At a spartan three-story apartment building in a dusty suburb here, members of the Islamic Resistance Movement, known by its Arabic acronym Hamas, idled over sweet tea and wondered how long their stay would last. The Palestinian group, which in recent years has spearheaded attacks on civilians in Israel, has long maintained an office here. Now, its presence has become part of a diplomatic conflict between the Bush administration and the Syrian government of President Bashar Assad.
The United States views Hamas's office as evidence that Syria supports terrorism. It also cites the presence of Islamic Jihad, another Palestinian group, and Hezbollah, the Shiite Muslim guerrilla organization that long fought Israeli occupation forces in south Lebanon. The Israelis pulled out three years ago after suffering casualties there for many years. The Bush administration also accuses Syria of possessing chemical weapons and of giving shelter to fugitives from the government of Saddam Hussein, the deposed Iraqi president.
The flurry of accusations fed concern here that with the Iraq war over, hawks in Washington might be turning their attention to ousting the Assad government.
"This may be the last tea we offer here in Damascus," said a young Hamas official whose family fled Haifa, a coastal city in Israel, 55 years ago. "Syria has lots of problems with the United States, and we have been made into one of them."
He suggested that Hamas might close its office voluntarily. "Really, there are only a few Hamas officials here. We operate inside Palestine, and leaving this office will do nothing to stop that."
The Assad government has tried to deflect the pressure. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Buthaina Shabaan recently said about the presence of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, "They are media offices."
If so, they might be among the world's least media-friendly places. At the Hamas office, two reporters were not granted an interview; they were instead invited to present written questions and never received replies. Islamic Jihad declined requests to visit.
As for Hezbollah, it's a case of conflicting perceptions. For the Syrians, Hezbollah simply defended Lebanon from an invader, and Hamas and Islamic Jihad are similarly battling to oust the Israelis from the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Many in the two groups also insist that a Palestinian state should cover all the lands that are now Israel.
"It is abundantly clear that these groups are all fighting Israeli occupation. The occupation is the problem," said Muhammed Aziz Shukri, a law professor. "The United States should put pressure on Israel, not Syria."
Damascus is a warehouse of Middle Eastern opposition groups. Although it nurtured friendly relations with Iraq for the past few years, Syria also hosted anti-Hussein groups. Among them are two Kurdish parties that allied themselves with the United States in the Iraqi war and Dawa, a Shiite Muslim underground group that long opposed Hussein. It is also home to organizations opposed to Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization.
Syria has carefully stopped short of denying it possesses chemical weapons. Officials imply that such weaponry would only be meant to counter Israel, which has developed a nuclear arsenal. Syria currently holds a seat on the U.N. Security Council and submitted a draft resolution proposing a Middle Eastern "zone free of all weapons of mass destruction."
As for harboring Iraqi fugitives, Shabaan, the spokeswoman, denied that any were in the country. "When Syria says it did not allow any symbol of the Iraqi regime to come here, it means they did not allow anyone to come here," she said.
The Assad government is clearly concerned that it could become a target of the Bush administration.
Iraq's Baath Party was a relative of Syria's ruling Baath Party. The party was founded by a Syrian Christian. Damascus is dotted with portraits of the late president Hafez Assad and, to a lesser extent, his son and current president, Bashar. The Syrian flag bears two green Baathist stars; the Iraqi flag bears three. When U.S. Marines toppled a statue of Saddam Hussein in central Baghdad, state television here aired a documentary on Islamic architecture.
Anti-American sentiment is at a high pitch. Storefronts display U.S. and Israeli flags combined with the Nazi swastika. Ali Hassan, a souvenir salesman in Damascus's Old City greeted an American friend the other day, saying, "Well, I won't kill you, though it has crossed my mind."
People here largely believe that the U.S. war of words is designed to get Syria to abandon support for Palestinian resistance and accept the U.S. occupation of Iraq. "The Americans want to deter Syria from embarking on an anti-colonial campaign," Nabil Shukkar, an economic consultant, said.
