria militarily. But they predict renewed efforts in Congress to pass the Syrian Accountability Act, which would impose economic and military sanctions like those against Iran and other countries deemed "state sponsors" of terrorism.

Thus, for Bashar Assad, the challenge in coming months will be a huge one: to expand his role as an Arab leader while sufficiently patching up relations with the United States to keep Syria from becoming hopelessly isolated.

"The main thing about the fall of Saddam," says Oxford's Shehadi, "is that he is a symbol of Arab nationalism and his demise will create a vacuum. Certainly Bashar Assad will try and fill that."

-- Susan Martin can be contacted at susan@sptimes.com

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