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2 Top Senators Warn Syria About Halt in Jewish Travel

Two prominent senators have warned Syria that its halt in issuing travel visas to its Jews, along with other recent policy moves, threatens closer U.S.-Syrian relations.

Sens. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) and Edward Kennedy (D-Mass), also cited as threats to bilateral ties Syria’s recent refusal to meet with U.S. officials to discuss terrorism, the increase in terrorism from Syrian-controlled Lebanon and the continuing Syrian support of groups such as Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

The message was conveyed in a Dec. 22 letter to the Syrian ambassador to the United States, Walid al-Moualem.

So far, the senators have received no reply from Syria, according to an aide to Grassley.

Since Syria lifted the travel ban it had long imposed on its Jewish community, some 2,400 Jews have left the country, according to a statement by Syria’s Chief Rabbi Ibrahim Hamra. He said another 1,450 remain. It is believed that about 1,000 of those wish to leave, as well.

At a news conference last week in Damascus, Hamra echoed the official Syrian position being given to American officials. He said that “administrative problems” have delayed exit permits for the Jews, but denied there had been a policy reversal.

Moualem had given a similar response recently to a letter from the Rev. Jesse Jackson expressing concern over the halt in visas.

The Syrian ambassador had stated that “the Syrian government’s decision of April 1992 to allow Syrian Jews to travel still stands.”

ACTIVISTS DISPUTE SYRIAN CLAIM

This claim was disputed by the Council for the Rescue of Syrian Jews in New York.

“If, in fact, there has been no policy shift, then we anxiously await such evidence in a resumption of the granting of permits to travel,” said Alice Harary, president of the council, in a statement. “To date, no such resumption has occurred.”

The halt in visas began in late October, shortly before the U.S. presidential election.

Some observers say the Syrian moves reflect a desire by Syria to “sell the Jews twice,” by extracting gains for their release from both the old and new American administrations.

Several other members of Congress have also written the Syrians on behalf of Syrian Jews. Through the State Department, the issue has been raised in both Damascus and in Washington.

But the Grassley-Kennedy letter stands out for invoking the full range of issues in the Syrian-U.S. relationship. The letter explicitly noted Syria’s long-held desire to be removed from the U.S. terrorism list.

It is also noteworthy because the original Syrian decision to permit its Jews to travel came shortly after the dispatch of a letter circulated by Kennedy and signed by more than half the Senate calling for the release of Syria’s Jews.

For now, the organized Jewish community is continuing to keep a low profile on the issue. Advocates for Syrian Jewry say they fear that too much pressure could force Syrian President Hafez Assad to formalize, the apparent policy shift.

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