- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 23, 2004

After decades of strained diplomatic relations worsened by the U.S. invasion of Iraq and climaxing with passage of the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act, could Syrian-U.S. relations be starting to thaw?

Not exactly. “There are some serious doubts about Syrian policy,” said a senior U.S. government official, who asked not to be identified by name.

Indeed, Washington has long pressed Damascus to drop its support of what it perceives to be terrorist groups and to withdraw its armed forces — believed to number about 16,000 — from neighboring Lebanon. American officials have often lobbed accusations at Syria, reproaching it for pursuing weapons of mass destruction programs, accusations denied by Syria. This prompted the Bush administration to impose economic and diplomatic sanctions on Syria, which went into effect when President Bush signed the Syria Accountability Act into law last December. “There are institutions in Syria funding the terrorists in Iraq. There are institutions in Syria colluding with our enemies,” said the U.S. official.

The official would not elucidate which institutions were involved in promoting anti-American activities in Iraq. However, drawing conclusions from a number of sources, it would seem the Syrian government does not sanction those activities.

Additionally, in what may be perceived as a slight shift in policy, Syria reportedly agreed to cooperate militarily with the United States and Iraq in preventing Islamist fighters from crossing its long and porous border into Iraq, where insurgents have targeted U.S. forces. According to one report, attacks against American forces in Iraq has climbed to a staggering 80 daily.

But U.S. officials stop short of saying there is a thaw in relations with Damascus. “We need to see concrete results first,” said the U.S. government official, stressing “Syria should not be used as a platform for funding fundamentalism.”

Imad Mustapha, Syria’s ambassador to Washington, said the new moves come while Syria wants to cooperate with the United States. Mr. Mustapha, speaking from Damascus Monday, confirmed to this correspondent that Syrian forces would take part in joint security operations along the Syrian-Iraqi border with American troops, with the aim of preventing jihadis from crossing into Iraq. However, a U.S. government official called Syria’s announcement “premature spin.” But he did confirm “military discussions” are under way with Syria.

Military cooperation with Syria — if it proceeds — would be a first. The Syrians have cooperated with the United States on the intelligence level in the past — particularly in helping the U.S. track down and interrogate al Qaeda members, or those suspected of belonging to Osama bin Laden’s terrorist outfit. But the two countries’ military forces working closely together is unprecedented.

Syrian Minister of Expatriates Bouthaina Shaanban, a close associate of Syrian President Bashar Assad, confirmed the cooperation between the U.S. and Syrian intelligence services to this correspondent last December, saying Syria’s cooperation “has saved American lives.”

According to Mr. Mustapha, the Iraqi border agreement was brokered during a visit to Damascus last week by Peter Rodman, assistant defense secretary for international security affairs, and William Burns, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs. The U.S. officials also pressed Syria on Lebanon, after the U.N. Security Council passed Resolution 1559 on Sept. 2 calling for “Lebanon’s independence and sovereignty” and on Damascus to withdraw fully from Lebanon.

On Monday, Syria announced it would redeploy its troops in Lebanon closer to the Syrian border. “There will be a major redeployment of Syrian forces in Lebanon toward the border,” said Mr. Mustapha. Syria has kept a large military presence in Lebanon since the 1975 Lebanese civil war, when Christian militias, then under heavy pressure from Palestinian and Muslim forces, asked Damascus to intervene on their behalf. Mr. Mustapha confided these moves were taken at this time because of “Syria having greater confidence in the situation.”

Acting under pressure from Damascus, the Lebanese parliament in early September voted 96-to-32 to amend its constitution and to extend the mandate of President Emile Lahoud for another three years. The former army commander — a staunch Syrian ally — had already served one six-year term, the maximum allowed under the constitution prior to the revision.

Besides the U.S. and France, a large number of prominent Lebanese religious and political leaders also criticized the move to alter the constitution.

It is not exactly clear how many troops are being redeployed and where precisely, other than “near the Syrian border.” It is clear the Syrian troops are not withdrawing into Syria but plan to remain for the foreseeable future in Lebanon.

Justifying Syria’s presence in Lebanon in an interview with UPI last December, Ms. Shaanban said with Syria “being at war with Israel,” it really cannot leave its borders unattended. “Our security is at stake,” she said.

Syrian Defense Minister Gen. Hassan Turkmani said Monday Damascus will keep troops in Lebanon until a peace treaty is reached with Israel. That means Syria’s troops could remain in Lebanon a while longer.

Claude Salhani is international editor of United Press International.

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