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Syrian-US Relations Unlikely to Improve

Syrian analysts and country experts maintain that increased United States pressure is unlikely to damage the Syrian government, and relations between the two countries will not improve any time soon.

The recent US sanctions against a powerful Syrian businessman and the deployment of American warships off Lebanon have ratcheted up animosity between the two countries.

US president George Bush is “working on ways to put the pressure on Syria”, according to Joshua Landis, a Syrian expert at the University of Oklahoma. He argued that US policy “embarrasses the Syrian government, but it makes people hate America and it fuels nationalism”.

Inside Syria, the row has made news in the government-dominated press. But on the streets, many people do not seem interested or particularly concerned about the tensions, a reporter in Damascus told IWPR. He said Syrians are more preoccupied with rising costs and making ends meet.

Analysts believe the US action serves as a warning to Damascus but will not necessarily lead to military action.

Nawaf al-Basheer, a leader in the Damascus Declaration opposition movement, said in a statement that "any political or military move that does not appear to be serious will adversely affect the people, but not the regime."

Landis said the US was frustrated with Syria for attempting to control Lebanon’s government. The US-backed government of Fouad Sinoira is currently deadlocked with the Syrian- and Iranian-backed opposition over the presidency and the make-up of the cabinet. Lebanon has been without a president since November, when former pro-Syrian president Emile Lahoud’s term expired.

Syria has the upper hand in Lebanon, Landis argued, and it has “dug in its heels”.

“It’s clear that Syria has the capability of freezing this situation [in Lebanon.] America is powerless, and it doesn’t like to be powerless,” he said.

He predicted that the rising tensions would “not go very far, but we don’t know that for sure.”

Syrian foreign minister Walid al-Mu'allim was quoted in the Syrian press as saying that the US has a history of interference in the region, but that its strategy has not proved successful.

He also accused the US of thwarting an Arab League initiative to end the Lebanese political crisis.

Rami Makhlouf, a cousin of president Bashar al-Assad and arguably the most powerful businessman in Syria, was similarly defiant after the US accused him of benefiting from corruption in Syria and froze his American assets. He said he had expected the sanctions and considered them a medal. Reuters quoted him as saying the US action sanctions had made him more popular in Syria.

(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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