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Syria feels pressure of US

Reporter: Mark Willacy

KERRY O'BRIEN: It may not have made it into George Bush's 'Axis of Evil' club, but Syria is coming
under increasing US pressure to prove it's not developing weapons of mass destruction.

The Bush Administration, in the midst of an election campaign, claims the Arab state already has
stockpiles of chemical weapons and is trying to produce biological warfare agents.

In response, the US Congress has imposed limited economic sanctions on Syria, also accusing it of
sponsoring terrorism and of occupying Lebanon.

The regime of President Bashar Al-Assad is digging its heels in, accusing the US of trying to
destabilise the entire Middle East by occupying Iraq and issuing threats against Syria.

This once closed state is now embarking on a campaign to prove to the world it has nothing to hide.

Middle East correspondent Mark Willacy reports from Damascus.

MARK WILLACY: In an old Damascus cafe, a traditional storyteller recounts a famous Arab victory
over the European crusaders.

Eight hundred years on from that battle, Syrians are again feeling under threat from the West.

The United States has accused Syria of sponsoring terrorism, developing weapons of mass destruction
and of allowing foreign fighters through its borders to join the insurgency in neighbouring Iraq.

Since the fall of Baghdad 18 months ago, members of the Bush Administration have publicly
speculated that Iraq's deadly weapons may have been smuggled into Syria to prevent them from
falling into the hands of coalition forces.

ARI FLEISCHER, FORMER BUSH ADMINISTRATION: The President want Syria to get the message that they
need to re-examine themselves, they need to re-examine their ties to terrorists, their harbouring
of terrorists, their harbouring of Iraqi leaders and their development of weapons of mass

BUTHAINA SHA'ABAN, SYRIAN CABINET MINISTER: I think they are part of a whole campaign that is being
led by the US, before, during and after the war on Iraq, to change the nature of the Middle East,
which is extremely dangerous for all of us.

MARK WILLACY: Buthaina Sha'Aban is a member of Syria's new guard.

As one of President Bashar al-Assad hand picked reformers, her main task is to convince the world
that Syria is not a rogue state.

The United States says Syria has chemical weapons, it has weapons of mass destruction - what do you
say to that?

BUTHAINA SHA'ABAN: Well, I say to that, what I say to the Americans about WMD in Iraq.

They were saying that they have that information about WMD in Iraq and now everybody says it was
the wrong source of information.

I would like to say to them it is the same source of information, that is speaking about Syria.

MARK WILLACY: Would the Syrian Government allow UN weapons inspectors in to prove your claim that
you don't have any weapons of mass destruction?

BUTHAINA SHA'ABAN: No, what Syria is trying to do is to promote in the UN to make the Middle East a
zone free of all mass destruction weapons.

Now Iran agreed to that, Turkey agreed to that - all Arab countries agreed to that.

The only one that doesn't agree to this is Israel.

I think the best thing for this region, if you want stability, peace and security, is to make the
Middle East a zone free of all mass destruction weapons.

This is how we want to mobilise world opinion to try and support our proposal.

MARK WILLACY: Syria is trying to mobilise world opinion by embarking on a program of economic and
political reform.

For decades, Bashar al-Assad's father Hafez ruled the country with an iron fist.

When Bashar al-Assad succeeded his father four years ago, a period of unprecedented public debate

Political movements were formed, prisoners were freed and private newspapers flourished.

WADDAH ABD-RABBO, EDITOR AL-IKTISSADIYA: The main subject was about the new government and their
meeting with the President.

MARK WILLACY: Waddah Abd-Rabbo runs Syria's only independent Internet news site.

WADDAH ABD-RABBO: We have always a lot of stories which make a lot of problem.

MARK WILLACY: Those stories are about government corruption.

But Waddah Abd-Rabbo says the problems come not from President Bashar al-Assad, but from the old
guard resisting his reforms.

WADDAH ABD-RABBO: These are unseen people.

I know they exist, President Bashar knows they exist.

It's a problem of interest, in fact.

As soon as you touch the interest of any group in the country, it's become dangerous.

MARK WILLACY: Many believe it's pressure from the old guard which forced the President's hand in a
recent crackdown on Syria's new-found freedom of speech.

Using decades old emergency laws, dissidents were again jailed and critical media were shut down.

Ghayth Armanazi, a former Arab League ambassador who has close ties to the al-Assad regime,
believes it's only a temporary setback.

GHAYTH ARMANAZI, FORMER ARAB LEAGUE AMBASSADOR: There's a growing demand today and some response to
those demands that there must be a freer political system as well.

The idea that you can continue with, for example, the system of emergency laws and so forth, are
being challenged all the time.

MARK WILLACY: But in this secretive state, everyone takes their cue from the President.

The 7.30 Report was invited to a speech by Bashar al-Assad in which he made it clear what he
thought of US foreign policy in the Middle East.

BASHAR AL-ASSAD, SYRIAN PRESIDENT, TRANSLATION: Do they want to destabilise all the region, like a

Did they not learn from 9/11?

Did they not learn from the Iraq war?

Could we be next on their evil plan?

MARK WILLACY: Whether Syria is next could depend on the results of November's US Presidential

The Bush Administration has repeatedly accused Syria of pursuing weapons of mass destruction.

The US Undersecretary of State, John Bolton, says Syria is stockpiling the chemical nerve agent
sarin, and is trying to develop biological weapons.

This cafe in the old city of Damascus is where the young power generation comes to wheel, deal and

And much of the talk here is of America's next move.

WOMAN: Worry?

Of course I do.

With Bush being the biggest country in the world's President, I need to worry about a lot of

WOMAN: I'm not scared at all.

I'm not scared at all, but I think he is stupid, kind of, George Bush, and he will go.

MARK WILLACY: Syria continues to deny that it possesses, or even wants, weapons of mass

But the al-Assad regime knows that it will have to do more than just issue denials to convince the
United States.

BUTHAINA SHA'ABAN: The situation is of the region is very worrying because it uses the logic of
violence and the logic of force against dialogue.

What Syria would like to promote is dialogue and that what President al-Assad says all the time,
that all problems should be solved through dialogue.

KERRY O'BRIEN: Mark Willacy reporting from Damascus.