- The Washington Times - Saturday, November 22, 2003

NICOSIA, Cyprus — Syria is intensifying a diplomatic offensive aimed at Europe to reduce the impact of stringent economic sanctions voted by the U.S. Congress.

Syrian President Bashar Assad is receiving an increasing number of European Union delegations while Farouk Sharaa, his foreign minister, is giving elaborate dinners for European ambassadors accredited to Damascus, according to diplomatic reports.

In December Mr. Assad will travel on an official visit to Belgium, where he will address the European Parliament. At the beginning of next year, he plans visits to Greece and Austria.

The objective is to persuade the Europeans to ignore what one Syrian official described as “the straitjacket of sanctions” in the recently approved “Syrian Accountability Act.”

The legislation is aimed at halting the already modest U.S. trade with Syria and preventing U.S. oil companies and exporters from having anything to do with the country, which considers itself the “Arab heartland.”

Some diplomats and area specialists believe that although relations between the United States and Syria are at rock bottom, the possibility of a dialogue should not be excluded.

According to Mahdi Dakhlalla, chief editor of the Damascus Al-Ba’ath daily, “The general trend of Syrian-U.S. relations has always fluctuated. However, it has never reached the point of no-return.”

At this point, diplomats say, Syria is particularly worried that some European countries might follow Washington and curtail or stop their business with Syria.

Syrian officials claim that they have received assurances from visiting EU dignitaries that the European club has no intention of following any restrictive U.S. action.

The EU has been exceptionally receptive to Syria’s diplomatic maneuvers, once again showing the difference in attitudes toward the Middle East between the two shores of the Atlantic.

Syria’s objective in any form of dialogue with the United States is to be removed from the State Department’s list of countries sponsoring terrorism, help Syria’s economic entry into Iraq and pressure Israel for negotiations on the Golan Heights, a slice of Syria seized by Israel in 1976.

Syria has opposed the U.S.-led war on Iraq as well as the “roadmap” to peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

Syrian officials also feel that in order to stabilize the situation in Iraq, the United States will sooner or later need Syrian help.

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