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Bashar Assad's phone bill swelled last Saturday. After George Bush directly accused Syria of possessing chemical weapons, and after a series of serious allegations leveled at Syria by nearly every American cabinet member, Assad went on the defensive. On Saturday, he called the Saudi crown prince, Prince Abdullah, for "an exchange of opinions on the situation in Iraq," but essentially he asked for Saudi involvement to counter what is called the "Zionist defamation campaign" against Syria.

By Monday, he was meeting with the Saudi prince face to face; meanwhile, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was calling Assad. Egyptian sources report that Mubarak was seeking to calm down his colleague, who was afraid that Syria was next in line after Iraq. Mubarak had received explicit assurances from Washington that this was not the case, the Egyptian sources said, and he had been asked to relay these assurances to Syria. Yet American sources deny this: No such message was sent, they say. The upshot was that Mubarak issued a joint statement with the secretary-general of the Arab League, Amr Moussa, in which the pair denounced the accusations against Syria.

All of this was not enough to allay Assad's fears, nor were the soothing statements from British Foreign Minister Jack Straw in Kuwait, who assured that "Syria is not on any list" for the next attack. Assad also called Russian President Vladimir Putin, spoke with Lebanese President Emile Lahoud and chatted with Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul and with Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi. In all of these conversations, Assad spoke of the need to halt America's verbal assault against Syria.

"Bashar Assad has been in a state of panic for several weeks now, and after the swift fall of Iraq, he assumes that the American zeal for victory is now interested in putting the screws on other Arab countries," says a Lebanese source. "If you read the interview he gave to the Lebanese newspaper Al-Safir last month, you'll see he was already talking then about his belief that Syria was next in line after Iraq." In the same interview, Assad spoke of the need for a popular movement to oppose the occupation of Iraq by coalition forces, and he openly admitted to the mass movement of Iraqi emigres who had returned to Iraq from Syria to fight the coalition forces. Assad also underscored the need to implement the pan-Arab defense accord mandated by the Arab League charter.

All of this did not go down well in Washington. Although Assad had been praised by American administration officials when it came to the war on terrorism, this was not so with regard to Iraq. Tempers flared when Syria opened its border with Iraq, established trade delegations and began to develop trade relations, which last year totaled $1 billion. The Syrian lie about pumping Iraqi oil through the pipeline from Mosul, and the violation of economic sanctions on Baghdad that this entailed, triggered a wave of strongly worded messages from Washington to Damascus. Syrian support for the vote on UN Security Council Resolution 1441 may have soothed Washington's ire, but only a few weeks later, Syria clearly proclaimed its firm opposition to any military action against Iraq. Even more serious, it introduced a draft resolution at the Arab League summit - which was not adopted - that would have barred Arab states from providing logistic or military assistance to the coalition forces.

The direct continuation of this, say Jordanian sources, was that Saddam's family, including his wife Sajeda, moved to the Syrian port city of Latakia, and during the war, army officers and leading figures in the Baath party - including high-ranking scientists responsible for the weapons of mass destruction development programs - fled to Syria, as well. On top of all this was the possibility that Iraq had placed its missiles in Syria for safekeeping. Nor did the fact that Syrian demonstrators attacked the American embassy in Damascus (as well as that of Egypt) go over well.

Chemical capability

"We have a thick file on Syria," says an American diplomat, "and it includes chemical and biological weapons. But in that regard, there is actually nothing new in President Bush's remarks." The West has been aware of plans to develop chemical weapons in Syria since the early 1970s. Based on American intelligence reports, Egypt transferred chemical weapons to Syria in 1973, and Syria subsequently sent these weapons to Iran. One of the arguments for bringing down Saddam Hussein was that he had already used chemical weapons against his Kurdish citizens, but a similar charge can also be leveled against Hafez Assad, who used cyanide during the large-scale massacre carried out by his forces in the Syrian city of Hama in 1982.

Furthermore, in 1997 CIA Director George Tenet told Congress that Syria was one of the countries that either has or is developing chemical and biological weapons, and in 1990 then-defense secretary Dick Cheney reported that Syria was one of the 10 countries that have or are liable to attain chemical weapons. At the time, it was believed that Syria's chemical weapons were more technologically advanced than those held by Iraq. Hafez Assad himself broadly hinted that Syria possessed nonconventional weapons. In 1997, following a meeting with Hosni Mubarak, Assad was asked by a reporter to comment on the Israeli allegation that Syria had chemical weapons. Assad's response: "Those who have nuclear weapons should not criticize others about the weapons in their possession. If they want disarmament, we have to begin with nuclear weapons. We Arabs would then be prepared to get rid of the other weapons."

