- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 12, 2004

DAMASCUS, Syria — Syria denounced U.S. economic sanctions yesterday, and other Arab countries — including U.S. allies — joined in the criticism. Europe ignored the penalties by dispatching a trade delegation to Damascus.

Some Arabs questioned the validity of the measures and the motives behind them, saying they serve Israeli — not American — interests and could further antagonize Arab feelings toward the United States, which already are soured by the war in Iraq, the prisoner abuse scandal and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Neighboring Lebanon might prove to be a major loophole in the sanctions, which ban all U.S. exports to Syria except food and medicine and forbid flights between Syria and the United States. Goods traditionally have flowed across the border from Lebanon to Syria.

Trade between the United States and Syria amounts to a modest $300 million a year, and there are currently no flights between Syrian and U.S. airports. But the political effect of the measures could surpass the economic impact.

Syrian Prime Minister Naji al-Otari said the sanctions were “unjust and unjustified” and played down their effects while expressing hope for continued dialogue with Washington.

Damascus Radio, which reflects government thinking, took a harder line. “If Washington expects that the penalties will lead to Syria’s isolation or marginalizing its role, this role is not a matter for compromise or blackmail,” the radio said.

The United States imposed the embargo on Tuesday as a response to charges that Syria was supporting terrorism and undermining U.S. efforts in neighboring Iraq.

The 22-member Arab League said yesterday the embargo would harden Arab opinion against the United States. The sanctions would “add to the sour feelings in the region and will raise more questions among Arab people” about U.S. plans for the region, the league said.

Egypt and Kuwait, the United States’ closest Arab allies, criticized the measures.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher said in Cairo that “sanctions and threats are not beneficial, and they will not work.”

“I don’t think the U.S. decision is a useful decision,” Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sheik Mohammed al-Sabah said.

President Emile Lahoud of Lebanon, which Syria dominates with thousands of troops, said the sanctions were “wrong in content and timing” and were influenced by Israel.

The sanctions authorize the Treasury Department to freeze the assets of Syrian nationals and entities involved in terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, the occupation of Lebanon and terrorism in Iraq. They also restrict relations between U.S. banks and the Syrian national bank.

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