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Setbacks in Lebanon, Iraq could threaten Syria's Assad

WASHINGTON—Syrian President Bashar Assad, under mounting pressure from a string of political setbacks over Lebanon and Iraq, is facing tough choices that leave him vulnerable to internal challenges.

There are no assurances that such challenges would move Syria toward democracy, though, as sought by the Bush administration. A change in leadership also could set off a political upheaval that would breed more chaos and anti-American terrorism in the Middle East.

In Lebanon, the collapse Monday of the pro-Syrian government lent new energy to political factions that blame Syria for the Feb. 14 slaying of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and are demanding that it pull thousands of its troops and intelligence agents out of the country.

Meanwhile, Syria's surrender to Iraq on Sunday of deposed dictator Saddam Hussein's half-brother and 29 other former Iraqi Baathists has cast doubt on Assad's denials that his regime has been harboring leaders of Iraq's anti-U.S. insurgency.

"We really have to confront Syria on allowing these groups to operate out of Syria," said Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., in a telephone interview with the Wichita Eagle during a flight home from a visit to Iraq. "The ties to command-and-control of these operations go back onto Syrian soil."

The Bush administration made clear Monday that it has no intention of easing up on Assad, saying it was closely following developments in Lebanon. It also announced that President Bush plans to meet next month at the White House with the patriarch of the country's Maronite Christians, one of the main anti-Syrian factions.

"Syrian military forces and intelligence personnel need to leave the country," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.

Even before Hariri's assassination emboldened and helped unify the anti-Syria movement in Lebanon, the Bush administration had imposed economic sanctions on Damascus.

It also joined with France to support a U.N. Security Council resolution in demanding a withdrawal of all Syrian forces in response to a vote by Syrian-backed Lebanese lawmakers to extend the term of the country's pro-Syria president.

Israel also has been pressuring Assad. It launched a diplomatic offensive to whip up international condemnation of what Israeli officials charge was Syrian complicity in a Palestinian suicide bombing on Friday that killed five Israelis.

Islamic Jihad, a Palestinian group whose leadership is partly based in Damascus, claimed responsibility for the attack. Syria denied it was involved.

Israeli Foreign Ministry officials briefed about 20 ambassadors of European Union countries and shared intelligence about the attack that showed instructions for it came from Islamic Jihad leadership in Damascus, said ministry spokesman Mark Regev.

Assad also must watch the hard-liners of his own Alawite sect. If he bows to demands to quit Lebanon and to arrest more Iraqi insurgents, they might see him as capitulating to U.S.-led pressure.

The Alawites have ruled Syria through violence and intimidation for more than three decades. To maintain their power, the hard-liners could replace Assad with a leader with a greater reputation for ruthlessness.

Assad's replacement by another member of the Alawites, a secretive sect that comprises 12 percent of Syria's 18 million people, could trigger a destabilizing backlash by majority Sunni Muslims.

"The Syrian regime's life is on the line," said Walid Phares, a Middle East expert with the Committee for the Defense of Democracies, a conservative policy institute.

Lebanon has been an important source of income for the ruling Alawite elite and the Syrian government.

Syria's state-controlled economy is essentially closed to outside investment and has been languishing for years.

The Syrian government and top officials are believed to maintain accounts containing billions of dollars in hard currency in Lebanese banks and to receive illegal commissions from Lebanese government contracts.

Moreover, hundreds of thousands of Syrians send money home from jobs in Lebanon.

"Between the enormous amount of money that Syria gets—much of it illegitimate—either from or through Lebanon and how important it is to the legitimacy of the regime, in the sense you lose Lebanon, you undermine" the stability of Assad's regime, said Barbara Bodine, a Middle East scholar at Harvard University who served as U.S. ambassador to Yemen.

Withdrawing from Lebanon also would cost Assad leverage that his regime has over Israel.

Syria provides support to Hezbollah, a powerful Shiite Muslim militant group that controls southern Lebanon's border with Israel.

Without the threat posed by Hezbollah to northern Israel, Damascus would lose a major way to pressure Israel into abandoning the Golan Heights, strategic high ground that Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed in 1981.

Refusing to knuckle under in Lebanon and Iraq carries its own risks for Assad.

Syria sent its forces to Lebanon in 1976, ostensibly to help end the country's civil war. Syria reiterated last week that it would abide by an agreement to withdraw the forces but set no timetable.

By continuing to drag his feet, Assad would fuel Lebanon's anti-Syrian movement and could ensure that upcoming parliamentary elections will bring to power a government that would demand a Syrian withdrawal in line with the U.N. resolution.

His refusal to change his Lebanon policy and to crack down further on Iraqi insurgents in Syria could also lead to new U.S. efforts to isolate Syria, including additional sanctions that could deal a further blow to the country's moribund economy.

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(Special correspondent Cliff Churgin in Jerusalem contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Bashar Assad

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