- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 11, 2003

NICOSIA, Cyprus — The Syrian government, excluded from recent peace-making efforts in the Middle East, is openly predicting the collapse of the process led by the United States.

Official Syrian statements contend that the “road map” outlined by President Bush is doomed to failure, and government-inspired editorials renewed attacks on U.S. conduct in Iraq.

According to the government owned Al-Thawra daily in Damascus, in Iraq “human rights have turned into hunger, unemployment and new prisons that kill Iraqis and their dreams.”

Wrote Tishrin, another newspaper controlled by the government, “There is no certainty that a final Israeli-Palestinian peace will ever be achieved.”

One Western diplomatic report quoted official Syrian sources as describing the recent summit in the Jordanian port of Aqaba as dealing mainly “with the protection of Israel’s security and the curbing on the Palestinian resistance.”

Participating in the summit were President Bush, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority.

Many diplomats are puzzled by the intensity of the Syrian campaign, particularly in view of recent statements by Mr. Bush and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell.

Mr. Bush has said he discerned “positive signs” from Syria, and Mr. Powell has said he expected Syria to remove militant Palestinian organizations from its territory.

Yesterday, however, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs William Burns, in an interview to the Lebanese daily As-Safir, accused Damascus of not reining in Palestinian militant groups as demanded by Mr. Powell during a visit last month.

“Until now we have not seen enough changes that allow us to say the Syrian regime is taking into account strategic developments in the region,” Agence France-Presse quoted Mr. Burns as saying.

At the same time, diplomats report continuing concerns over Syrian chemical and biological weapons, and improvement of their delivery systems.

While some sources say that Syrian President Bashar Assad has begun reforming banking and telecommunications and has purged a number of senior security officials, other Syrian experts doubt that Mr. Assad has full control over the country, particularly over the military.

“Bashar is not there because he is good but because he is his father’s son,” said one British source, referring to the president’s late father, President Hafez Assad. “To keep the dynasty, Bashar must keep up repression.”

The Syrian press was prevented from publishing a letter addressed to Mr. Assad by 287 Syrian intellectuals, political activists, lawyers and members of the medical profession. They called for broad reforms including the freeing of political prisoners and the ending of martial law.

The letter, made available in Beirut, stated that the reforms were needed to confront “the change of the strategic facts around our country which have placed Syria between two enemies possessing such power that has never before been assembled against it.”

The “enemies” were a reference to Israel and Iraq, now under U.S.-led occupation.

The signatories stated that the government alone cannot cure “our diseases.” But there is “a real cure, namely comprehensive national reform in which citizens and political forces must participate.”

Among the proposed measures were the curbing of security agencies, allowing “the freedom of opinion, expression, assembly and travel,” and holding a national conference on “ways to strengthen national unity and bring our country out of its crisis.”

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