- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 13, 2001

Administration officials said yesterday they see Israel's border area with Syria and Lebanon as a potential flash point, accounting in part for Secretary of State Colin Powell's weekend decision to visit Damascus.

The Syrian capital was added Sunday to the itinerary of Mr. Powell's first solo trip in his new post, a swing through the Middle East beginning Feb. 23 that will include stops in Egypt, Jordan, Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

Most analysts believe the area where the three nations meet a wild area controlled by guerrillas under Syrian protection is the most likely place for a wider Middle East war to begin.

The region is "clearly … an area of concern and a potential area for violence that we've been worried about," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said yesterday.

David Makovsky, an analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, has said it is "not inconceivable that Israeli-Palestinian hostilities could spin out of control and deteriorate into regional war."

"Repeated attacks across Israel's northern border [and] the growing acceptance of Iraqi entreaties by Israel's neighbors Jordan and Syria" fed into concerns about the area, he said. Iraq yesterday announced it was resuming air service to Damascus after a break of 19 years.

Mr. Makovsky also noted concerns that Israel's prime minister-elect, Ariel Sharon, "will react as harshly to provocations as he has in the past."

Mr. Powell also wants to visit Damascus because of Syria's long border with Iraq, which is attempting to weaken U.N. sanctions imposed after its 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

Iraq is reported to be shipping oil through a pipeline to Syria in apparent violation of the sanctions, but Mr. Boucher said the United States has been unable to verify that.

Mr. Powell also is interested in meeting Bashar Assad, the former eye surgeon who took over the leadership of Syria after the death of his father, Hafez Assad.

The State Department could not confirm that the arrival of an Iraqi Boeing 747 in Damascus marked the start of twice-a-week commercial service as announced by Iraqi Transport Minister Ahmad Murtada in Baghdad.

Hussein Mahfuz, the head of Syria's civil aviation department, told Agence France-Presse it was "certainly not a regular flight" and that the owner of the plane which the Iraqis said was carrying their commerce minister, Mohammad Mehdi Saleh, along with six Arab passengers "is not registered in Iraq nor in Syria."

While Mr. Powell and the State Department regard Syria as a threat to peace it remains on the U.S. list of terrorist states its new president has begun making tentative moves to open up his nation's repressive, centrally planned and isolated system of government.

European Commission President Romano Prodi ended talks with Mr. Assad Sunday and said the two sides could sign an association agreement before the end of this year that would permit Syria to trade with the European Union on a competitive basis in exchange for major economic reforms.

But there is little evidence of any softening of Syria's hostility toward Israel.

Mr. Assad has reissued a demand that Israel hand back to Syria all the land it took in the 1967 war, including the last 10 yards along the shore of the Sea of Galilee, which Israel refused to hand over in peace talks last year.

The Financial Times reported that Mr. Assad for the first time has made peace with Israel conditional on that country's reaching a settlement with the Palestinians.

Many analysts fear that Lebanese Hezbollah and Palestinian guerrillas, operating under the protection of Syria's army in Lebanon, will mount attacks into northern Israel.

Mr. Sharon, the architect of Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon, might reply with attacks on the guerrillas as well as the Syrian army in Lebanon.

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