WASHINGTON, Feb. 15 (UPI) -- U.S.-Syrian relations hit a low Tuesday as Washington withdrew its ambassador from Damascus in the aftermath of the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and renewed calls for Syria to withdraw occupation troops from the country.
The White House said Ambassador Margaret Scobey gave the Syrians a stern message Monday detailing U.S. displeasure with Syria's occupation of southern Lebanon and "unhelpful" behavior in other Middle East matters.
Sources told United Press international it's those unspecified behaviors -- mainly Syria's support for terrorists who could derail progress in Israeli-Palestinian peace prospects -- that is fueling renewed U.S. heat on the regime of Bashar Assad.
"Syria is up to it eyeballs in terrorism," said a diplomat, who requested anonymity. "(Syria-supported) Hezbollah is working right now very, very intensively to either discourage or to foil the new process that is taking place between the Israelis and the Palestinians and have even threatened Abu Mazen (Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas) personally."
The source said over the past 18 months there had been an increase in financing, directing and training of Palestinians in southern Lebanon by the Syrian-backed organization.
Abbas, whose nom de guerre is Abu Mazen, has promised to crack down on attacks on Israel in an effort to move peace talks forward. So far he appears to have achieved some success, but he is walking a tightrope with Palestinian radicals.
Abbas's apparent sincerity has helped bring renewed hope of a possible peace settlement with Israel that would lead to a separate and independent Palestinian state.
Hezbollah is considered to be a terrorist organization and is supported by Syria and Iran. However, it is seen in Lebanon as a political party and is represented in the Lebanese parliament.
They are accused of running terrorist training camps in areas ostensibly under the control of Syrian troops and have engaged Israeli forces in an Israeli-occupied an area known as "the Shebaa Farms." Hezbollah claims the land belongs to Lebanon; Israel says it is Syrian.
Israel has accused Hezbollah of training and funding Palestinian Islamists organizations such as Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, sources said.
Hezbollah receives not only protection from the Syrians but also funding. Syria, analysts said, acts as a conduit for arms and is a transit point for Palestinian militants traveling to and from the training camps.
"The Middle East peace process pays very heavily into it (new tensions)," added former U.S. Ambassador Edward Walker, now head of the Middle East Institute in Washington. "Syria, if it so chooses, can pull the strings of Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah, and I think that is why the administration is trying to use the Hariri assassination as a pressure point on the Syrians without any clear evidence of a smoking gun" linking them to the killing.
Hariri, who helped rebuild Lebanon after 15 years of civil war, was killed in a bombing in West Beirut Monday after a meeting in Parliament. The rags-to-riches businessman had served at least 10 years as prime minister but resigned in October. He was a strong advocate for Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon and a rallying figure for those opposed to the pro-Syrian government of President Emile Lahoud.
The White House condemned the killing in the strongest language and said it served as a reminder that Lebanon needs to be independent and free of foreign forces.
"I don't have any update in terms of the investigation into who was responsible for carrying out this horrible terrorist attack on former Prime Minister Hariri," spokesman Scott McClellan said Tuesday. "What I do want to make clear is that Syria's troop presence in Lebanon is a destabilizing force.
"The people of Lebanon should be allowed to control their future free from outside interference and free from terrorism."
No group or country has been definitely tied to the assassination, but there was widespread feeling in Lebanon that Damascus was behind it.
"I think most Lebanese think Syria is involved," said James Phillips, a Middle East expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank. "There is a history here. Syria did engineer the assassination of Bachir Gemayel, the president-elect of Lebanon in 1982."
The White House has taken pains not to specifically claim Syrian involvement, yet curiously says, "We want to see Syria take steps to use their influence to prevent terrorist attacks from happening in the first place."
Syria, an ardent foe of Israel, has for years maintained a prominent place on the State Department's list of states supporting international terrorism. Following the death of its longtime leader, Hafez Assad, his successor, son Bashar, promised Secretary of State Colin Powell that Syria would close offices in Damascus of violent Palestinian groups and end any support of terrorist organizations.
Assad reneged. Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad still keep offices and leaders in Syria. Syria also is believed to be the host for Iraqi rebel leaders and is a transit point for foreign terrorists going to Iraq to fight U.S. and coalition forces.
Once a major figure in the Middle East peace equation, Damascus has been sidelined since 2000, when discussions between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Hafez Assad on a peace treaty to return the Golan Heights to Syria stalled.
Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia have become the prime regional players in greater Middle East peace efforts.
In September the U.N. Security Council passed a U.S.-French resolution calling for the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon. The troops -- about 14,000 -- originally went to Lebanon in 1975 to help end Lebanon's civil war. They failed.
The presence of Syrian forces gives Damascus strong influence in Lebanon's politics and policies.
"If you assume the Palestinians and the Israelis are moving into some sort of political process, then the spoiler effect of Hezbollah in the region becomes more significant," the diplomatic source said.
"The peace process is moving forward a bit, but it's still very vulnerable to those kinds of groups that won't abide by a ceasefire and will continue attacking Israelis. This can undermine the whole thing. We've seen this movie before -- what we are trying to do is isolate these extremist elements and get the world to really do something serious about them."
The United States said Monday it would pursue punitive action against those responsible for Hariri's killing and also pursue, with the United Nations, possible sanctions for Syria's disregard for the U.N. mandate.
Washington has applied sanctions against Syria, but European cooperation is seen as vital.
"We've basically imposed about all the major sanctions we can, but the Europeans still have a lot of leverage," said Phillips. "Their economy is a basket case, and they are looking for aid, trade deals, loans, help with their fledgling oil industry, and if the Europeans join us in these sanctions that would impose a major cost on Syria."
Walker, who served as chief U.S. envoy in Egypt and Israel, said Washington, Paris and others can hope in the short run that Syria will rein in its support for Hezbollah and Palestinian rejectionist organizations.
Pulling out of Lebanon may be more different. "I think the probability of Assad pulling out of Lebanon under external pressure is probably low, since it will be seen a matter of national pride," he said. "The real problem is that Bashar will be seen internally as very weak, and that will lead to people making assumptions and attacking (Syria's) the governing elite."
President George W. Bush directly slammed Syria for its support of terrorism in his State of the Union address. Hariri's death, Syria's meddling in Lebanon and danger to new hopes for peace in the Middle East give Bush the impetus and cover to act, and to act in concert with allies equally concerned about the peace process.
The announcement Tuesday that Washington had recalled Scobey from Damascus for consultations coincides with talks in Washington between State Department officials and Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit.
Egypt has been attempting to play a mediating role between Damascus and Washington.
"He has been stressing, and people in the administration understand, that Syria can play a positive role or it can play a highly negative role," Walker said.
"Abu Mazen has been fairly effective in assuring a period of quiet, but the fact is its temporary and that's why greater pressure has to be put on Syria to terminate that support (for terrorists) and turn off the pipeline.
" ... the flow of arms is certainly still going through Damascus from Tehran, and I'm having to assume the flow of finance as well."
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