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Syria relations { June 20 2002 }

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U.S.-Syria Relations Not Quite as Cold
Officials Cite Assad's Anti-Terror Aid

By Glenn Kessler
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 20, 2002; Page A15

Syria's relations with the United States have improved because of its assistance in the war on terrorism, but U.S. officials and Middle East experts said yesterday that Syria's continued support of Hezbollah, Hamas and other militant anti-Israel organizations makes a complete thaw impossible.

Syria's cooperation in the fight against al Qaeda was highlighted by the revelation this week that a key figure in the Sept. 11 plot, Mohammed Haydar Zammar, had been arrested in Morocco and sent to Syria for interrogation, with American knowledge. While U.S. officials have not been able to question Zammar, Americans have submitted questions to the Syrians.

"They have been very helpful," a State Department official said. "But we still have very serious concerns and that's why they are still on the list of state sponsors of terrorism."

A recent State Department report said that Syria has not been implicated directly in an act of terrorism since 1986 but that it has continued to provide haven and logistical support to terrorist organizations operating in the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon, which is under Syrian control.

Besides Syria's support for what the United States considers terrorist organizations -- and which the Syrians call resistance fighters -- the official cited Syria's aid to Iraq in evading international sanctions, such as the illegal importation of oil, as another source of friction.

Nevertheless, officials said Syria has been unstinting in helping in the battle against al Qaeda, in large part because Syrian officials view fundamentalist Islamic movements as destabilizing. After Sept. 11, Syrian President Bashar Assad pledged his support in a letter to President Bush, and that has been followed up by concrete actions.

Vincent Cannistraro, a former counterterrorism chief for the CIA, said Syria has "been completely cooperative" in investigating al Qaeda and persons associating with al Qaeda. In some cases, he said, Syrian officials have avoided arresting suspects so they can continue to monitor their conversations and movements and report back to the United States.

Richard W. Erdman, the chief State Department specialist for Syria, recently told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee that Syria's actions against al Qaeda have "helped save American lives."

Assad, in an interview published yesterday in the San Jose Mercury News, said Syria within the past three months provided information on an al Qaeda operation that, if successful, would have killed "many American soldiers." He declined to provide details.

Cannistraro said Syria makes a distinction between what it considers legitimate support for the Palestinians and terrorism in general, and that its efforts to combat al Qaeda were considered a possible route to getting off the U.S. list of terrorist-sponsor states. "They have been trying to get off of it for a long time," he said. "They are very bitter about it."

"There will come a time when the administration realizes that this label is not correct," Assad told the Mercury News.

Citing Syria's cooperation, the Bush administration recently opposed a bill backed by key members of Congress, including House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.), that would punish Syria for its support of terrorist groups. The Syrian Accountability Act would impose economic and political sanctions until the president certifies it has ended support of terrorist groups, withdrawn from Lebanon and complied with United Nations resolutions against Iraq.

Supporters of the legislation complain that Syria is subject to fewer sanctions than any of the seven nations listed as state sponsors of terrorism.

Assad has signaled in other ways that he is eager to improve relations with the United States.

Last month, a senior delegation of Syrian officials, headed by Deputy Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem, met with Assistant Secretary of State William J. Burns, Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and other Americans at Rice University in Houston. While U.S. officials play down the importance of the meeting, some participants said the tenor of discussions suggested Syria was serious about improving relations.

Shibley Telhami, a Middle East expert at the University of Maryland who attended the meeting, said the Syrian delegation was empowered by Assad to discuss a range of issues, including "a tough exchange on the question of terrorism" and ways to promote cultural and political exchanges.

"This was probably the most interesting Syrian-U.S. exchange that I've seen," Telhami said.

"There seems to be a real readiness to build on the cooperation in practical ways on the issue of terrorism," said Edward P. Djerejian, director of the James A. Baker III Institute for Public Policy at Rice.

But U.S. officials remain skeptical. Diplomatic sources said that in recent weeks Hezbollah has built up forces, including missiles capable of reaching northern Israeli population centers, along Lebanon's southern border with Israel, prompting a round of U.S. warnings to Syria, Iran and Lebanon.

"Talking to Syria is not a problem," the State Department official said. "Getting them to do what we want is a problem."

2002 The Washington Post Company

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