"It's a losing cause," remarked Shukri, the law professor. "Syria is not going to support Israeli policies or define the occupation of Iraq as liberation."
Government-controlled newspapers in Syria have been quick to pour scorn on claims by the United States that it is freeing Iraqis from tyranny. In a typical commentary, the Syria Times wrote: "The U.S.-British war on Iraq that was launched under the pretext of liberating an Arab country has turned into a barbaric occupation. Human rights are protected in terms of carrying out acts of mass genocide."
Rhetoric aside, Syrian observers argue that a black-and-white picture of their government's policy toward both Iraq and the United States is misleading. They point out that the Hafez Assad government was long hostile to Hussein and vice versa. As early as the 1970s, Hafez Assad and Hussein were at odds over degrees of militancy toward Israel. Hussein accused Assad of "defeatism." Assad supported Iran in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s on the grounds that the conflict sapped energies from the anti-Israeli front in the Middle East. Hussein retaliated by masterminding assassination attempts against Syrian Baath officials.
Finally, Hafez Assad supported the U.S.-led Persian Gulf War in 1991. He contended that Hussein's invasion of Kuwait broke the rules of pan-Arab coexistence.
The countries repaired relations to some extent in 1996. Hafez Assad reacted to a new Turkish-Israeli alliance by reaching out to Baghdad. For Iraq, the Syrian opening provided a wedge toward breaking U.N. sanctions and efforts by Washington to isolate the country.
Syria also aided the United States in the war against the al Qaeda terrorist network. Syria has imprisoned Mohammed Haydar Zammar, a Syrian-born naturalized German citizen who had lived in Hamburg and, according to investigators, functioned as al Qaeda's prime recruiter there. Investigators say they believe Zammar, 41, played a key role in the formation of the Hamburg cell that led the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States.
Syria voted for the U.N. resolution calling on Iraq to disarm but opposed the use of military force. Its opposition to the war stemmed from a combination of national interests and pan-Arab traditions, said Murhaf Jouejati, a foreign policy analyst at the Washington-based Middle East Institute. Syria fears creation of a Kurdish state; about 11 percent of Syria's population is Kurdish. Moreover, Syria now faces the possibility of encirclement by countries neutral or even friendly toward Israel: Turkey, Jordan and a post-Hussein Iraq. "Circumstances are reducing what is left of Syria's leverage on Israel," Jouejati said.
Israel occupied Syria's Golan Heights during the 1967 Middle East war, annexed the territory and has held onto it since. Syria has long demanded return of the territory as a condition of any peace with Israel.
Syria, like Iraq and several other Arab countries, regards itself as a standard-bearer of Arab nationalism, giving the government a mission beyond ruling the country. "Arab nationalism gives Syria an aspect of being grander than it is," Jouejati said.
The pan-Arab role precludes either expulsion of Palestinian or Lebanese groups or support of the U.S. occupation in Iraq, Jouejati argued. "It would look bad in public opinion to kick out resistance groups," he said. "Opposing an external force on behalf of the Iraqi people is also part of the Arab national curriculum."
The tensions with Washington have created economic problems for Syria. Unemployment here is about 20 percent. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld announced that an oil pipeline from Basra, Iraq, to Syria was cut, ending the flow of about 150,000 barrels a day of discount-priced oil. Syria exported the equivalent of the Iraqi supply and gained a windfall of about $500 million a year, economists said.
Syria was already suffering from reduced trade with Iraq. Many goods, especially medicines, clothing and food, sold to Iraqis before the war have not been paid for, said Samer Debs, president of the Syrian Chamber of Industry. "Lots of factories that produced for the Iraqi market will go under," he predicted. In all, non-oil trade with Iraq totaled $1 billion a year.
Foreign investment is also likely to suffer, Debs added. "A sense of uncertainty has been created. The whole region is in turmoil. It will be hard for foreigners to think of putting their money here."