WASHINGTON, May 19 (UPI) -- During the initial frenzy that followed the fall of Baghdad, Syria's government felt the heat of America's resolve to continue its war on terror. Believing that a military attack was a distinct possibility, the Syrians tried very hard to appease the United States, who now had combat-ready troops positioned in nearby Iraq, with whom Syria shares a 600-mile border.
Being in Damascus that week, I can attest that the Syrians felt the pressure.
As a first step, the Syrians immediately sealed their borders to fleeing Iraqis and even surrendered a few renegades from Saddam's regime to American forces in Iraq. But in the weeks since the official end of military operations in Iraq, the pressure seems to have somewhat abated, and some analysts believe the Syrians are not taking America's threats as seriously as they should.
"The father was at least able to read a road map," said Martin Indyk, a senior fellow and director of the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution, speaking of former Syrian President Hafez Assad.
"But his son," continued Indyk, "surrounded by old timers of his father's regime, was unable to read the map."
At the center of the Bush administration's debate with Syria -- and Iran -- lie accusations that both countries possess weapons of mass destruction and continue to support terrorist groups.
"Iran, it seems, has understood the shift in the region," said Indyk, speaking Monday at a conference titled "Striking a balance: The future of U.S.-Syrian relations" that was organized by the Middle East Institute.
"Damascus," said the former ambassador to Israel, "still does not get the message. It either gives up its support of terrorism, or it continues down this road and finds itself the focus of American attention."
Translated into non-diplomatic parlance, "the focus of American attention" means Syria could well face the same predicament that Iraq has, if it continues to play this double role of appearing on the one hand to cooperate with the United States, while on the other, pursuing its old policy.
While the Syrians have gone out of their way to cooperate with the United States in tracking down al-Qaida terrorists, they have continued to flirt with other groups, which it does not consider to be "terrorists."
Bush administration officials want Syrian President Bashar Assad to discontinue his support of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, the Palestinian Islamic fundamentalist groups responsible for much of the violence in Israel and Palestinian occupied territories, and of Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant Shiite organization that they also accuse of terrorism.
Others, including many in the Middle East, argue that Hezbollah is no longer engaged in terrorist activities. True, intelligence sources have tied them to the bombings of the American Embassy in Beirut in April 1983 and the truck bombings of the U.S. Marines and French army barracks in October of that same year. But since they disengaged from the nasty business of kidnapping Western hostages about a decade ago, it is indeed hard to pin any terror acts on them.
Naim Qassem, Hezbollah's deputy secretary-general, told this correspondent last month during a conversation in Beirut's southern suburbs that they "did nothing but resist occupation and fight Israel."
Hezbollah's only recent military activities have been limited to fighting Israeli troops who occupied parts of south Lebanon. Since Israel's withdrawal in May 2001, Hezbollah has restricted its attacks to the Sheba Farms -- a small parcel of land that Israel still occupies, but which it claims belongs to Syria.
"Over the years, I have watched Hezbollah become a political party," said Richard Murphy, a senior fellow in Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and also a former U.S. ambassador in the Middle East. Murphy said Hezbollah displayed "extraordinary self-discipline" and called the Bush administration's accusations that Hezbollah was involved in terrorism overstated. "It sounds exaggerated to me."
Nevertheless, Syria still has the issue of Hamas and Islamic Jihad to deal with. Both groups maintain offices in Damascus. Syria insists they are purely informational bureaus. Still, the United States (and Israel) would like to see them shut down. Syria feels it can continue to push the United States and stall for time, much as Saddam did. And while the United States remains tied up in Iraq, it appears unlikely they will attempt to aggressively engage Syria. But eventually Iraq will settle down, allowing the United States to refocus on Damascus. Assad will then have to make some quick and tough choices.
"Syria is at a crossroad, it must make a choice," said Edward Walker, president and chief executive officer of the Middle East Institute.
Indeed, it must.
(Claude Salhani is a senior editor with United Press International.)