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Despite Anger at Raid, US-Syrian Relations Could Recover

Although last weekend’s American air attack on a village inside Syria has aggravated tensions between the two countries, some local analysts say the damage done to their relationship may not be lasting.

The Syrian authorities said the October 26 air strike on Abu Kamal, a settlement close to the border with Iraq, killed eight people.

Washington has yet to officially confirm that an attack took place, but US officials have said informally that there was a cross-border operation which targeted a leading al-Qaeda figure.

Analysts say Damascus is not in a strong position to respond militarily, and in any case has much to lose by forcing an escalation of the situation. That, combined with the prospect of a new president in the White House, could limit the long-term impact of the raid, they said.

So far, Syria has responded by threatening to cut diplomatic relations with Baghdad if there are more attacks, and freezing most high-level diplomatic contacts with the Bush administration.

It also announced cuts in the number of troops deployed along the Iraqi border – a warning that might withdraw its cooperation on policing a porous frontier route often used by insurgents. The American school and cultural centre in Damascus is to be closed.

Syrians took to the streets on October 30 in a government-organised march condemning the raid. Participants waved signs attacking US president George Bush, such as “Bush democracy appears in Abu Kamal” and “Killing innocent civilians is cowboy policy”.

US officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said this week that special forces had targeted a network run by Badran Turki al-Mazidih, a senior al-Qaeda in Iraq operative accused of smuggling weapons and fighters from Syria into Iraq.

While US sources framed the raid as an operation to hit al-Qaeda, Damascus insisted that the attack violated its sovereignty and pointed to international condemnation of the attack. It denied that Mazidih, also known as Abu Ghadiyah, had been in the village and said that instead, eight innocent civilians were killed.

The raid brought the already difficult relationship between Syria and the US to a new low. The Bush administration has refused to engage with Syria diplomatically, accusing it of harbouring terrorists and not doing enough to stop foreign fighters crossing into Iraq.

Despite the gloom, analysts said they did not expect the raid to do permanent damage to Syrian-US relations, or to lead to an escalation in tensions in the long term.

One good reason for the Syrians to behave with moderation is that much is at stake – the thaw in relations with European states, and the possibility of engagement with a new US administration.

“Syria can’t make its situation more complicated at this critical time,” said one analyst inside the country. “It can’t do anything to anger the US and the West after it has been working to improve its relations with them.”

Noting that Pakistan has not responded to US operations on its territory, the analyst said, “So what is Syria supposed to do? It will just offer a symbolic reaction, and the whole thing will be forgotten soon.”

Commenting on the government’s reluctance to respond, a writer in Syria said it was “a humiliation that Syrian lands are attacked time and time again, yet there is no reaction from the authority except condemnation”.

Quoting a stock phrase used by the government, he said, “It has become a joke on the street to say, ‘We have the right to respond’.”

Joshua Landis, a Syria expert and Middle East Studies professor at the University of Oklahoma said that if Damascus laid the blame for the attack specifically on the Bush administration, it would leave room for relations to be repaired in future.

He noted that Syrian officials, including Foreign Minister Walid Moallem, were directing their fieriest words of condemnation at the current administration, not the United States generally.

Landis said the US was unwilling to accommodate the Syrian demand for Washington to send an ambassador to Damascus in exchange for cooperation on security issues, while the Syrians were annoyed that the Americans did not acknowledge their efforts – however half-hearted – to secure the border with Iraq,

While the incoming US administration could change things by shunning the use of force, Landis warned that the Abu Kamal raid may have set a precedent for the American military to seek a certain amount of latitude in future actions.

“Obviously they’ve sent the message to Syria that they can strike at any time and they have orders to do [so],” he said.

Ultimately, said Landis, the Syrians are keen to “turn over a new leaf and establish new relations with the United States. They need America.”

(Syria News Briefing, a weekly news analysis service, draws on information and opinion from a network of IWPR-trained Syrian journalists based in the country.)

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