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Revision History For: Next stop Damascus?

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Diplomacy, sanctions or M1-A1 Abrams tanks rolling into Damascus? Lets discuss the issues, strategies and solutions for the next potential hotspot in the Middle East.

Syrians' support for Saddam draws U.S. wrath

Barbara Slavin USA TODAY

WASHINGTON -- It has been the most privileged ''rogue,'' the one country on a U.S. list of terrorist-sponsoring states that had full diplomatic relations with Washington and was courted by successive U.S. administrations hoping to broker peace with Israel.

But Syria's status has tumbled in recent weeks as it has refused to cut ties with the doomed regime of Saddam Hussein (news - web sites). It has supplied Iraq (news - web sites) with weapons, ''volunteer'' fighters and, U.S. officials say, safe haven for some of Saddam's cronies and relatives.

Now Bush administration officials are mounting a harsh verbal assault on Damascus. They are also threatening economic sanctions.

Extending the Iraq war into another major Arab country is not likely, although administration officials do not rule it out. The international community has not imposed sanctions on Syria, and there would be even less foreign support for widening the war to Syria than there was for invading Iraq.

But with the collapse of Saddam's regime, Syria has been weakened economically and may be more responsive to U.S. pressure to stop harboring Iraqi fugitives, backing anti-Israel groups and developing chemical weapons.

The administration is ''hopeful that Syria will understand its obligations in this new environment,'' Secretary of State Colin Powell (news - web sites) said Monday.

''It's not a good idea to put yourself in America's cross hairs,'' adds Patrick Clawson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

President Hafez Assad, the canny autocrat who ruled Syria for three decades until his death in 2000, managed to stay on speaking terms with Washington and to align with the United States at critical moments.

The elder Assad disliked Saddam to such an extent that he backed Iraq's enemy, Iran, in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. During the 1991 Gulf War (news - web sites), Syria contributed troops to the U.S.-led coalition that evicted Iraq from Kuwait.

But U.S. efforts to broker a Syrian-Israeli peace treaty failed three years ago when a dying Assad rejected an Israeli offer to return most of the Golan Heights, which Israel captured from Syria in the Arab-Israeli war of 1967. Assad demanded a full return of Syrian land for peace.

Assad's son, Bashar, a British-trained ophthalmologist, has surprised analysts and U.S. officials by turning out to be more of a risk-taker than his father, from whom he inherited the Syrian presidency in July 2000.

With the start of a new Palestinian uprising and the election of a hard-line government in Israel, the 37-year-old president turned to Iraq to shore up his country's sagging economy. Beginning in late 2000, Iraq began shipping more than 100,000 barrels of cut-rate oil a day into Syria in defiance of U.N. sanctions. That allowed Syria to export its own oil at world prices and earn as much as $1 billion a year, analysts say.

According to U.S. officials, Syria also became the conduit for illegal arms sales to Iraq, including night-vision goggles and Russian armor-piercing systems that allowed Iraqi forces to disable at least two sophisticated Abrams tanks.

Assad also encouraged -- or at least did not prevent -- hundreds of Syrians from fighting on the Iraqi side. On the night of April 10, Marines encountered more than 600 Syrians at one of Saddam's palaces in Baghdad. According to the Marines, the Syrians fought intensely for eight hours, firing almost 1,000 rocket-propelled grenades before being defeated. One Marine was killed and 50 were wounded.

Furious at Syria's support for Saddam, the Bush administration is telling the world that Syria has a big arsenal of chemical weapons and openly supports terrorist groups. Syria has ''one of the more active chemical weapons programs in the Middle East,'' a Defense Department official said Monday. The weapons include VX nerve agent and ''lots of Scud missiles,'' the official said.

Syria denies having weapons of mass destruction, and it says it is not providing haven for Iraqi officials. But the U.S. is concerned that Iraqi weapons experts may set up shop in Syria, which has lacked the ''brain trust or the technological base'' for a nuclear program, the defense official said.

The administration is also escalating demands for Syria to scale back sponsorship of groups such as Hezbollah, which in the 1980s committed anti-U.S. terrorist acts, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, responsible for numerous suicide bombings in Israel.

With the end to Saddam's regime, the Bush administration is planning its first major effort to broker a Palestinian-Israeli peace and wants to give that attempt a chance to succeed without being sabotaged by more violence.

''It's an important time for the Syrians to change their behavior,'' a senior administration official said Monday. ''We've just had a major shift in the international system. It is incumbent on everyone not to miss this chance.''