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Fears grow in Syria about preparations for a summer war

Barack Obama's tough choice of words bring a growing concern in Syria that Israel and its powerful American ally are preparing for war. .

DAMASCUS // Syrian authorities have yet to comment officially on Washington's decision to renew economic sanctions, but Barack Obama's tough choice of words has been carefully noted. In his statement the US president referred to Syria as posing a "continuing unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy and economy of the United States".

With recent accusations that Damascus has been supplying more modern and powerful weapons to Hizbollah in Lebanon, there has been a growing concern here that Israel and its powerful American ally are preparing for a summer war. The unequivocal phrasing of the sanctions renewal, in addition to its coming at such a sensitive time, has done nothing to ease those fears. "The extension of sanctions isn't a surprise, it's the new language that is unexpected," said Mazen Bilal, a Syrian journalist and independent political commentator. "It appears as though Obama has put Syria together with Iran and North Korea as posing a high threat to America. That is hard language to be using."

Another Syrian political analyst, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the wording appeared to be a prelude to war. "When the Americans attacked Iraq, they did so after saying that Saddam Hussein posed a threat to US national security. Now they are saying the same thing about Syria. "Those words 'threat to national security' are very important, it means the Americans are preparing to strike or that they will give the green light to Israel to strike."

Economically the sanctions are of limited importance. Since their imposition under the Bush administration in 2004, Syria has managed to shepherd its fragile economy through a period of strong growth and market reforms. It is the political implications of the sanctions that concern Damascus. "We know the economy can cope under US sanctions, it is the political meaning that matters," Mr Bilal said. "There is a significance to this. The US has been unable to shift any of the fundamental Syrian positions regarding Lebanon or Palestine, so this is probably a result of Obama feeling they have not achieved as much as he wanted with his policy of dialogue."

Syria is a major supporter of Hizbollah, the Lebanese resistance movement and Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic group, as well as other hardline Palestinian organisations. While widely considered in the Middle East as more or less legitimate outfits resisting Israeli occupation, Washington calls them terrorist groups and, as a result, calls Syria a state sponsor of terrorism. While there is concern here about Mr Obama's firm language - even a feeling that it might have put yet another nail in the coffin of any incipient peace process - Tharbet Salim, an independent Syrian political commentator said it might, perversely, be a positive development.

"I see this as part of Obama's balancing act with Israel," he said. "Obama is trying to be hard on the Israelis over settlement expansion and by renewing these sanctions in this way, he can say to his critics, 'Look, I've not gone soft on Syria, I'm not just hard on you.' This gives him some cover to keep up the pressure on Israel." Mr Obama has come in for heavy criticism on Capitol Hill for his policy of engagement with Damascus, including his decision to appoint an ambassador to Syria after five years in which the post was left vacant. The ambassador has been named but, pointedly, not yet confirmed or dispatched. Instead there has been increased rhetoric of late about the Damascus-Hizbollah connection.

Mr Salem said Hizbollah's retention of a powerful military capability remained a sticking point hindering further US-Syrian rapprochement but that Washington did not believe the group posed any threat to the United States. "Syria isn't a threat to the US and in fact there are continued discussions about co-operation in helping to secure Iraq [when US forces pull back in August]," Mr Salim said. "For that reason, I'm not worried about Obama's words. They are just words, I don't believe he has abandoned his personal desire to see peace in the region."

Published: May 5, 2010 04:00 AM

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