By Samia Nakhoul (Reuters)
DAMASCUS (Reuters) - Syria is sounding the alarm about what it says is Washington's
ambition to use an attack on Iraq to reshape the Middle East to suit U.S. and
Syrian analysts and the government-controlled press have issued increasingly shrill warnings in recent days, saying that behind Washington's plan to oust Iraqi President Saddam Hussein lies a strategy of imposing puppet regimes in the region, and might even include an eventual attack on Syria and Lebanon.
"It seems that America wants to reshape the political geography of the region. The U.S. acts as if force is the only means to restore stability in the world. This is power-madness. This will lead to total destruction," Syrian political analyst Imad Shueibi told Reuters.
Western diplomats say the fever-pitch of Syrian rhetoric reflects real Arab fear that Washington will use any eventual control of Baghdad to change the Middle East order, and has Syria, a key player in any future Arab-Israeli settlement, firmly in its sights.
Syrian officials are particularly concerned at the Syria Accountability bill, draft legislation under consideration in the U.S. Congress. The bill threatens Damascus with sanctions unless it ends its support for radical Palestinian groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad as well as Lebanon's Hizbollah group.
"The Syrians are scared of what will happen next after Iraq. They may be panicking that Iraq is just the first step. They are also concerned that Israel is dictating its policies to the United States," one Damascus-based Western diplomat said.
"Whether they want to serve Israel or not, (an attack on Iraq) will in the end serve Israel's interests. Israel will also take advantage of the situation," Shueibi added.
U.S. TURNS ON ARAB ALLIES
Syria, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, which all joined the U.S.-led alliance that drove Iraqi troops out of Kuwait during the 1990-91 Gulf War, have said they oppose any military action against Baghdad this time.
Damascus, which has long had a troubled relationship with Washington, is also concerned that the United States may be turning against its traditional allies in the Middle East, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
"Egypt and Saudi Arabia are facing a blackmail and smear campaign by the United States... This is how America deals with all Arabs, particularly its allies. Such U.S. policies carry grave consequences for a region already inflamed by Zionist aggression and U.S. bias to Israel," the Tishreen daily said.
A policy board that advises U.S. Secretary of Defense Ronald Rumsfeld this month discussed a briefing by a think-tank analyst arguing that Saudi Arabia is Washington's "most dangerous" opponent and the "kernel of evil."
The U.S. administration quickly disavowed the sentiments but Rumsfeld did acknowledge difficulties in the relationship, highlighted by the fact that most of the hijackers in the September 11 attacks on the United States were Saudis.
Despite the U.S. assurances, the U.S. report has set off alarm bells not only in Saudi Arabia but across the region.
Then, last week, the White House confirmed it would oppose any increase in aid to its longtime ally Egypt because of a recent jail sentence on Saadeddin Ibrahim, an Egyptian-American democracy and human rights advocate.
WAR ON IRAQ IS NO "PROMENADE"
Arab officials have said both incidents are part of a pattern designed to pressure reluctant Arab allies who oppose an attack on Iraq to fall into line behind Washington's declared aim of toppling Saddam Hussein.
Syria believes that the United States has more sinister designs. Long a fixed star on a U.S. list of rogue states that sponsor "terrorism," Damascus fears it could be next in line if Washington succeeds in getting control of Baghdad.
"It looks like the war scenario in the region won't spare anybody. They want to change all the (Arab) regimes," said Shueibi, who is close to Syria's official thinking.
Syria, traditionally a bitter enemy of Baghdad, argues the focus should be shifted to solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and reviving talks between itself and Israel for the return of the Golan Heights, captured by the Jewish state in the 1967 war.
Officials further argue that military action against Iraq would ratchet up Arab anger, already running high because of Washington's seemingly unconditional support of Israel.
"A war against Iraq is not a promenade. The situation is really dangerous... anything is possible," Shueibi said.
"The Americans have not learnt that force does not bring results and they don't want to learn. This (attack) will generate more terrorism. The region won't see stability and neither will the United States."