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News :: International
Syria Wants to Come In From the Cold
02 Apr 2004
Syria has asked Australia to use its close relationship with the U.S. to help facilitate the rogue state's rehabilitation, but Canberra said it expects Damascus to follow Libya's lead by addressing concerns relating to terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.

Foreign Minister Alexander Downer has met with Syrian diplomats to discuss these issues, a spokesman said Wednesday.
Downer told newly-appointed Syrian charge d'affaires Tamam Souliman this week that "Australia would welcome moves by Syria to engage more broadly with the West."

Australia believed Syria had a long way to go, however, and advised it to follow the example of Libya, which has moved to distance itself from terrorist groups and late last year agreed to abandon its WMD programs.

"We've urged it to take stronger steps to cooperate with the war against terrorism, to address international WMD concerns, and to improve its control over its Iraq border."

Australia closed its embassy in Damascus in 1999 for financial reasons, and has no plans at present to reopen it, the spokesman said.

The Syrians were keen to upgrade diplomatic relations with Australia, by opening an embassy in Canberra.

"They're obviously using this as the early stages of their re-engagement with the West, and we welcome that, but they need to do some things as well," he said.

'Surprised by continuing U.S. pressure'

Syria's approach to Canberra came during a visit to the country by Australian parliamentarians last November, the first such visit in six years.

The leader of the bipartisan delegation, Senator Sandy Macdonald, presented a report in the Senate last week, in which he said Syria had indicated a willingness to engage in dialogue with the West.

"On a number of occasions there was reference to the close relationship Australia has with the United States," he said. "They saw Australia as being able to play a role as a conduit between Syria and the Western powers, and a possible voice of influence on their behalf."

In a phone interview, Macdonald said that the issue of Syria's rehabilitation was evidently a pressing one for the senior officials his group met, including the prime minister and foreign minister.

At the same time, he said, "they made it appear as if they were surprised by the continued pressure being that was being placed on them by America, when they were doing so much," in their view.

Officials had pointed to Syria's support for the 1991 Gulf War, its attempts to secure its border with Iraq, and steps to open up its economy and banking sector to potential foreign investors.

They also claimed to have done "quite a lot to crack down on terrorist groups headquartered in Damascus."

"They are trying to move both forward economically and to rejoin dialogue and acceptability with the major Western nations ... that was the impression they intended to leave with us."

Macdonald said the Syrians led him to believe they would like Australia to be "a friend in Washington for them, in pursuit of a more rational relationship with the U.S."

He added that in his view, the Americans had good reason to be suspicious of Syria, and that the support Syria gives to terrorist groups was "a major problem for their rehabilitation."

For their part, the Syrians were saying that they were moving in the right direction and were alarmed at the prospect of new U.S. sanctions.

The executive director of the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council, Dr. Colin Rubenstein, said that in order for any country to provide help, the Syrians would have to do "a complete somersault in terms of their behavior."

Key issues that would need to be addressed included the harboring of terrorists, the situation in Lebanon, and issues relating to Iraq.

"Those would be the conditions I would have thought for any government providing any sort of assistance to the Syrians, and I would think...that certainly seems to be the benchmark for the Australian government," Rubenstein said.

Australia has in the past acted as a go-between between the U.S. and rogue nations, including North Korea and Libya.

Terror haven

Relations between the U.S. and Syria, which is ruled by a Ba'athist Socialist Party, have long been tense.

Syria's hostility towards Israel, human rights abuses, support for anti-Israeli and anti-U.S. terror groups, and the presence of 35,000 troops in Lebanon, have been among the issues of concern to Washington.

In the early 1990s, relations improved when Syria agreed to participate in the U.S.-led coalition brought together to end the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait. Damascus later took part in peace negotiations with Israel, although they failed to resolve longstanding and multiple disagreements between them.

The progress in bilateral ties with the U.S. was most significantly illustrated by a meeting between former president Hafez al-Assad and President Clinton in Geneva in March 2000.

Three months later, the Syrian dictator died. Under the Bush Administration, relations with the new government, headed by Assad's son, Bashar, have been cool.

Syria claims to be cooperating in the war against terror launched after 9/11, but last year there were suspicions that it may have hidden Iraqi WMD before the U.S.-led war against Iraq's Ba'athist regime - and since then, suspicions that anti-U.S. terrorists may be crossing into Iraq from Syria.

Syria also gives diplomatic, political and logistical support to the Lebanon-based Hizballah, and safe haven to Palestinian terrorist groups including Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, according to the State Department.

Just days ago, the newly-appointed, Damascus-based leader of Hamas, Khaled Meshaal, said the group's revenge for Israel's killing of its founder, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, would "spare no targets." He warned that American policies regarding Israel and Iraq were creating enemies of the U.S. throughout the Islamic world.

Other top terrorists based in Damascus include Hamas deputy Moussa Abu Marzouk, and the secretary-general of Islamic Jihad, Ramadan Abdullah Shalah.

The U.S. considers Syria to be in the category of "states of potential dual threat," Under Secretary for Arms Control John Bolton told Congress last September, citing both its support for terrorist groups and its attempts to attain WMD capability.

Bolton placed Syria together with Iran, North Korea and Libya as states which he said "most aggressively seeking to acquire or develop WMD and their means of delivery, and which are therefore threats to our national security."

Late last year, President Bush signed the Syria Accountability (and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration) Act, empowering the president to impose economic and diplomatic sanctions to punish Syria for harboring terrorists, developing WMD, and occupying Lebanon.

An announcement on the actual sanctions to be introduced is expected shortly.
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