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Analysis: Syria's day of reckoning

By CLAUDE SALHANI, UPI International Editor

BEIRUT, Lebanon, June 22 (UPI) -- By all indications it is likely to be a long, hot summer in the Middle East, and not just as a result of the inclement weather.

Nearly two months after President George W. Bush announced the end of hostilities in Iraq, some Iraqis, mostly hard-core Saddam loyalists, continue to remain hostile toward American forces, killing on average one G.I. a day. Meanwhile, the hunt for Saddam Hussein and his weapons of mass disruptions continues.

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In nearby Iran students demanding an end to the ayatollahs' theocratic dictate and demonstrating for greater freedom are hardly likely to forgo their demands, particularly if there is any truth to Iran's accusations that the CIA is fomenting the unrest.

And despite the Quartet's roadmap, American efforts and direct involvement by President Bush, the precarious situation in the Palestinian occupied territories is not miraculously about to be resolved. Israel continues to target Palestinian leaders for assassination, and the extremists retaliate with suicide bombings. Additionally, not all players in the Middle East arena have accepted the new initiative.

"Syria (and Lebanon) don't want the roadmap to succeed," said a senior-level Jordanian government official who is intimately involved with the ongoing peace process.

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Now Syria is coming into the American spotlight again. Syria's opponents last week attained majority backing in the U.S. Senate, with 51 votes, to pass the Syria Accountability Act.

The bill – s.982 – calls on Syria to halt its support of terrorism, end its occupation of Lebanon, stop its development of weapons of mass destruction, cease its illegal importation of Iraqi oil, and hold Syria accountable for its role in the Middle East.

The proponents of the bill are now only 13 votes away from obtaining the majority vote for H.R 1828, a similar bill underway in the House of Representatives.

Since U.S. tanks rolled into Baghdad last April, Syria has come under renewed criticism and pressure from the Bush administration. The White House accused Syria of providing limited military assistance to Iraq and of offering haven to fleeing Iraqi Baathists. Those accusations come on the heels of other ills that the U.S. holds Syria responsible for, such as its continued support of what the U.S. considers to be terrorist groups.

"Syria will face a tough time," cautioned the Jordanian government official, speaking on condition of anonymity, and called the political stance adopted by President Bashar Assad, "unreasonable."

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Since it was first introduced in June 2000, the specter of the Syria Accountability Act was used in an effort to sway Syria and its young and politically inexperienced president to cooperate with the United States.

The U.S. admits that Syria has proved helpful and worked closely with its intelligence services in the post 9/11 period in matters relating to America's war on terror and the search for al-Qaida terrorists. However, U.S. officials say Syria has dragged its feet when it came to dealing with Palestinian Islamic extremism. Syria, they say, has been reluctant to jump onto the U.S.-driven Mideast peace train.

Syria, who openly supports Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Lebanese Shiite organization, Hizballah, considers them liberation movements. But according to well-informed Palestinian sources, the vast majority of suicide bombings carried out by Hamas and IJ, in Israel and the occupied territories, are conceived and ordered from offices outside the territories, mainly in Damascus and Beirut.

Such attacks have hampered efforts to move ahead with the roadmap drawn up by the United States, the United Nations, the European Community and Russia, and which Bush hopes will lead to peace and Palestinian statehood by 2005. In this light, Washington's resolve to curtail the extremists is understandable.

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No sooner had Saddam's statues been toppled in Baghdad than the U.S. started to increase its pressure on Damascus to shut down offices run by Hamas, Islamic Jihad and others in the Syrian capital.

During a visit by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell to Damascus in May, Assad assured Powell that the closures had indeed taken place. Yet, according to the Jordanian official, the offices remain open. "You can take my word on it," he said.

The Syrian official argued, however, that these "offices" are in fact homes where officials live and also work. "How can you shut them down?" he questioned.

Syria's president, influenced by his father's conservative old guard who remain resistant to major changes, both at home and in the region, believe they can hold the U.S. at bay, at least until Americans begin to lose interest in the area. With the presidential election campaign kicking off in less than six months, they believe it will not take long for the U.S. to disengage from the Middle East.

"Syria continues to misread (the situation). They still play tactics," added the Jordanian official.

"If you want to be part of the process, you have to buy a ticket," said the same official. The feeling among government officials, diplomats and observers is that Syria, so far, is refusing to take part in the game, let alone buy a ticket.

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(Comments may be sent to claude@upi.com)

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