Syria Resistant to U.S. Pressure for Change
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Syria's relations with the Bush administration are at an all-time low. The United States has extended economic sanctions against Syria and recalled the American ambassador to Damascus. Last month, Washington froze the assets of two high-ranking Syrian officials. The Bush administration says Syria continues to allow Arab militants to cross into neighboring Iraq. The intense pressure is designed to change Syrian behavior in a hurry, but as NPR's Deborah Amos reports, Syria's president, Bashar Al-Assad, is taking his time.
(Soundbite of "America, Excuse Me"(ph))
Unidentified Man #1: (Foreign language spoken)
DEBORAH AMOS reporting:
This performance is the hottest ticket in Damascus. The theater is packed every night.
(Soundbite of "America, Excuse Me")
Unidentified Man #2: (Foreign language spoken)
AMOS: The play, "America, Excuse Me," is a broad comedy with a not-so-subtle plot. A Syrian man considers marrying a beautiful American visitor. She tempts him with Pizza Hut and McDonald's, delights unavailable in Syria. But indignant, he turns her down flat when the American demands he kiss her hand. Anwar Baghdadi(ph) has seen the play many times. He says Syrians applaud the play's message.
Mr. ANWAR BAGHDADI (Play Attendant): (Foreign language spoken)
AMOS: `America can't force Syria to bend to its will,' he explains. `You can't bring change from the outside.'
(Soundbite of music from the play)
AMOS: The Syrian regime has been sending the same message to Washington, but in June, the Bush administration turned up the heat. The US Treasury Department announced it was freezing the financial assets of two Syrian officials, including the minister of Interior, Ghazi Kanaan, a move that angered the Syrian government, says Mehdi Dakhlallah, the minister of Information.
Mr. MEHDI DAKHLALLAH (Minister of Information): It's a new kind of pressure, especially that Mr. Kanaan is a Cabinet minister and he is not an ordinary individual.
AMOS: It is a symbolic gesture, says Flynt Leverett with the Saban Center, a think tank in Washington, and the author of a new book on Syria. The US government can only freeze accounts in the United States where Syrian officials are unlikely to keep their money. But the presidential order, says Leverett, was designed to send a message.
Mr. FLYNT LEVERETT (Saban Center): The clear message is there's something fundamentally wrong with this regime with the people who are leading Syria.
AMOS: The people leading the regime got the message, says Marwan Kabalan, an international relations professor at Damascus University.
Professor MARWAN KABALAN (Damascus University): The psychological effect I believe was huge and, in fact, the Americans are now really after them. They are after regime change in Syria. They're very much convinced about this, by the way.
(Soundbite of activity on Damascus' streets)
AMOS: But here in Damascus, Syria's busy capital, the regime of President Bashar Al-Assad is very much in control, according to Western diplomats. In the last month, President Assad has moved his loyalists into key positions, including the four security services. He has promised domestic economic reforms and cracked down on domestic opposition, blocking any challenge at home. Assad has consolidated his power, says Marwan Kabalan, and can now set his own pace for change.
Prof. KABALAN: You can't actually overthrow any Arab regime, forget about Syria, with this external pressure. The regime is very much in control, the opposition is very weak, and the Americans can't do much.
AMOS: At the same time, some European governments see a different Syria, one that is actually meeting Western demands. Syria has reached out to Iraq pledging to open an embassy in Baghdad. President Assad himself hosted a conference with Palestinian groups for the first time, urging them to cooperate as Israel pulls out of Gaza. A Web site that tracks Syrian politics observed recently the Americans are counting Syrian mistakes, while the Europeans are counting successes. Volker Prectus(ph), a foreign policy specialist in Berlin, says a collapse of the Syrian government would mean chaos.
Mr. VOLKER PRECTUS (Foreign Policy Specialist): We want to preserve stability in the region, so if a government is prepared to move forward, you wouldn't find a common agenda here of Americans and Europeans to push that government away.
AMOS: Preserving stability--that's what Syrian officials offer and point to the instability in neighboring Iraq.
Mr. ABDULLAH DARDARI (Deputy Prime Minister, Syria): The last thing America wants is a destabilized Syria.
AMOS: Abdullah Dardari is Syria's deputy prime minister.
Mr. DARDARI: We are stretching our arms to the Americans for dialogue. Let's sit down and pinpoint what are your interests and what are our interests.
AMOS: So far, Washington is not convinced, charging Syria is a dictatorship sponsoring assassinations in Lebanon and allowing militant Arab fighters to cross into Iraq. While some in the administration say they have seen some changes in Syria's behavior, it only proves, they say, that pressure works. Deborah Amos, NPR News.
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