- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 19, 2003

DAMASCUS, Syria, April 19 (UPI) — Accusations by several Bush administration officials that Syria possesses chemical weapons and may be harboring some of Iraq's leading Baathists — now on the run — have been received in Damascus with concern and trepidation.

The concern stems from what the United States might do next as it consolidates its position in Iraq and pursues its vision of the Middle East road map. Many officials here in Damascus fear this map is set on a course that could lead to disaster for them, as well as for the United States.

Although Theodore Kattouf, the American ambassador to Damascus, tried to reassure the Syrian government by saying that "Syria is not a target," people here remain skeptical. Nevertheless, Kattouf admitted there were "concerns" in the United States over aid allegedly given by Syria to the regime of Saddam Hussein.

"I hope the Syrian government recognizes the importance of recent events in Iraq and considers carefully where its interests lie," said Kattouf in a clear warning to Damascus. Kattouf was speaking to the Arabic news channel, Al-Arabia, in an interview that will air next week.

Syria realizes only too well these are no idle threats. Such warnings from an all-powerful America that now sits with a formidable military force on its doorstep, only about 150 miles from Damascus as tanks roll, cannot be ignored.

"We are afraid," admitted a senior government official to United Press International. "These are the same warnings the Americans made to Iraq six months ago. It started out with small accusations and ended up with an invasion of the country."

At the same time the Syrian official warned the Americans that they, too, should be worried. "They are awakening religious consciousness in the Arab world that is very dangerous and that will come back to haunt them."

The official, who asked not to be named, explained America's invasion of Iraq could unleash Islamic forces that could turn Iraq into an Islamic country. "This is not something America wants and not something Syria wants either," he added.

Iraq saw its first major anti-American demonstration Friday, when thousands of Muslims took to the streets of Baghdad, demanding immediate U.S. withdrawal. Earlier, two key Iraqi Shiite groups boycotted the first American-organized conference in post-war Iraq, in An Nasiriyah.

The war in Iraq was very closely followed by Syria, a country which shares a 400-mile desert border with Iraq. It is over this porous frontier that some Iraqi officials might have eluded coalition forces and Syrian border guards, and sneaked into the country.

While Syria and Iraq shared a common political ideology until Saddam's fall, so far as both countries were ruled by the Baath party, this is where all similarities end.

In fact, the only common denominator between Iraq and Syria was the party's name. The two branches of the Baath party diverged on practically every issue and often accused each other of malevolency.

Baghdad harbored Syrian dissidents and Iraqis opposed to Saddam's rule found refuge in Damascus. Amin al-Hafez, a former Syrian president who fell out of favor with Assad and fled to Iraq in the 1960s was refused entry into Syria last week. He remains stranded at the Syro-Iraqi border, a border the Syrians insist is now sealed.

To be sure, Syria is no Jeffersonian democracy by any stretch of the imagination. It remains a closely watched society and political dissent is not tolerated. However, it must also be stressed that Syria is no means comparable to Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

Syria is a far more open society than its neighbor to the east was. Even the former president, Hafez Assad, and founder of the Assad dynasty, who held a tighter rein on the country than his son and inheritor Bachar, could never be compared to Saddam.

Assad, the father, did use strong-arm tactics, and did order his army to bombard and put down an uprising by the Muslim Brotherhood in Hama, in 1981. But again, this is not comparable to Saddam's use of chemical weapons on the Kurds in the town on Halabja.

Officials in Damascus deny that Syria would offer asylum to fleeing Iraqi leaders, whom they blame for instigating the Muslim Brotherhood uprising in Hama, as well as a number of terrorist bombings in the 1980s.

"We have been at odds with Saddam for 30 years," said the government official, "why should we help them now?"

Adding to the uncertainty and worries is a visit to Damascus that Secretary of State Colin Powell was reported to be making soon. The State Department now says its words "in the near future" were overinterpreted in the media.

(Claude Salhani is a senior editor with United Press International.)

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