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Syria Courts a Cool U.S. Amid Threat of Sanctions

Times Staff Writer

Syria has launched a diplomatic campaign aimed at canceling its membership in the Bush administration’s “rogue” nations club. But the United States and its key allies remain cool, unconvinced that the overtures amount to anything more than lip service from a government that remains fundamentally hostile to U.S. interests.

The question for the Bush administration is whether Syria can be persuaded to follow Libya’s lead in renouncing terrorism and giving up any weapons of mass destruction it might have.

The answer is a matter of some urgency in this campaign year, because a new U.S. law will trigger economic and political sanctions against Syria in May -- unless Secretary of State Colin L. Powell certifies that Damascus is making progress toward meeting American demands or President Bush waives the sanctions on national security grounds.

The guessing game in Washington is how long American patience with Syria will last if Bush is reelected. With the administration’s hands full with Iraq, Afghanistan and North Korea, no one expects the U.S. to put military pressure on Syria before the November presidential election.

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But the neoconservatives who have shaped the administration’s foreign policy have long argued that Syria is a destabilizing force and an obstacle to democratization in the Middle East. Last year, as Washington was preparing for war in Iraq, a senior administration official and neoconservative was asked what the U.S. message was for Syria and Libya.

“Take a number,” he replied.

“After the election, they [may] pull out all the stops to pressure the administration to take on the next round of ‘evildoers,’ as they call them,” Gary G. Sick, a former National Security Council official now at Columbia University, said of the neoconservatives.

Syria was not named by Bush as an “axis of evil” nation, though in the past it has been routinely mentioned in the same breath as Iraq, Iran, North Korea and Libya as nations suspected of fitting the two criteria deemed most dangerous to U.S. interests: possession of weapons of mass destruction and support for terrorists to whom such weapons might be transferred.

Syria is, however, the only one of the “rogue” nations with which the United States has normal diplomatic relations and daily contacts. The problem is that those contacts seem to be leading nowhere, State Department officials said.

“There’s a lot of frustration with the Syrians,” said one official who requested anonymity. “Basically, there’s the feeling that the clock is ticking on Syria and they need to heed the wake-up call.”

Anxious about his nation’s poor standing with Washington, Syrian President Bashar Assad has been receiving a flurry of American, French and British visitors, official and private, and telling them how eager he is to improve relations. Syrian diplomats have been taking the same message around the world and reaching beyond traditional government-to-government contacts to tap potentially more friendly interlocutors.

In December, for example, Assad sent senior official Bouthaina Shaaban on an unusual seven-state speaking tour across the U.S. aimed at persuading audiences that Syria was not a terrorist nation. Among her assignments was to reach out to Americans of Syrian origin -- estimated to number well over half a million -- as well as to former U.S. officials, peace activists, scholars and the media.

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“They are taking on American public opinion beyond the Beltway, which is a huge difference,” said Edward Djerejian, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria who sponsors unofficial contacts between the two countries at the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice University.

“They’re becoming much more savvy,” Djerejian said. “They realize they have to be.”

Last month, Assad made a rare trip to Turkey, with which Syria’s relations have been strained for decades. He also toyed publicly with restarting negotiations with Israel that fizzled in 2000 -- then decided against it, reinforcing Bush administration perceptions that Assad isn’t committed to making peace.

Later in January, Assad spent an hour and a half wooing visiting Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), one of 81 Senate sponsors of the sanctions law. Nelson reported that Assad was open and engaging, and listened intently.

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Nelson joined a chorus of other Western visitors -- including French and British envoys -- in urging Assad to rethink Syria’s strategic position in the Mideast, made even shakier by the U.S. occupation of Iraq. Nelson told him: “Mr. President, the world’s in change and it’s time for new bold leadership. I think you ought to seize the moment.” The senator did not receive an answer.

Under the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act, Congress demanded that Damascus renounce all support for terrorism and close all offices of groups the U.S. links to terrorism, including Hamas, Hezbollah and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. The law requires that Syria stop letting weapons or insurgents cross its borders into Iraq, set a timetable to withdraw its 20,000 troops from Lebanon, begin talks with Israel and halt development of ballistic missiles, as well as biological and chemical weapons, which the Syrians deny having.

Powell outlined most of those positions during a visit to Damascus in May, when he made clear to Assad that the U.S. would not tolerate cross-border infiltration of arms or fighters, or other Syrian-sponsored threats to the American military presence in Iraq. Powell also told Assad that money that former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and his associates allegedly stashed in Syrian banks before the U.S. invasion had better be returned to its rightful owner: the Iraqi people.

Congressional Republicans had been agitating for a stronger stance against Syria for some time, but the bill passed swiftly after reports that anti-American insurgents were crossing the Syrian border into Iraq. Bush signed it in December after it was amended to include the option of a presidential waiver on sanctions for unspecified national security reasons.

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Congressional and administration officials were further angered by reports in The Times in December that a Syrian company run by Assad’s cousin had sold weaponry to Hussein before the war. Nelson said he confronted Assad with the reports.

“He didn’t deny it, but what he said was, ‘Well, show me the proof,’ ” Nelson said.

Administration officials say Syria has taken some steps toward meeting the U.S. demands, including closing some of the offices linked to extremist groups in Damascus -- though not expelling their leaders.

A senior U.S. official said Assad also has cooperated to some extent with American efforts to arrest Al Qaeda members. He acknowledged that Damascus had parted with some of the Iraqi money in its banks and, beginning last fall, began taking steps to police the Iraqi border.

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“But we’re skeptical, because these are straws in the wind,” the official said. “It’s not a mud hut yet.... But we’ll wait a while.”

The Bush administration is not alone in its skepticism. Diplomats from France and Britain, which have also made overtures to Assad, express disappointment that the London-educated ophthalmologist who succeeded his late father in 2000 has not proved to be the reformer they had hoped.

“We have the feeling that he is ... paralyzed by the apparatchiks who are around him,” a French diplomat said. Assad has not realized the geopolitical implications of the Iraq war, he added. “Now Syria does exactly as if nothing had happened.”

When the French urged Assad to end his support for Hezbollah, which mounts attacks on Israel from Lebanon, the Syrian president called the militant group “our deterrent,” the French diplomat fumed. “The man has not understood what has happened in the world.”

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The Syrians, however, view the Bush administration as implacably hostile to Syria mainly because of profound differences over Israel.

Shaaban, the Syrian senior official, said her nation has bent over backward to try to halt smuggling and infiltration of foreign fighters over the border and has closed the Damascus offices of the groups the U.S. considers terrorists. She noted that Syria has asked the United Nations to declare the Middle East a zone free of weapons of mass destruction -- code for requiring Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to renounce such arms.

“We’re not on the axis of evil,” Shaaban said. “Syria is a secular society. It’s a multiethnic society where women play an important role. So I can’t see where the problem is if you take the Sharon-ian agenda out.”

Shaaban urged the Bush administration to reconsider what Syria views as the double standard that the U.S. applies to Israel as a basis for starting talks on a comprehensive Middle East peace settlement.

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It is the kind of argument that makes Bush administration officials roll their eyes. Still, officials took pains to say that the door is still open for discussions if Damascus means business.

“If there’s something beyond the stale litany of our sins -- double standards, Israel, et cetera -- I think you’d find people in the administration willing to listen,” one official said.


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