WASHINGTON (Sep. 17)
The United States is pleased but not satisfied with a denunciation of terrorism made by Syria during U.S. Secretary of State James Baker’s visit to Damascus last Friday.
Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk a-Sharaa, who took part in Baker’s meeting with President Hafez Assad, condemned all forms of terrorism except those committed in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Golan Heights.
Sharaa’s statement did not satisfy U.S. officials, not because of any particular concern about the goings-on in the territories, but because they want to see Syria take action and expel terrorist groups based in Syria.
Sharaa said Syria would be willing to expel groups if it has credible evidence of their involvement in terrorist acts. Speaking at a news conference with Baker at the Damascus airport, he acknowledged that “the question of terrorism stands in the way of improving the relations between Syria and the United States.”
Baker made the trip to express U.S. satisfaction with Syria’s participation in the United Nations-mandated economic boycott against Iraq. Syria has also contributed troops to the deterrent forces in Saudi Arabia, as well as in the United Arab Emirates.
But Baker said the United States makes “no secret about the fact that there are still problems revolving around this question of terrorism.”
Such problems must be resolved “before the relationship can get what you might characterize as very close,” because “our policy cannot and never will be amoral,” he said.
Sharaa countered by blaming the “media in the West” for having played a “major role in exaggerating the terrorism issue in our region.” He noted that Syria has condemned terrorism in “all its forms,” including hostage-taking and the hijacking of airplanes.
“We consider any violent act outside the occupied territory as a terrorist act,” Sharaa said. But he referred to action against Israel in the territories as a “legitimate struggle.”
BAKER REQUESTS GROUP’S EXPULSION
Baker asked Assad to expel terrorists, including the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command.
The group is believed responsible for the December 1988 bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, which took the lives of 270 people. The group is led by Ahmed Jabril, who has long been supported by Syria.
Sharaa said Syria has not expelled the group, because “we don’t have evidence, so far.”
But “we made it very clear that if there was hard evidence to link any Palestinian group” with “any terrorist act, then in this case, those responsible will be brought to trial,” he said.
The meeting was the first between a senior American official and the Syrian president since the bombing.
A State Department expert on Syria declined comment on the meeting.
But Barry Rubin, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a pro-Israel think tank, said U.S. officials are “very much aware of the dangers” of improving U.S.-Syrian relations without progress on terrorism. Doing so could lead to a repeat of “what happened with Iraq,” he said.
Rubin said he did not expect the United States to revoke several sanctions against Syria any time soon, and said, in any event, that Syria is much more concerned about economic relations with Western Europe and Saudi Arabia.
During the meeting, the two countries explored the possibility of working toward an Arab-Israeli peace agreement. Sharaa said Syria “is not linking the (Persian) Gulf crisis with the Arab-Israeli conflict at all.”
He said Syria was calling for an “Iraqi unconditional withdrawal from Kuwait.” Such a withdrawal “would certainly pave the way” for an “Israeli withdrawal from the occupied Arab territories,” a linkage he called “theoretical.”
For his part, Baker said the two were “simply exploring” the “various ways in which the peace process might be moved forward.”
Sharaa said it is “imperative that this region should witness genuine peace and stability,” including a “comprehensive and just settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict.”