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Syria's dangerous game

THE HEREDITARY president of Syria, Bashar Assad, has earned a reputation for reckless behavior, the antithesis of his father Hafez Assad's careful, calculating statecraft. By his bungling, Bashar has begun to undo all the patient work his paternal predecessor did to colonize neighboring Lebanon. The son has also misplayed the delicate game his father had mastered of balancing Syria's intertwined relations with Israel, disparate Palestinian factions, and Washington.

But recent disclosures by officials of Iraq's interim government suggest that Bashar's most flagrant and dangerous blunder is to tolerate, or perhaps even collude with, exiled former officials from Saddam Hussein's regime who have been financing and guiding a Ba'athist counterrevolution in Iraq from sanctuaries in Syria.

Iraq's ambassador to Syria told The Times of London last week in Damascus that his government has evidence of Syrian complicity with Iraqi Ba'athist operations inside Iraq. The ambassador said that last month when US Marines captured Moayed Ahmed Yasseen, leader of one of the armed groups in Fallujah, they found photos of Syrian officials, including one of Yasseen posing alongside a senior Syrian official. Yasseen's group, known as Jaish Muhammad, is composed of former Ba'athist intelligence officers in Saddam's regime.

The Iraqi ambassador told The Times: "Prime Minister Iyad Allawi wrote a letter to the Syrians saying he had the pictures but was not going to release them despite being under pressure from the Americans to do so." The Marines also captured a hand-held global positioning device with "waypoints originating in western Syria and the names of four Syrians," according to The Times.

Allawi is wise to seek an understanding with Syria instead of encouraging the Bush administration to make Syrian collaboration with Iraqi Ba'athists a point of conflict. It would be better for all concerned if Bashar heeds Baghdad's plea to cease colluding with Iraqi Ba'athists in Syria who are using enormous sums of money stolen from Iraqis to fund a guerrilla war aimed at restoring Ba'athist rule in Iraq.

It is a bad sign that Syria's information minister responded to Iraqi complaints with the disingenuous explanation that "Syria has always been open to all Arabs . . . but we cannot read their minds about what they are doing to do once they are here." Bashar's Ba'athist order is as much a police state as his father's was, and Syrian security services would hardly overlook the activities of rich Iraqi Ba'athists living in luxury in the poshest neighborhoods of Damascus.

Bashar's father despised Saddam and his gang. If the son allies himself with his father's bitterest enemies, he may end up undoing everything consolidated through his father's careful, if ruthless, statecraft. 

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