U.S. Pressure Mounts Against Damascus

U.S. pressure is growing against the regime of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad. Damascus is facing international isolation ahead of a U.N. report, due out late this week, which could implicate Syria in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Listen to the news from Syria these days and you might think you're listening to the plot of a spy novel. The man who used to lead Syria's intelligence service in Lebanon was found dead. Police declared it a suicide, but many don't buy that story. He'd been questioned by UN investigators who were looking into the assassination of the former Lebanese prime minister, Rafik al-Hariri. NPR's Corey Flintoff reports there's also speculation that the United States wants to remove Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad from office.

COREY FLINTOFF reporting:

The US has been steady in its criticism of Syria, accusing Assad's government of supporting Palestinian militant groups, continuing to interfere in Lebanon and allowing insurgents to move recruits, money and supplies across Syria's border into Iraq. President Bush returned to the subject in his recent speech on terrorism.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: We're determined to deny radical groups the support and sanctuary of outlaw regimes. State sponsors like Syria and Iran have a long history of collaboration with terrorists, and they deserve no patience from the victims of terror.

FLINTOFF: Some experts in the US believe that the Bush administration has been looking into Syrians who might replace Assad, both within his regime and among opposition groups. Flynt Leverett served on the National Security Council during George W. Bush's first term and is now at The Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy.

Mr. FLYNT LEVERETT (Saban Center for Middle East Policy, The Brookings Institution): We know that administration officials have had meetings with Syrian opposition groups. I also know that the administration has been asking foreign governments for their advice on who within the current power structure might replace Bashar.

FLINTOFF: Leverett says the administration may be finding that potential replacements for Assad are few and not very attractive from a US point of view. Opposition leaders tend to be hard-line Islamists, while people within the regime may be tainted with the same allegations as Assad himself. Leverett also says that pushing a replacement within the regime could trigger dangerous infighting.

Mr. LEVERETT: And I think there's a very high potential to see ethnic and sectarian violence in Syria if the Assad regime were to collapse. And if the overall power structure collapsed, I think the political order that would emerge in its place would end up being heavily Islamist and anti-American in character.

Mr. MURHAF JOUEJATI (Director, Middle East Studies Program, George Washington University): What is unfortunate in all this is that in many areas, there is a convergence of interests between the United States and Syria.

FLINTOFF: Murhaf Jouejati directs the Middle East studies program at George Washington University.

Mr. JOUEJATI: Both, for example, have the interest in ending Islamic fundamentalism and the terrorism of al-Qaeda. It is unfortunate that both sides have chosen not to listen to one another.

FLINTOFF: Jouejati and Leverett both point out that Syria provided useful intelligence about terrorist groups to the United States after the September 11th attacks, but stopped when the US refused to offer any concessions in return. Again, Flynt Leverett.

Mr. LEVERETT: What you have is, really, a very tragic mismatch of diplomatic and strategic styles. You have a Syrian leader who wants to know up front what he's going to get out of cooperating with us, and he's dealing with an American administration that basically refuses to have that conversation with him.

FLINTOFF: Murhaf Jouejati says the driving motivator of Syrian foreign policy is to recover the Golan Heights, territory it lost to Israel in the 1967 war. He says it would give up a great deal to achieve that goal.

Meanwhile, much will depend on the outcome of the UN investigation into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Hariri. President Assad has insisted that the killing was against Syria's interests and that his country had no part in it. The UN report on the investigation is due out soon. If Assad or members of his government are implicated, they may well face international sanctions, and the pressure on the regime will be greater than ever. Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Washington.

MELISSA BLOCK (Host): You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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