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Squeezing Syria

CBS News reporter Charles Wolfson is a former Tel Aviv bureau chief for CBS News, who now covers the State Department.

The regime in Syria is being squeezed and President Bashar Asad's grip on power is at risk.

While the Bush administration has a laundry list of complaints against Damascus, most of the pressure now is coming from a United Nations-led investigation into the assassination last February of Lebanon's former prime minister, Rafik Hariri.

A preliminary report issued by the chief investigator, Detlev Mehlis, laid Hariri's murder at the doorstep of senior Syrian and Lebanese security officials, including the brother and brother-in-law of Asad.

On Monday the Security Council will meet to consider a resolution imposing sanctions on anyone not cooperating with Mehlis' investigation. To ratchet up the pressure on Syria and highlight the importance the international community places on the issue, member states will be represented by their foreign ministers.

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At the moment, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has the backing of Britain and France. Russia and China have yet to be persuaded but have not said they would use their veto power. Algeria, the only Arab country now on the council, is not yet among those saying they support the current draft.

Most of the opposition is from those who do not presently favor sanctions against Syria. With the Mehlis investigation still ongoing, Washington has had to back away from its preferred course of putting the Asad regime on the spot.

Instead, the current focus is on individuals who refuse to cooperate. They risk having U.N.-sanctioned restrictions imposed on their travel and financial assets if the current draft resolution passes.

"The reality is Syria created this crisis for themselves," said Ammar Abdulhamid, a Syrian advocate for democracy who is a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center.

Writing in the Financial Times, the Saban Center's director, Martin Indyk, a former assistant secretary of state for the Near East, said the current situation has Bashar Asad "on the sharp horns of an irresolvable dilemma."

Indyk writes "To co-operate with the (Mehlis) investigation may mean surrendering his brother-in-law (Asef Shawkat, head of Syrian military intelligence) to international justice — an unthinkable betrayal of family that for Mr. Asad would entail the risk of a coup."

If the prospect of doing that gives Syria's leader a problem, there is also the matter of dealing with Mehlis' interest in talking to Maher Asad, Bashar's brother.

On the other hand, writes Indyk, if the Syrian president ignores the Security Council's demands he "would subject his country to increased isolation and hardship and over time risk the increasingly tenuous hold on power …"

Syrian officials have dismissed the Mehlis findings as "hearsay" and Murhaf Jouejati, head of Middle East studies at George Washington University, said the findings wouldn't stand up in a court of law. But Jouejati also says that "does not exculpate the Syrian regime from suspicion and if the investigation is furthered and if the officials named are guilty of the murder of Hariri, then they should face the full extent of the law."

While the Mehlis investigation is the current focus of attention on Syria and its leader, it is by no means the only bone of contention between Washington and Damascus. The Bush administration has been after Asad to tighten control over his border with Iraq, charging that foreign terrorists continue to make their way through Syria into Iraq where they become part of the insurgency.

Rice has charged that some foreign terrorists even come through Damascus airport and a senior defense official said "it's cleared a large number — hundreds — over a six-month period, came through Syria and across the border and we think they have the ability to stop it."

There is also the matter of Syria's allowing terrorist organizations like Hezbollah to operate from Syrian territory. This causes problems for the administration's efforts to make progress on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

And then there is the overall effort to remove Syrian influence from Lebanon. Mr. Bush and French President Jacques Chirac, who are often at odds on international policy, have found common ground on Lebanon. With the United States and France leading the way, the U.N. Security Council passed a resolution which forced Syria to withdraw its military forces from Lebanon, although some intelligence operatives have yet to leave.

Thus, the squeeze on Syria is multidirectional. Whether the Bush administration really wants regime change in Damascus is open to question. Flynt Leverett, a former national Security Council aide and author of "Inheriting Syria: Bashar's Trial By Fire," says there is "very little the U.S. can do from the outside to change things, especially in the near term." Relations are bad enough that the Bush administration withdrew the U.S. ambassador several months ago.

Leverett worries about the possibility of the regime "starting to unravel … If we pursue a course that leads to the collapse of the regime, then the state could collapse." He argues the best way to pursue America's interests would be "if we can help Bashar find a way out of this situation." That does not seem to be a likely prospect now. If Bashar Asad is to maintain his hold on power he will have to find a solution himself.

Charles M. Wolfson

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