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Analysis: Is Syria next?

By CLAUDE SALHANI

LONDON, April 14 (UPI) -- The war in Iraq is hardly over and already President George. W. Bush and his chief advisers are rattling the saber at Syria, honing their sights on Damascus.

Syria has shared a Baath ideology with Iraq but the rival parties in Damascus and Baghdad have long been at political odds. Over the years, many Syrian Baathists have fled Damascus to seek refuge in Baghdad. Such is the case with former Syrian President Amin al-Hafez, who sought political asylum in Baghdad in the 1960s, and is at present trying to return to his native Syria. And, of course, the reverse is equally true as Iraqi Baathists tried to remain one step ahead of the hangman's noose by fleeing to Damascus.

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While Syria's late President Hafez Assad supported the U.S.-led alliance that ousted Saddam Hussein from Kuwait 12 years ago, this time around, his son, Bashar, has sided against the Anglo-American coalition. Damascus' stance was not so much in support of Saddam Hussein as it was against America's intervention in the Middle East, which naturally, Syria eyes with great apprehension.

Many Middle East analysts now believe Syria could well be the next cog in the American pacification plan of the Middle East.

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In a clear warning to Assad's government, Bush Sunday accused Syria of having chemical weapons.

The fog of war, compiled with images of victory -- the toppling of statues of a brutal megalomaniac dictator and the liberation of American prisoners of war -- may by now have blurred the reasons that sent Anglo-American troops marching into Iraq in the first place. It was, if we can remember that far back now, to search for weapons of mass destruction, which, by the way, have yet to be found.

Now the Bush administration is saying those weapons could be in Syria.

"We believe there are chemical weapons in Syria," Bush said.

Bush and his top advisers also accused Syria of a number of other transgressions.

"Making bad mistakes" and being "unhelpful" were among the sins attributed to Damascus by the Bush administration. Bush told Syria "it must cooperate" with Washington.

Washington also accused Syria of offering refuge to fleeing Iraqi officials. Damascus must not harbor any of the top echelon members of Saddam's regime, warned U.S Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. The same warnings were echoed by Secretary of State Colin Powell.

Earlier in the conflict, the United States had accused Syria of sending night vision goggles to the Iraqis and facilitating the passage of Arab volunteers wishing to fight American forces in Iraq. Gen. Tommy Franks, the Central Command coalition commander in Doha, Qatar, also joined the chorus of those pointing accusing fingers at Damascus, saying Syrian fighters had joined Iraqi soldiers to fight inside Iraq.

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Understandably, the young Syrian president voiced concern over these accusations, which Syria said was a "campaign of disinformation." Syria is worried, and with good reason, too.

What might have in the past been put off as American saber-rattling diplomacy has now become a harsh reality of just how serious Washington has become, and just how seriously those remarks should be taken. As was proven by the invasion of Iraq, the rattling saber is not to be ignored.

In its post-Sept. 11, 2001, frame of mind, Washington appears firmly set on pre-emptive policy-making. This means actively going after potential threats before they have a chance to strike at America.

Whether Damascus does possess weapons of mass destruction or not, Washington has long believed -- and accused -- Syria of supporting terrorism, particularly some of the more radical Palestinian groups, and Hezbollah, the Shiite Muslim Lebanese militia.

Washington believes Hezbollah to be responsible for the bombing of its embassy in Beirut and for the attack on the Marine compound at Beirut airport in 1983 that left 241 American servicemen dead.

In its drive and determination to thwart terrorism before it can strike at America or its interests, the United States is now well poised to strong-arm Damascus into reining-in these groups. Suddenly American pressure on Damascus is no longer purely political and/or economic. With the might of the U.S. Army now firmly positioned along its eastern (and southern) borders, Syria is caught between Iraq and a hard place.

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(Claude Salhani is a senior editor with United Press International.)

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