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US twists Syria for Israel

Cairo, April 14 (Reuters): Mounting US warnings to Syria over chemical weapons and aid to Iraq are aimed chiefly at pressuring Damascus to stop aiding anti-Israeli militant groups and may succeed, diplomats and analysts say.

Experts see no risk of Washington launching military action against Syria after the Iraq war, but they expect it to maximise economic and diplomatic leverage on a weakened President Bashar al-Assad to change course.

“The focus of US pressure on Syria will be to terminate assistance to anti-Israeli terrorist groups, especially Palestinian Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and Hizbollah in Lebanon,” said Gary Samore of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Given Syria’s new encirclement by US troops and American allies, and increased economic pressure due to the end of cheap Iraqi oil supplies and cross-border trade, Assad may have to comply, even if he remains publicly defiant, experts say. That would fit President George W. Bush’s declared war aims of reshaping West Asia, cracking down on militants and promoting a gradual new Israeli-Palestinian peace effort.

An Arab diplomat familiar with Syrian thinking gave a similar interpretation of the almost daily US broadsides. “The main goal of the US is to apply pressure on Syria to abandon Palestinian resistance groups. It is a ploy to serve Israel which has good friends in this administration,” the diplomat said.

The US and Britain, allies in the Iraq war, are pursuing “tough cop, soft cop” tactics towards Damascus, with London pushing dialogue as Washington makes threatening noises.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who has nurtured personal ties with the UK-educated Assad, telephoned him last Friday, and a British minister met the President in Damascus today within hours of the latest US warning.

Some Western diplomats feel outside pressure could help the young President ease out the “Old Guard” of his father’s aides who have stifled timid attempts at reform since veteran President Hafez al-Assad died in 2000.

“If the Syrians are scared that this crazy America, fresh from victory in Iraq, is gunning for them next, that’s fine as long as they draw the sensible conclusions,” a Western diplomat said.

British foreign secretary Jack Straw said there was evidence that Syria had cooperated with Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in recent months. “It is very important for Syria to appreciate there is a new reality now the Saddam regime is gone,” he said.

The Arab diplomat hinted Syria may be getting the message. “Damascus is not in the habit of provoking a war and will not be easily dragged into one, but that doesn’t mean it will abandon Arab causes to please this or that administration,” he said.

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