Intelligence reports of the 1990s made constant references to such developments as Sarin and VX nerve gas, 500-kilogram chemical warheads designed to be mounted on Scud B missiles, early development of biological weapons, and stockpiled chemical weapons at depots in Khan Abu Shamat and in Furqlus near Damascus.

Why are Syrian chemical weapons now again under discussion? Beyond the normal Syrian rhetoric - that Israel is behind the American attack against it and that the Jewish lobby is pushing the administration and Congress to deal with Syria - Lebanese sources offer three key interpretations. According to one, the United States is now turning to Syria not because of anything it has done, but because of what it might do. "Washington is beginning to prepare the Arab background for recognition of a new Iraqi government, and because Syria is the state that is most vociferously opposed to any appointed Iraqi government that might be set up under American control, it is preferable to start dealing with it, as a means of guaranteeing Arab silence."

Another interpretation concerns the tighter axis of Turkey, Syria and Iran on the question of Iraq's future. These three states are watching the establishment of the new Iraq with much apprehension, and particularly the possibility of the Kurds setting up anything more than a federated province.

This axis is a cause of concern both in Washington and Israel. "Because Washington cannot act against Iran and does not want to bump heads with Turkey on this issue, Syria is the weak link," says a Lebanese commentator, in offering another explanation. "If Washington succeeds in making Syria a pariah state, this could deter Turkey. As for Iran, you have to remember that in this war, Iran took a practically pro-American stand, as opposed to that of Syria."

And then there is what is described as France's "meddling" in Syria - this week's meeting of the French foreign minister with Bashar Assad - which gave full backing to Syria.

These interpretations are all tainted to some degree by the familiar conspiracy theory according to which every American move is prompted by profound and complex planning and Israeli influence, all meant to achieve long-range objectives. An American diplomat serving in Turkey suggests viewing events as they are: "Syria is a country that appears on the blacklist of countries that support terrorism, it is apparently offering shelter to Iraqi government officials and to Palestinian terrorist groups, and the American administration will sooner or later want to issue Syria a demand that it hand over the fugitives. In order to guarantee this cooperation, it is not unwarranted to put on this sort of pressure." Experience indeed proves that when Syria is pressured, it forsakes its principles and tries to find a compromise.

Special relationship

One interesting aspect of this latest sparring round between the Syrians and Americans is that America's partner Britain is staying out of the ring. Britain and Syria have an extraordinary relationship. The prime minister visited Syria in October 2001 to enlist (unsuccessfully) Assad's support for the attack on Afghanistan. That same year, Britain's Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Peter Mandelson, also went to Damascus for a visit (he subsequently resigned, but over another matter) as did a parliamentary delegation headed by Labor's John Austin. Last December, Bashar Assad arrived in London for a visit, at Blair's invitation - a visit that ended in discord. However, Britain, which also maintains diplomatic relations with Iran, views Syria as having strategic importance. As such, it should not be treated as an enemy state, as Washington is now doing, but as a state with which dialogue must be maintained.

Lebanese sources, on the other hand, attribute the special relationship between London and Damascus not to strategic considerations but to economic and personal interests. According to a Lebanese opposition journal that is published in the United States, the links between London and Damascus are managed by multi-billionaire Wafik Said, a Syrian native who holds Saudi citizenship. It was Said that set up the mammoth defense procurement transaction known as "Project Al-Yamamah," between Saudi Arabia and Britain. Said is a close friend of the Saudi defense minister and of the Saudi ambassador to the U.S., and has earned hundreds of millions of dollars from arms deals signed between Britain and Saudi Arabia. He is also a close friend of Bashar Assad and one of the biggest foreign investors in Syria. His investments include Syria's cellular telephone company, the establishment of a local Internet network, and the construction of hotels.

Said is also linked to Saudi Arabia's bin Laden holding company, and another holding company headed by Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, as well as Barakah, a property firm suspected of links with Al-Qaida. Two years ago, these companies set up a consortium for investment in Syria. "All of them - Syria, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon and Britain owe something to Said, and he is using these connections not only for economic objectives but for diplomatic objectives as well," says one Lebanese source.

Are these connections enough to assure Syria of British backing? Assad may think so. Last week, he received a reassuring phone call from Tony Blair, and this week he heard Jack Straw throwing cold water on the American accusations. But in the meantime, the statements issued by the U.S. administration are causing panic in other Arab capitals. "All of the anti-Syria talk is like the anti-Iraq talk before the war" reads the editorial of the newspaper Al-Hayat. From this point, it is a short distance to a theory that has been rapidly adopted in the region, according to which the United States is planning to transform the Middle East, not only get rid of a single despotic leader, and that the Arabs have to be ready to launch an all-out defensive action.