- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 26, 2004

NICOSIA, Cyprus — Conciliatory moves by Syria have left many Middle East diplomats puzzling over the motives of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

One diplomatic assessment speculated that Mr. Assad was impressed with Libya’s emergence from international isolation and would like to follow a similar path. Others simply see a cosmetic effort to get out from under U.S. sanctions.

Mr. Assad’s decisions include a promise to increase cooperation with the United States and Iraq to control the 370-mile-long Syria-Iraq border, a favorite crossing area for “death volunteers” from across the Arab world, and a redeployment of Syrian troops in Lebanon.

Israeli and some other Western critics dismiss the moves, pointing to Syria’s continuing domination of Lebanon, where the Damascus government pressured the parliament to extend the term of office of pro-Syrian President Emile Lahoud by three years.

“Syria’s tampering with the presidential election is not an existential threat to Lebanon,” said the English-language Beirut Star daily. “But it is a serious threat to Lebanon’s capacity to enhance the rule of law as a foundation for continued national rejuvenation.”

Israel, which sees Syria as one of the major obstacles to a Middle Eastern solution, voiced skepticism and caution, particularly about the removal of 3,000 Syrian troops from the outskirts of Beirut.

The Israeli daily Ha’aretz reported that Mr. Assad “is hoping for an American defeat in Iraq, but fears he will be incriminated as an accomplice to the violent subterfuge there. … With its new military configuration, Syria is not giving up control over Lebanon but seeking other means of maintaining control.”

The redeployment, affecting only a small part of the 20,000 Syrian troops in Lebanon, is seen as a result of U.S.-led international pressure, which this month pushed through a U.N. Security Council resolution calling for Syrian troops to leave Lebanon.

Syria has dominated Lebanon’s political scene since the 15-year civil war ended there in 1990. Syria and Mr. Lahoud claim the redeployment, the fourth in recent years, is in line with the 1989 Taif agreement, which ended the civil war. At that time, Syria’s military strength in Lebanon was about 40,000 troops, concentrated mainly in the Bekaa Valley.

Washington has been critical of Syria’s conduct in Lebanon, and the State Department continues to list it among countries tolerating or supporting terrorist organizations on their territory.

During a recent visit to Damascus, William Burns, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, called on Syria to “end its interference in Lebanese internal affairs.” He added, “The time has come for concrete steps. We stress that what is essential now is genuine progress, not rhetoric.”

Syria’s diplomatic overtures have been prompted by punitive new U.S. economic sanctions under the Syrian Accountability Act. The measure bans new investment by U.S. oil companies in Syria, limits exports and keeps U.S. aircraft from Syrian airspace.

The strictly controlled Syrian press tried to minimize difficulties with the United States by stressing the need for dialogue.

“If the U.S. administration is really committed to peace and wants a sincere partner to make it, it can find none better than Syria,” said the government-owned Tishrin daily.

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