DAMASCUS, SYRIA -- A sense of gloom-tempered defiance hangs over this capital city as
President Bashar Assad's stand against U.S. policies in the Middle East pushes
this hard-line Arab nation toward the top of the Bush administration's radar
Hostile remarks about Assad's regime, including hints that Syria will be
the next American target of "regime change," have emanated in recent days from
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, his deputy Paul Wolfowitz and Secretary of
State Colin Powell.
On Wednesday, Reps. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla.,
said they would seek action on legislation authorizing President Bush to
impose economic and military sanctions on Damascus, and to restrict Syrian
diplomats' travel in the United States.
"Now that Saddam Hussein's regime is on the precipice of defeat, it is time
for America to get serious about Syria," Engel said.
The messages have reinforced a sense of isolation and menace among ordinary
Syrians as well as the Assad government, and they are being interpreted as yet
another sign of Bush's determination to install U.S. dominion over the Middle
"So many of the leaders of our Arab brothers have sold their countries to
America in exchange for their own political survival," said Ahmad Mahmood, a
45-year-old electrician who recently participated in several anti-war
demonstrations in Damascus.
"Those who have not become targets. Anyone who stands against American
hegemony is attacked.''
Though Syrians have no love for tyrannical regimes like those of Hussein
and the Taliban, they have virulently opposed post-Sept. 11 military actions
by the United States, fearing they are a prelude to a 21st century
neocolonialism driven by U.S. and Israeli interests.
"Who gave Bush the right to march his army into any country and change
whatever he wants? Any human being who values his or her rights would oppose
such a thing," said Mohammed Al-Ibrahim, an analyst based in Damascus.
The versions of the Baath Party that have ruled both Syria and Iraq for
three decades didn't always see eye-to-eye, though their repressive style of
rule bears many similarities. But they long found common cause in their hatred
of Israel, hostility toward the United States and economic self interest.
A U.N. sanctions-busting pipeline has pumped out 130,000 barrels of oil a
day from Iraq to Syria in recent years, providing more than $10 million a
month in profits to both countries.
The loss of that trade due to the war and the thought of 200,000
American troops next door give Syrian leaders the jitters.
"Syria's most concrete worry is that they're next, and that has been
driving their bilateral and international relations since the campaign against
Afghanistan began," said a U.S. diplomat in Damascus.
Relations between Washington and Damascus have long been strained due to U.
S. support of Israel and Syria's backing for the Lebanese-based Hezbollah
militia and other radical Palestinian groups. Washington also accuses Assad's
government of pursuing weapons of mass destruction.
"Whatever help Syria has provided in tracking down al Qaeda elements, the
country is well aware that it still remains on the (State Department's) list
of states that sponsor terrorism," the diplomat said.
Assad has struggled to emulate the stature achieved by his father, Hafez
Assad, over three decades of authoritarian rule. But the war on Iraq has
handed him an opportunity to step up as the Arab world's most vociferous
opponent of the conflict.
Unlike Iraq's other neighbors, Syria has kept its borders open to all,
allowing hundreds, if not thousands, of volunteers eager to aid the Hussein
regime to cross into Iraq while permitting Iraqis fleeing the war to enter
Syria -- including some Hussein cronies, according to Rumsfeld.
Assad and his government have issued daily condemnations of the war,
labeling it the first active expression of President Bush's controversial
doctrine of pre-emptive strikes against U.S. foes. Assad even went so far as
to publicly state he hoped the coalition would lose the war.
The moves have served to mask the failure of the 36-year-old leader to
institute widespread reforms, as he promised to do upon succeeding his father.
In a clever twist for a regime that rarely permits expression of political
opinion, Assad opened up the streets to daily protests that snarl traffic in
Damascus's city center.
"He's playing to the streets, hedging his bets, trying to turn the anger of
the average Syrian away from the government here and direct it solely at
Washington," said the U.S. diplomat.
For the time being, Assad's risk-filled strategy seems to be working.
"This may be the best thing he's done as president," said political analyst
Al-Ibrahim. "Someone has got to take stand against these evil American and
©2003 San Francisco Chronicle