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Sheila MacVicar: U.S. talk puzzles Syrians

CNN correspondent Sheila MacVicar
CNN correspondent Sheila MacVicar

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(CNN) -- Despite strong U.S. criticism aimed at Syria, Iraq's next-door neighbor, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell announced plans this week to visit the nation.

CNN correspondent Sheila MacVicar was in the Syrian capital of Damascus on Saturday and discussed the situation with State Department correspondent Andrea Koppel.

KOPPEL: The fact that Abu Abbas, the Palestinian terrorist who was responsible for the [Italian cruise ship] Achille Lauro hijacking, was picked up by Special Forces because he was turned back at the border twice by Syrians -- do you think [the U.S] message got through loud and clear?

MACVICAR: To quote the Syrian authorities here, they will point out ... he was arrested while still in Iraq and did attempt to enter into Syria. He was picked up by U.S. forces in Iraq. The Syrians have said their borders are closed, and there is substantial evidence, in fact, the land borders are closed. Does that evidence mean the entire border has now become impermeable? Given the nature of the border, probably not.

KOPPEL: Did they actually believe and take seriously that the U.S. might go in with military force? Some senior administration officials I spoke with said yes. While they were capitalizing off the moment, their success in Iraq, [the Syrians] thought it was somewhat silly.

People thought U.S. forces were simply going to take a left turn and enter Syria soon. But [the U.S. officials] clearly wanted to capitalize off that moment, so that they could push the Syrian government as far as possible.

MACVICAR: There are two things. Obviously, there is the very real example of what happened next door, and it's important to say the regime here has not been a friend of Iraq. Not been a friend of Saddam Hussein for 20 years.

And in the last two years, there has been a thaw in their relations, and that has come about largely because of economics and, it has to be said, because of smuggled oil. The question about what happens next in Syria is one that is causing a great deal of uncertainty. But certain Syrians get it that the U.S. clearly has ambitions and desires here.

They think a lot of that [pressure] comes from the south and west of here, that this is part of the Israeli agenda, and that they will be pushed to do certain things.

What they were puzzled about, over the course of the last 10 days or so, is the volume of, if you will, the megaphone transatlantic diplomacy. The Syrians couldn't understand why they were being shouted at from Washington -- by so many different people with so many different messages -- when they thought things could have been dealt with in a different manner.

KOPPEL: According to officials I've spoken to in Washington, the answer is, in their eyes, a fairly simple one. They just had the victory in Iraq. They really were going for as much bang for the buck as they could get without using military force.

And they really wanted to scare, not only the Syrians, but the Iranians and any other regimes out there that they might think when the U.S. says, "Hey, give up your weapons program, stop supporting terrorists," the U.S. really means it.

MACVICAR: On the subject of weapons of mass destruction, you can look at what the Syrians did this week at the U.N. where they put forward a proposal to make the Middle East, the entire Middle East, a weapons of mass destruction-free zone.

You could say that action is aimed at Israel, because when the United States talked about the weapons program, they didn't talk about Israel's covert nuclear weapons program and that is one of the things that is seen as a double standard.

Obviously, we can understand there may be differences in the alliances and differences in the makeup of the government. There will be different reasons why the U.S. does that. But from the perspective of Damascus, they see that [difference] as a double standard. And they believe the United States has to address the issues clearly among all parties and not just deal with the Syrian issue, feeling somehow it was an exception to the region.

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