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Analysis: Syria handles Scud affair with eye on vital ties with Washington

DAMASCUS, Syria (AP) — Faced with U.S. accusations that it's raising the risks of a new Middle East war by supplying advanced missiles to Hezbollah, Syria is moving carefully to try to avoid wrecking the slow process of improving ties with Washington.

Syria has staunchly denied Israeli charges that it gave the Lebanese militant group powerful Scud missiles, and it has also been trying hard to show that it is not looking for any sort of escalation, insisting there is no crisis, whether on the ground with Israel or in its relations with the United States.

"Even if there is one percent risk of a war, we are working to eliminate that," Syrian leader Bashar Assad reassured reporters while visiting Turkey last week.

Syria's handling of the affair reflects Assad's resolve to prevent the crisis from snowballing and throwing the country back into the international isolation it endured under the Bush administration.

For Syria, a great deal rides on improved relations with the United States. Damascus wants Washington fully engaged as a mediator in future peace talks with Israel in hopes of reaching a deal that returns the Golan Heights, lost to the Jewish state in the 1967 Middle East war.

Normalized relations with the U.S. would also be a boost for Syria's struggling economy, if it ended Washington's sanctions on Damascus and signaled to the world the country's rehabilitation.

The attempts at rapprochement have been frustrating for both sides. The United States has been trying to push Damascus to leave its close alliance with Iran and stop its support for Palestinian and Lebanese militant groups, a step that Syria so far has refused to take.

Syria, meanwhile, sees the prospects of renewed peace talks growing more distant under Israel's hard-line Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and is impatient with the pace of the thaw in relations with Washington.

The U.S. has yet to send its nominated ambassador, Robert Ford, to Damascus to fill a post that has been vacant since 2005, and last week the Obama administration renewed sanctions on Syria for another year.

While the flap over missile allegations has hiked tensions, it has also won for Damascus something it values: attention.

The office of Israeli President Shimon Peres said Russian President Dmitry Medvedev agreed to deliver a message to Assad seeking to ease tensions. Medvedev met with Assad in Damascus on Tuesday, though he made no mention of the message in a joint press conference with the Syrian leader.

Netanyahu on Tuesday underlined that Israel wants "stability and peace," and deflected blame to Iran, which he said is trying to provoke a conflict between Israel and Syria.

The Iranians "are spreading falsehoods in order to escalate tensions, and it has no basis," he said.

The crisis began last month when Israel accused Damascus of giving Hezbollah Scud missiles. Last week, the head of Israel's military intelligence research department, Brig. Gen. Yossi Baidatz went further, saying Syria had also supplied M600 missiles, a Syrian copy of the Iranian Fateh-110, with a 182-mile (300-kilometer) range — capable of hitting Tel Aviv if fired from southern Lebanon.

While not confirming the Israeli accusation, Washington followed up with one of its own, saying Syria's transfer of increasingly sophisticated weaponry to Hezbollah could spark a new Middle East war.

Neither Israel nor the United States have produced evidence to back up their allegations, but Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has said his Shiite guerrilla group has acquired more advanced rockets than what it used in its summer 2006 war with Israel.

Still, Syria says the uproar over the missiles has no real impact on its ties with the U.S.

"What is heard publicly from the Americans is exaggerated. What binds us together behind closed doors is entirely different from what is heard in the media," Deputy Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad says.

The accusations raised fears in Lebanon, Syria and Israel that a new war could erupt. But the flap may have more to do with sending signals in the maneuvering over the peace process and U.S.-Syrian relations.

If the accusations are true, Syria may be aiming to show the danger if there is no movement on a peace deal with Israel.

Syria has for years used its close ties to Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas and other radical Palestinian factions to strengthen its bargaining position, hoping that Washington and its Western allies would grant it some of its wishes in exchange for downgrading those alliances.

While the U.S. continues to keep Syria at an arm's length, Assad has no one to turn to except Iran and neighboring Turkey, said Peter Harling, a Damascus-based Syria expert with the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based research center.

"Syria tends to respond only to concrete offers on the table. To date, there is no offer coming from the U.S.," he said. "Damascus is currently presented only two compelling bids: Iranian support in the face of increased risks of war with Israel, and a Turkish partnership toward greater economic and political integration in the region."

But by going public with the accusations, U.S. and Israel could gain a tool to pressure Syria to moderate its behavior — by signaling that they are watching its actions.

"My take is that the charges are designed to press Syria to ... deliver in regard to Palestinian reconciliation and to be aware of the danger of using the Lebanese front," said Amr Hamzawy, Middle East research director at the Washington-based Carnegie Endowment.

Bilal Saab, a Middle East expert from the University of Maryland at College Park who regularly briefs U.S. officials on Lebanon and Syria, said the crisis "presents an opportunity to Washington."

"U.S. officials have always needed leverage in their talks with the Syrians," he said. "This might be the perfect leverage."

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Hamza Hendawi is The Associated Press' Middle East Correspondent.