SYRIA and the United States may be heading toward sharp disagreement over terrorism, Lebanon, and the Middle East peace process. As investigators move toward their conclusions on who bombed Pan Am Flight 103 over Scotland, the prime suspects continue to be operatives of a radical Palestinian group based in Damascus, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine - General Command (PFLP-GC). The discovery of four more sophisticated bombs tied to the PFLP-GC in West Germany has reinforced suspicions.
The US has privately told Syria that although there is no proof of direct Syrian involvement, it is a case of guilt by association because Syria shelters the group, say sources informed of the exchanges. The Syrians have responded that they will not cashier the group without proof.
If investigators find proof, the Bush administration will be under great pressure to use full US leverage to get Syria to act.
As fighting in Lebanon continues, Washington is increasingly critical of Syria's heavy bombardments of Christian East Beirut and its obstinacy in arranging a cease-fire there. The US does not want to get too involved in Lebanon, but if fighting continues it may have to do more, Arab and European diplomats say.
As the Bush administration proceeds in its step-by-step approach to peace between Israel and its neighbors, Syria remains the most likely potential spoiler. A number of key US officials suspect Syria will do its utmost to derail the process. Some hope the Soviets will use their influence to moderate Syrian behavior and bring them toward peace.
``We're clearly on what could be a collision course'' over these issues, says a senior US diplomat. But it is not yet clear if the collisions will take place or if solutions can be found, he says.
Patrick Seale, author of a new biography of Syrian President Hafez Assad, entitled ``Assad: The Struggle for the Middle East,'' says Lebanon and the Middle East peace process are life-and-death issues for Mr. Assad.
``Promoting a peace settlement that excludes Assad will drive him to the wall,'' Seale says. If that happens, Assad ``will fight back and fight dirty.'' On Lebanon, he adds, Assad fears that ``if he loses control, he could well be finished'' at home as well as cede influence in that country to Israel.