Friday, October 1, 2004

Israel and Syria are trading furious charges over who is trying to undermine whom as Syria seeks to curry favor with the Bush administration.

The government of Syrian President Bashar Assad this week accused Israel of assassinating a prominent member of the radical Palestinian Hamas organization on the streets of Damascus as a way to halt a recent thaw in U.S.-Syrian ties.

“Obviously there are a lot of strategic games being played in the region right now,” said Joshua M. Landis, a leading U.S. expert on Syria at the University of Oklahoma.

“All three parties — the Syrians, the Israelis and the Americans — are internally divided over what the next steps should be,” he said.

The killing Sunday of Palestinian militant Izz Eldine Subhi Sheik Khalil — widely believed to be the work of Israeli intelligence — came in the midst of a series of moves suggesting that Damascus and Washington were seeking a better bilateral relationship.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell had what he described as “good, open and candid meeting” with Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk Sharaa on the sidelines of last week’s United Nations General Assembly meeting.

He praised Syrian pledges to do more to control the notoriously porous border with Iraq, which U.S. officials say has been a primary crossing point for Islamist radicals fighting U.S.-led forces.

The Bush administration also praised Syria’s decision — under heavy international pressure — to redeploy some of the estimated 20,000 Syrian troops in neighboring Lebanon.

And this week, despite the Khalil killing, U.S. military and Iraqi government officials traveled to Damascus for three days of talks on how to tighten security along the border. A U.S. Embassy spokesman in Damascus called the talks “constructive and positive.”

Although it was almost universally assumed in the Arab world that the United States at least tacitly approved of the Israeli strike, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Wednesday that the United States had no prior knowledge of the attack.

Syria also quietly ordered two Hamas leaders based in Damascus to leave the country earlier this year.

The government of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has not officially taken responsibility for the attack, but Mr. Khalil was thought to have helped finance a Hebron terrorist cell responsible for a suicide bombing in Beersheba Aug. 31 that killed 16 persons.

Mr. Sharaa flatly accused Israel of trying to undermine Syria’s efforts to improve relations with the United States.

Israel, he said, is “a constant source of negativity, giving false facts about the region and fabricating Syria’s reputation in it.”

Syria under Mr. Assad is desperate for economic growth; it watched the U.S. military campaign against Saddam Hussein with growing alarm. But its deployment in Lebanon is the country’s best bargaining chip in its bid to recover the Golan Heights from Israel.

For its part, Mr. Sharon’s government faces an internal debate over whether it should try to negotiate with Syria. Mr. Sharon would be faced with making politically risky compromises on the Golan Heights even as he faces bitter criticism from his own political base over a proposed withdrawal of Israeli settlements in Gaza.

And Mr. Landis said Mr. Powell’s relatively benign remarks about Syria’s recent moves are rejected by hard-liners in the Pentagon and elsewhere, who feel that a weakened Syria is now even more likely to bow to direct pressure rather than diplomatic rewards.

“Syrians feel they have bent over backwards and gotten nothing for it,” said Mr. Landis. “All of this comes down to a question of whether Syria is an irredeemable rogue state or whether Bashar Assad is someone the Untied States can work with.”

Robert Jordan, U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia from 2001 to 2003, said Israelis tend to see American ties with even moderate Arab regimes as a “zero-sum game.”

“It often seemed that whenever something was happening to improve relations with an Arab state, something would appear in the Israeli press, or an [Israeli] official would say something to suggest that the Arab country was not really so moderate,” he said.

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