In the post-Sept. 11 world, US perceptions of Syria teeter
between new ally in the "war on terrorism" and traditional enemy of
stability in the Middle East.
Since Sept. 11, Syrian information has been instrumental in
catching militant Islamists around the world, say US officials. But
at the same time, Syria's hatred of Israel - and the Jewish state's
own "war on terrorism," directed at militant Palestinian
organizations - has created a difficult balancing act for those who
would seek better relations between the United States and Syria.
Even as the US prepares for a landmark Texas dialogue between
Syrian and American intellectuals, businessmen and diplomats next
week, a bill passed by Congress last week threatens to derail this
mini-summit. The bill proposes the withholding of visas from
citizens of countries considered sponsors of terrorism - a category
that includes Syria.
"If the president signs the act, we will not go, as it will be an
insult to our mission and would render it senseless. There's no
sense in going to try and convince those that already believe we are
guilty," says Mohammed Aziz Shukri, a professor of law at Damascus
University who is among 10 prominent Syrians scheduled to attend the
May 20 - 22 gathering at Rice University in Houston.
Relations run hot and cold
The spat is symbolic of the complicated relationship that exists
between Washington and Damascus, that alternates between periods of
wary cooperation and icy tension. Syria is classified by the State
Department as a state sponsor of terrorism for supporting
Palestinian groups opposed to the Middle East peace process, such as
Islamic Jihad and Hamas, as well as Lebanon's Hizbullah
organization. Syria says it rejects terrorism but backs groups that
resist Israeli occupation of Arab land.
In the wake of Sept. 11, Syria cooperated with the CIA in passing
on information on Islamist radicals suspected of having connections
with the Al Qaeda network of Osama bin Laden. Damascus has little
sympathy for Islamist militants, perceiving them as a potential
threat to the secular regime. Many Islamist radicals arrested in
Europe and the US after the Sept. 11 attacks are believed to have
been identified from information provided by Damascus.
A new thaw
There were indications that, despite their differences, the
relationship between Damascus and Washington was beginning to warm.
In January, two congressional delegations and several American
officials visited Damascus and held talks with Syria's youthful
President Bashar al-Assad. Syria's relationship with the US has been
bedeviled by a host of factors. Its strong stance against Israel,
its backing of groups that Washington considers engaged in
terrorism, its suspected acquisition of chemical and biological
weapons, and the alleged smuggling of oil from neighboring Iraq in
breach of United Nations sanctions have all caused diplomatic
"We are concerned about Syrian advances in its indigenous CW
[chemical weapons] infrastructure [and believe Syria is] pursuing
development of biological weapons and is able to produce at least
small amounts of biological warfare agents," said Undersecretary of
State James Bolton in a speech last week that listed Syria, Libya,
and Cuba as "rogue states. …