President Bush's decision to meet Friday with Syrian President Hafez Assad suggests that the American leader's enmity toward Iraqi President Saddam Hussein is strong enough to outweigh old grievances and recent charges of Syrian terrorism and human rights abuses.
It is yet another affirmation of that old Middle East saying: "The enemy of my enemy is my friend."
The planned meeting in neutral Geneva has raised fresh questions among foreign policy analysts about the extent to which the U.S. administration is willing to go in forging as broad an international coalition as possible against Iraq. While U.S.-Syrian tensions have gradually eased over the past two years, Syria remains on the U.S. government list of countries that sponsor terrorism and has been linked to the December 1988 bombing of a U.S. airliner over Lockerbie, Scotland, that killed 270 people.
In September, when Bush sent Secretary of State James A. Baker III to Damascus to welcome Assad into the coalition of Arab leaders opposing Iraq's occupation of Kuwait, critics accused the administration of losing its moral bearings by making common cause with a Middle East dictator whose reputation for ruthlessness, subversion and murder matches that of Saddam. Syria's massive intervention last month in neighboring Lebanon's civil war has sparked widespread, but largely unproven, charges of Syrian complicity in executing Lebanese opponents.
U.S. officials have explained their new association with Syria as practical politics, saying that America's immediate, overriding priority in the Middle East is to prevent Saddam from gaining control over the Persian Gulf's oil supplies. Moreover, they say, any attempt to rearrange the region's balance of power cannot ignore Assad's importance.
But critics of the new U.S. cordiality toward Syria regard it as a potentially dangerous miscalculation.
"It is unwise and unnecessary," said Martin Indyk, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "Unwise because at the moment when the American people need the president to clarify the situation in the gulf for them, he should not be embracing as an ally a man who has American blood on his hands. Unnecessary because Assad already has received ample rewards for participating in the coalition in terms of increased Saudi Arabian money payments and U.S. acquiescence in the takeover of Lebanon."
The end of the Cold War has caused the Soviet Union, formerly Syria's major patron among the superpowers, to cut back substantially its aid to Assad. However, as a gesture of appreciation for Syrian support against Iraqi aggression, Saudi Arabia reportedly has been providing substantial subsidies to Syria from its oil revenue.
In Lebanon, Syria used its position in the anti-Iraq alliance as protective cover to join in October with Lebanese government troops to oust rebel Gen. Michel Aoun from the presidential palace in Beirut, thereby leaving Syria in effective control of Beirut. Despite Washington's denials, officials in Lebanon and throughout the Arab world believe Syria's intervention had a green light from the United States.
"Lebanon is as much a victim of the gulf crisis as Kuwait," said Geoffrey Kemp, who was director of Middle East affairs on the National Security Council staff under President Ronald Reagan. "I'd much rather see President Bush spend his time preparing a serious, national television speech explaining to the American people why we're in the gulf than cozying up to someone whose human rights record is equally as abysmal as Saddam Hussein's."
Syria is widely suspected of having instigated in 1983 the terrorist bombings of the U.S. Embassy and Marine encampment in Beirut that forced the United States to pull its forces out of Lebanon. Moreover, when Baker's predecessor, George P. Shultz, brokered a 1983 peace accord between Lebanon and Israel, Assad's intimidation of Lebanese leaders scuttled the agreement.
Syria's activities in Lebanon and elsewhere caused a former high-ranking Central Intelligence Agency official to charge Tuesday that the U.S. government has applied a double standard to Mideast sponsors of terrorism -- berating Iraq and Iran while overlooking "really horrible" acts by Syria, now that Syria has become a U.S. ally.
Vincent M. Cannistraro, who retired in September as the CIA's chief of counterterrorism operations, said Syria "has been involved in a number of terrorist operations over the past few years," although he did not specify them. The Damascus-based Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC) is widely believed to have orchestrated the 1988 midair explosion of Pan American Flight 103, which blew up over Scotland.
Cannistraro said the administration's willingness to overlook Syrian abuses, while maintaining a drumbeat of charges against Iraq, marks a turnabout from the policy followed by the United States for most of the 1980s.
During most of that time, U.S. strategy involved countering Assad's campaign for influence in the Arab world by drawing a contrast between Syria and Iraq, which the United States treated at the time as a state abandoning terrorism and embracing moderation even while engaged in a bitter, eight-year war with Iran. Cannistraro said that the former tolerant treatment of Iraq was "a terrible mistake" and expressed concern that the administration is about to make the same error with Syria.
Iraq was taken off the State Department's list of states abetting terrorism, despite charges of Iraqi use of poison gas against its Kurdish minority, and Washington greatly expanded its commercial and political ties with Baghdad. At the same time, U.S. relations with Syria deteriorated to the point where the American ambassador was withdrawn for almost a year.
The situation began to change two years ago after a cease-fire between Iraq and Iran allowed Saddam to resume his campaign for leadership of the Arab world. That, coupled with the Soviet Union's reduction of military and political aid for Syria, left Assad feeling exposed and in search of new allies.
He began to play down his patronage of terrorist groups and quietly began a dialogue aimed at better ties with the United States and such U.S.-allied Arab states as Egypt. These efforts raised the cordiality level with Washington considerably, but relations had not bounced back to the point of Assad's last meeting with a U.S. president -- a 1977 session, also in Geneva, when Jimmy Carter unsuccessfully sought to draw Assad into the Middle East peace process.
As recently as last July -- just before Iraq's Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait -- no one imagined that Bush would be sitting down with Assad as an ally in America's most serious military confrontation since the Vietnam War.