- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 16, 2003

ATHENS (Agence France-Presse) — Syrian President Bashar Assad, beginning a visit to Greece on Monday, said he was not worried that his country would become the Bush administration’s next target after Iraq.

“What happens in Iraq concerns Iraq, not Syria … Syria is not Iraq,” Mr. Assad said when a reporter asked whether Syria had felt threatened since the U.S.-led invasion and occupation of its eastern neighbor.

“This question does not worry us,” the Syrian leader said after a meeting with the president of the Greek parliament, Apostolos Kaklamanis.

“There are no common points to suggest that what happened in Iraq could begin in Syria,” Mr. Assad said.

On Friday, President Bush signed a law providing for economic and diplomatic sanctions against Syria for what the United States said were ties to terrorists, tacit support for anti-U.S. insurgents in Iraq and efforts to obtain weapons of mass destruction.

But Mr. Assad said Syria plays “an active role on the international scene, especially concerning peace, the struggle against terrorism and the Iraq question.” It also has “good relations with the European Union,” he said.

The European Union has said it had no plans to imitate the U.S. sanctions, and on Tuesday last week, it completed negotiations with Syria on an association treaty to be signed next month.

The treaty aims to promote European investment in Syria, which is seeking to modernize its infrastructure and stimulate its economy.

“We focused on economic relations, notably in tourism, commerce, sea transport, natural gas and oil extraction, and other sectors,” Mr. Assad told reporters after meeting Greek President Costis Stephanopoulos.

Mr. Stephanopoulos said, “Syria condemned terrorism and showed it could cooperate with other countries to fight against the phenomenon.”

In an interview with the Greek daily Kathimerini published on Sunday and given before Mr. Bush signed the law, Mr. Assad said: “Syria does not consider the United States its enemy, despite numerous differences.”

He added: “We are against the occupation of Iraq, against the actions of American forces in Iraq, against violations of human rights.”

Mr. Assad did not comment on the capture by U.S. troops of Saddam Hussein, the ousted president of Iraq, a traditional rival for leadership of the Arab world.

But, in a statement, translated from Arabic to Greek, he said his visit to Greece “takes place in an extraordinary moment and has several meanings.”

Mr. Assad said he also was against “many other aspects of American policy in the region, including an attitude biased in favor of Israel.”

The Syrian president was in Athens at the invitation of Mr. Stephanopoulos, who had paid an official visit to Damascus in 2001. Mr. Assad was accompanied by Foreign Minister Faruq al-Shara as well as ministers for commerce and tourism.

Yesterday, Mr. Assad was to meet Greece’s socialist prime minister, Costas Simitis. The Syrian president’s schedule also included a speech to a Greek-Syrian tourism conference and a meeting with the conservative mayor of Athens, Dora Bakoyianni.

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