Syria Agitates Over U.S. Raid

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The Bush administration isn't saying much about its military raid in Syria this past week. The Syrians, however, have been complaining.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

The Bush administration may not be saying much about its military raid in Syria this past week. The Syrians, however, have been complaining. They've also called in the top U.S. diplomat in Damascus. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports on the diplomatic fallout.

MICHELE KELEMEN: The U.S. charge d'affaires in Damascus has already been summoned to Syria's Foreign Ministry twice, one time to hear Syria's formal protest about the U.S. raid in Syria near the border with Iraq. The second time, she was told to shut down some American programs, according to State Department Spokesman Robert Wood.

Mr. ROBERT WOOD (State Department Spokesman): Our charge d'affaires Maura Connelly was called in to the Syrian Foreign Ministry and was informed of the fact that the cultural center was to close immediately and that the American - the Damascus Community School was going to have to close on November 6th.

KELEMEN: The U.S. also closed its embassy temporarily because of anti-American street protests that appeared to be organized by Damascus. Syrian officials say they never got any explanation for the U.S. military action, which Syria's ambassador to Washington, Imad Mustafa, called unjustified.

Ambassador IMAD MUSTAFA (Syrian Ambassador to the U.S.): It was a criminal terrorist attack against unarmed innocent civilians.

KELEMEN: Privately, U.S officials say that the target was a man who operated a network that smuggled fighters into Iraq. In the months leading up to the military action, U.S. officials had been reporting a decline in the number of foreign fighters traveling through Syria to Iraq. And in September, Ambassador Mustafa thought he sensed some warming of ties because Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice met her Syrian counterpart on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly.

Ambassador MUSTAFA: We were pleasantly surprised. It was not a hostile meeting. She was not pointing fingers. Actually, she was commending the positive good things that were happening in our region, mainly the positive developments vis-a-vis Iraq, Lebanon, and indirect talks with Israel.

KELEMEN: Mustafa, who rarely gets to meet Bush administration officials, called the talks puzzlingly positive. So why would U.S. helicopters and forces strike inside Syria now? He's been asking himself that question.

Ambassador MUSTAFA: Probably the guys here don't talk to each other, and they have different attitudes. Some people within the administration believe that it's time to re-engage with Syria while others say, look, this is an election time. We need to do something to remind the people that we have crisis in Iraq and we are fighting against al-Qaeda. Let's do something, you know, Rambo style.

KELEMEN: If the U.S. operation was an isolated incident, it may not have too lasting an impact on U.S.-Syrian relations. That's the view of Scott Lasensky of the U.S. Institute of Peace who wasn't expecting any serious thaw in ties now, anyway.

Dr. SCOTT LASENSKY (Senior Research Associate, Center for Conflict Analysis and Prevention, U.S. Institute of Peace): People are waiting for the clock to run out on this president. And whether relations with Syria will change, it really depends on who wins the election here. It's going to be up to the Syrians, as well, when we have a new president to decide whether they want to turn a new leaf.

KELEMEN: Lasensky says both sides share some of the blame for what he calls an extraordinarily strained relationship which affects other trouble spots in the Middle East. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

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