- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 16, 2001

NICOSIA, Cyprus Syrian President Bashar Assad appears to have confirmed his country as a hard-line state unwilling or unable to help break the deadlock in the Middle East, say observers.

According to Western diplomats, the 35-year-old Mr. Assad "dropped his mask" when he tried to exploit the recent visit by Pope John Paul II by describing Israel as a land "of might and arrogance instead of right and justice."

A few weeks before that, he shut the door on the possibility of Syrian troop withdrawal from Lebanon by saying they might remain there "even after the completion of the peace process in the region."

One diplomatic dispatch concluded that no change was likely "in the way Syria looks at its regional environment."

Mr. Assad´s statements and their analyses thus ended nearly a year of speculation about the intentions of the son of the late President Hafez Assad, who had kept Syria in a tight grip for nearly 30 years.

Described initially as a potential reformer favoring a more open society at home, the young Mr. Assad still wants a freer economy but under a highly controlled political system, China appears to be his model, some diplomats say.

At the same time, according to one authoritative view in the area, "the Syrian army will continue to be a key pillar for the government and an instrument in promoting the regime´s interests on the domestic and external fronts."

Such views, while dampening the feeble Western hopes of using Syria´s new leader as a potential peace broker, have brought dismay and acrimony to the increasingly divided political forces in Lebanon, where Syria keeps a 35,000-strong military contingent.

According to Lebanese left-wing Druse politician Walid Jumblatt, "the problem is not Syria´s physical presence here, but its direct and blatant interference in Lebanon´s internal affairs."

Beirut´s Christian daily Al Nahar wrote that "The United States and the international community know very well that the decision making is done in Damascus."

And the newspaper added: "Lebanon´s position in the game of confrontations has shrunk, if it has not vanished. The economic situation is on the verge of collapse. Emigration increases daily…. There is no special peace, reconciliation or dialogue."

While Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir, the Maronite patriarch of Lebanon, has intensified his calls against Syrian military presence, some of his statements incensed Muslim politicians who consider them as potentially divisive in a country still healing from the scars of the 16-year civil war.

In a fiery sermon, Muslim Grand Mufti Mohammed Rashid Qabbani said that demands for a Syrian withdrawal have led to "a split that everyone is complaining about… and to a state of anxiety and instability."

To the Arabic language Al-Hayah, a daily newspaper published in London, "Damascus has no fears whatsoever of any security chaos in Lebanon because matters are under control."

Under the command of Gen. Kanaan Ghazi, Syrian agents have become ultimate deciders in appointments not only of senior Lebanese officials but even of key university posts.

The half-million strong Syrian army is considered to be a "difficult opponent" for Israel. Deprived of arms supplies from the former Soviet Union, Syria has acquired Scud and Scud D surface-to-surface missiles from North Korea — potentially covering virtually all Israeli territory.

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