Syria painted as the villain of the Middle East

In the Middle East, you can still find old maps which show Damascus as the capital of the Arab world, the bastion of Umayyad power. But just now, Syrians might be forgiven for believing that their neighbours are ganging up on President Hafez al- Assad's regime, in a deliberate attempt to isolate and even destabilise the country.

State Department claims that bombs have exploded in Syria, Turkey's ever- broadening military alliance with Israel, Israeli threats to attack Syrian targets in Lebanon and Jordanian allegations that Syrian "terrorists" have been captured crossing the Syrian-Jordanian border all appear to be lining Syria up for political or even military attack.

Syrian reservists were sent to the country's northern border with Turkey at the height of Israel's assault on Lebanon last April for fear that Turkish forces might - with Israeli collusion - strike into northern Syria to attack PKK guerrillas. Syria maintains an unofficial alliance with the PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan, whose press conferences, held to announce new or broken ceasefires with Turkish forces, are almost always held in a region of the Lebanese Bekaa valley in which Syrian troops have firm control.

But Israel's agreement to upgrade 54 Turkish F-4 Phantom fighter-bombers and, even more important, Israel's newly acquired permission to fly its combat aircraft in Turkish air space, present a very clear military threat to Syria.

So clear, in fact, that even President Mubarak of Egypt, Israel's oldest peace partner, has condemned the Turkish-Israeli alliance.

A long-running dispute over Turkey's overuse of the waters of the Euphrates river and the far older irredentist claim by Syria to the land around Iskenderun (the Syrian town of Alexandretta which the French gave to Turkey just before the Second World War in the vain hope that Ankara would join the Allies in fighting Hitler) form deeper, but no less serious causes of dispute between the two nations.

Ominously, the US State Department spokesman, Nicholas Burns, has now chosen to remind Syria that Washington is concerned about "terrorism directed against Turkey and coming from Syria." The Burns statement is almost identical to Israeli claims that Hizbollah "terrorism" against Israeli occupation troops in southern Lebanon is supported by Syria.

Much to Syria's annoyance, the United States has maintained Syria on its list of "countries supporting terrorism," a status that effectively deprives Damascus of economic aid and US technology.

On the same day that the Americans expressed their support for Turkey, another State Department spokesman volunteered the information that the US Embassy in Damascus was warning American citizens in Syria to take precautions after "several explosions" in the country. He gave no details of these incidents and his remarks were promptly denounced by the pro- Syrian Lebanese paper Ash-Sharq as "rumours ... which are intended to create internal tension and turmoil."

Reports in Lebanon say that a number of minor explosions - "sound bombs" was how they were described - had been heard in Damascus but that they were so small as to be insignificant. One rumour, also denied by Syria, says that a car bomb was defused in the port of Lattakia.

The growing pressure on Syria almost precisely coincided with Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud election victory in Israel, prompting Syrians to question whether the United States and its allies were trying to distract world attention away from the collapse of the "peace process" by demonising Syria as the real culprit behind the failure of US-Israeli policy. A year ago, for example, US Secretary of State Warren Christopher, talking to students in Indiana, was describing President Assad as a "brilliant man" and "a fine conversationalist" who had made "a strategic decision" for peace with Israel. Yet by last month, Mr Christopher had changed his tune. He was worried, he told the Los Angeles Times, by President Assad's "hesitancy and his mistrust" and feared that the Syrian president's "suspicion and fear" might prevent him making peace. No one questioned why Mr Christopher should have so suddenly altered his opinion of one of the most powerful Arab leaders.

Since the Likud election win, US commentators have also been accusing Syria of sabotaging peace, characterising Mr Assad as a "fading tyrant" and as a man who welcomed the Likud victory because it would allow him to "keep" Lebanon at the expense of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. All the evidence points to the contrary - that while Lebanon remains a strategic asset under Syrian control, the return of the Golan Heights to Syria in return for a full peace remains the be-all and end-all of Syrian policy.

Reading the Israeli press, meanwhile, with its open suggestions that Syrian targets inside Lebanon - or even inside Syria - should be attacked in response to further Hizbollah guerrilla attacks on Israeli troops inside Lebanon, shows just how far we have gone since last summer, when Shimon Peres was predicting a Syrian peace by the year's end with mutual security for both sides. Security, however, is the one thing Syria's enemies now seem anxious it should be deprived of.

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