Syria Faces Tough Internal, External Pressure

Syria must decide how to respond to the U.N. resolution demanding its cooperation in the probe into the murder of former Lebanese leader Rafik Hariri. The next report in the inquiry is due Dec. 15, and Damascus is already facing complaints about its leadership.

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Even before UN action, Syria announced measures to try to soften the impact of that vote. Over the weekend, President Bashar Al-Assad ordered an internal probe of the Hariri murder. And in an apparent gesture toward the United States, the Syrian government added new restrictions on young Arab men entering Syria. The new screening process is designed to stop militants who want to go through Syria to join insurgents in Iraq. NPR's Deborah Amos reports.

DEBORAH AMOS reporting:

In the crowded outdoor market, the oldest part of the Syrian capital, merchants tune televisions to the most popular program this season, and shoppers gather for the latest episode.

(Soundbite of programming)

AMOS: "Tomorrow Will Be More Beautiful" is the title, a distraction from the crisis facing the country today. Mohammed Habash, a member of Syria's Parliament, is relieved the threat of sanctions is gone, but the UN vote shows the world is united on pressuring Syria, he says.

Mr. MOHAMMED HABASH (Syrian Parliament): I'm nervous for this is my country. I'm here. So I will be very nervous if we find ourselves surrounded by a (unintelligible) crisis.

AMOS: A crisis Syria can survive, says Habash, but the government must take the right decision even if it touches the senior members of the regime.

Mr. HABASH: I believe our benefit to cooperate--full cooperation. Believe me now, we have to look for truth.

AMOS: The Syrian government announced its own probe, but the carefully worded presidential decree may not meet UN standards for cooperation. The UN resolution requires Syria to detain anyone UN investigators consider a suspect. Buthaina Shaaban, a presidential adviser, says Syria's probe will question people when there is what she calls real evidence.

Ms. BUTHAINA SHAABAN (Syrian Adviser): Accusing people just like this without any real evidence, any incident that implicates them, should not be acceptable by anyone.

AMOS: The United Nations investigation linking Syrian security officials, including members of the president's family, to the Hariri murder was a shock to the regime. In the weeks before the UN report was presented, Syria took a number of measures designed to meet US demands, including deporting a nephew of Saddam Hussein to Iraq and arresting more than a thousand Arab visitors suspected of plans to join the insurgency in Iraq. Shaaban says Syria tried to reach out to the United States ahead of the UN vote with no results.

Ms. SHAABAN: No answer. Nothing. There was no answer. The important point is that the United States doesn't seem to be interested in solving problems through dialogue. It has an agenda for Syria and for the region.

AMOS: On the streets of Damascus, it is a common belief the Bush administration is orchestrating the international pressure against Syria. Faday Deeb(ph) is a Syrian businessman.

Mr. FADAY DEEB (Businessman): I'm just worried about the US getting everyone to believe that Syria's the one in trouble. You're innocent till proven guilty.

AMOS: The message is hammered home every day in Syria's state-controlled media. International pressure is not going away, says Ayman Abdel Nour, a reformer within the ruling Baath Party. Will Syria cooperate or stonewall the UN? Many in Syria's opposition believe the president will stop short of handing over his relatives for questioning. Abdel Nour says the regime is preparing Syrians for the next crisis.

Mr. AYMAN ABDEL NOUR (Syrian Reformer): They are preparing the people for that moment. It's, `All of you are targeted. The US is big evil; wants to destroy you.'

AMOS: Even here at a taxi depot in Damascus, the fallout from the Hariri murder investigation is clear. The drivers say Syrians don't travel to Lebanon anymore now that Syrian troops have withdrawn from the country. But their main concern is what is happening next door in Iraq. Galub Habdan(ph) teaches English when he's not driving a cab.

Mr. GALUB HABDAN: I think what happened with Iraq is going to happen with Syria. Everyone is waiting. I think they are going to do something bad to Syria.

AMOS: The Syrian leadership has long been known as a master of playing for time. But time is running out. The United Nations investigation is to be completed by December 15th, when the UN will meet again to consider Syrian cooperation. Deborah Amos, NPR News.

BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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