- The Washington Times - Monday, December 1, 2003

The Bush administration yesterday gave a cold shoulder to an unusual public appeal from Syrian President Bashar Assad for better bilateral relations and for U.S. support for new peace talks between Syria and Israel.

Officials at the National Security Council said yesterday President Bush is still committed to signing a bill — possibly within days — calling for new economic and diplomatic sanctions on Damascus for its support of terrorist groups. Congress overwhelmingly approved the punitive measure last month after the administration dropped its long-standing opposition to the bill.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the United States was prepared to support “all tracks of the Middle East peace process,” but said Syria’s continued backing of Palestinian militant groups remained a major obstacle.

“We find it hard to understand how Syria can talk peace at a time when Syria continues to support groups that are violently opposed to the peace process, that are violently opposed to the Palestinian government [and] to the building of a Palestinian state,” Mr. Boucher said.

In a lengthy interview published yesterday in the New York Times, Mr. Assad argued that strong U.S. support for new talks between Syria and Israel over the disputed Golan Heights could help repair America’s image in the Arab world after the war in Iraq, a campaign that Syria bitterly opposed.

He also defended Syria’s cooperation in the U.S.-led war on terrorism and with the U.S.-led security force now in Iraq. He said Syria had provided sensitive intelligence information on operations by the al Qaeda terrorist network, foiling attacks on U.S. targets. Mr. Assad said Syria is cracking down on Islamic militants attempting to cross into Iraq, but conceded his country does not have the manpower to seal its 300-mile border with Iraq.

Mr. Assad, who succeeded his father Hafez Assad in 2000, contended that Damascus supported only the political and humanitarian wings of militant Palestinian groups such as Islamic Jihad and Hamas.

But the Bush administration and leading members of Congress have called this a distinction without a difference, and Israel argues that Syria’s support for violent Palestinian groups goes far deeper that Mr. Assad will admit.

Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, in an interview with The Washington Times last month, said Israeli intelligence had learned that a deadly restaurant bombing in Haifa in October had been ordered by the Damascus office of Islamic Jihad, an incident that led to an Israeli bombing mission on a suspected terrorist training camp 12 miles from the Syrian capital.

Israeli pilots buzzed Mr. Assad’s presidential residence during the mission, Mr. Mofaz revealed.

No bill-signing date has been made public, but a National Security Council official yesterday said President Bush still intends to sign the “Syria Accountability Act” in the near future.

Citing Syrian support for terrorism and its military domination of Lebanon, the legislation would ban the export to Syria of commercial goods that could have military uses and calls on President Bush to impose at least two sanctions from a lengthy list contained in the measure.

Possible punitive actions include: barring most U.S. investments in Syria; restrictions on travel by Syrian diplomats beyond Washington and New York; a freeze on Syrian government assets in the United States; and banning Syrian aircraft from U.S. airspace.

Owing to a last-minute amendment in the Senate, the act gives President Bush broad discretion to waive the sanctions “in the national-security interests,” although Mr. Bush still would be required to state in writing why he approved the waiver. White House officials say it is too soon to tell whether Mr. Bush will impose any sanctions.

Syria, which has seen its ties with the European Union and Turkey improve in recent months, largely has brushed off the sanctions, saying the primary victims would be American companies and oil firms. U.S. exports to Syria in 2002 amounted to about $269 million.

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