Syria Fears Isolation More Than War

Bouthaina Shaaban, an articulate former professor of English and translator for the president, runs the government's new office to reach out to foreign media and present a friendlier face to the world. But ask her about American policy in the Middle East, and specifically Iraq, and get ready for a tongue-lashing.

"This is Israel's agenda," Ms. Shaaban said. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is a "butcher." War on Iraq would serve no purpose. Syria has no place on the United States list of terror-sponsoring nations, especially given the key help it has provided American officials in hunting down militants from Al Qaeda.

Much of Syria's public oratory has been similarly angry in recent weeks. But Western diplomats and analysts say that privately, its tone has been milder. At the same time, they say Syria has deep concerns about its security if a pro-American government is installed in Iraq, its neighbor to the east.

Syria would, in a sense, be isolated in its opposition to Israel, with pro-America Turkey to the north and Jordan, which has a peace treaty with Israel, to the south. Syria's foreign policy for decades has revolved around its role at the forefront of opposition to Israel. It will never give up that role, analysts say, but adhering to it without regional allies would condemn Syria to the political and economic backwaters.

"It's very difficult for them to accept the reality" of an American offensive against Iraq, said Ibrahim Hamedi, a Syrian who is bureau chief for Al Hayat, a pan-Arab newspaper in London controlled by the Saudis. "It's against the whole Syrian strategic interest," he said. "Syrians are thinking, `What is the best way to make the minimum losses out of all this war? We don't want to upset America, but we have to defend our interests.' "

At the same time, there is a sense that after Iraq, Syria would be next. That feeling has been fed by several recent statements by John R. Bolton, the under secretary of state for arms control, regarding Syrian programs for chemical and biological weapons and nuclear power.

As recently as last week, Mr. Bolton repeated concerns that Syria has a stockpile of a nerve agent and the ability to produce small amounts of a biological agent. In October, he also said Syria had benefited from Russian technology for its nuclear program. That drew a rebuke from the Syrian government, which summoned the American ambassador, Theodore H. Kattouf, to explain. The Syrians were pleased to note that in last week's comments, Mr. Bolton omitted the nuclear issue.

Syria insists said its nuclear program is for research and civilian purposes, and denies having chemical and biological weapons programs. In a speech in May, Mr. Bolton said Syria has a stockpile of sarin, the nerve agent, and is working on the more lethal agent VX. He said Syria was improving the process to make its own chemical weapons so that it could rely less on foreign suppliers.

Many interpret such statements as an attempt to intimidate Syria, or to force it to acquiesce to American action in Iraq.

"It is very foolish, and poor pressure," said Imad Fawzi Shueibi, a professor of sociopolitics at the University of Damascus, whose office is dominated by a portrait of President Bashar al-Assad. "You have to try another way."

Syrians also note that mention is never made of Israel's nuclear weapons, the existence of which Israel neither confirms nor denies.

Privately, Western analysts say the country's chemical and biological weapons programs are less advanced than Libya's or Iraq's, and are seen as a deterrent against an attack with those weapons by Syria's enemy, Israel. They say the tight control the government has on society makes it unlikely the agents would fall into terrorists' hands.

Others here wonder if another message was sent Monday, when an American plane patrolling the skies over northern Iraq strayed into Syrian air space. The United States quickly expressed regret over what it termed an accident, but suspicions linger.

Significantly, though, the official Syrian press was silent on the issue. Moreover, President Assad was said to be annoyed when the government spokesman said this week that Syria would reject the resolution on Iraq that the United States and Britain have proposed to the United Nations Security Council. According to local news media, the president felt it was unwise to single out the American proposal rather than continue Syria's policy of calling for the enforcement of earlier resolutions.

Both events are signs that Syria wants to stay in Washington's good graces as best it can.

At the same time, Syria is seeking to shore up a bulwark to counter American threats to Iraq. President Assad met last month with Iran's intelligence minister, Ali Yunesi, and Syrian officials recently met with Jalal Talabani, one of the key leaders of the Kurdish area in northern Iraq.

The question on many minds is what exactly Syria will do if there is an invasion of Iraq.

Professor Shueibi said that if it happened under a United Nations resolution, "then Syria will accept that, but it will not agree with it." Haitham Kelani, a military historian here, said an army mobilization was unlikely, given the high financial cost.

Another delicate issue is Hezbollah, the armed political force in Lebanon's central valley, the Bekaa. Arms supplied to Hezbollah by Iran are widely believed to travel through Syria, and Syria maintains a heavy troop presence in Lebanon.

Many in the Middle East worry that if the United States invades Iraq, Israel would take the opportunity to attack Hezbollah, which could widen the conflict.

Mr. Hamedi, the jounralist with Al Hayat, believes the United States and Syria are approaching a bargaining stage, in which the United States would seek promises from Syria, like keeping a lid on Hezbollah, refraining from its own military intervention and from opposing an opposition government, and providing logistical cooperation for activities like search and rescue.

As one non-American Western diplomat put it, "The Syrians want to keep the relationship on a reasonably even keel, but the question is, are they willing to pay the price?"