NICOSIA, Cyprus — A rift is developing between the United States and Great Britain on how to confront Syrian President Bashar Assad and his uncompromising stand against Israel.
According to diplomats in the region, if the rift is allowed to grow, it may damage the cooperation between the two countries in Iraq.
Differences between Washington and Britain, its key ally in the war against Iraq, were accentuated by Tuesday’s U.S. veto of the Syrian-proposed resolution in the U.N. Security Council against Israeli plans to expel Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat.
Diplomats say Britain believes Syria should be included in the crippled U.S. “road map” to peace in the Middle East, particularly in view of Mr. Assad’s recent economic-reform plans and some overtures toward his political opponents.
Washington regards Syria as a “rogue state,” armed with weapon of mass destruction and offering safe haven to militant anti-Israeli organizations, including Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigades.
Syria opposed the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and statements by its senior officials have expressed doubt in the success of U.S. peacemaking efforts.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has accused Syria of facilitating the flight of some of Saddam Hussein’s leading aides and of the transfer of a part of Iraq’s arsenal across the Iraqi-Syrian border.
According to diplomatic sources, Britain has warned Washington it would not participate in any armed action against Syria. One report claimed that in view of Britain’s search for rapprochement with Mr. Assad, London would view with “horror” any use of force against Syria.
The United States, according to one report, “would become completely isolated” if it undertook any military action against Syria.
Britain, together with a number of European states, approve Mr. Assad’s recent reform moves, although they agree that Syria is a long way from any form of democratic regime.
According to one British report, Syria “is a one-party state where political activities are suppressed and the secret police fills the prisons with political prisoners who will never come before a judge.”
Nonetheless, Britain apparently believes that Syria should be treated as a potentially important player in peace efforts in the Middle East.
British analysts feel Mr. Assad’s position has strengthened as a result of the Iraq war.
However, there were no indications that Syria was about to change its uncompromising attitude toward Israel — or that Washington was ready to accept it as a partner.
In a recent statement, President Bush lumped Syria and Iran as countries continuing to “harbor and assist terrorists.”
“This behavior is completely unacceptable, and states that support terror will be held accountable,” Mr. Bush said