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Syria Secures European Aid, to the Consternation of Jews

A week after winning an invitation to meet with President Clinton, Syria has gained an economic aid package from Europe.

Jewish leaders here expressed anger and disappointment about a European Parliament vote this week to give $185 million in economic aid to Syria.

Some Jewish leaders said after Wednesday’s vote that it would have been better if the parliament had waited a few weeks to see if Syrian President Hafez Assad lived up to his most recent promises to allow Syrian Jews to leave the country.

The European Parliament is the legislative body of the European Union, which is the successor organization to the European Community. It was meeting in Strasbourg, France.

“The European Parliament was premature in making this grant,” Kent Shiner, international president of B’nai B’rith, said in a statement Wednesday.

“We wish they had waited to see if President Assad was going to keep his word and finally allow the Jews of Syria to leave if they choose to do so,” he said.

“Until Syria changes not only its words but its actions, the European Parliament should have stood firm and blocked this protocol,” Alice Harary, president of the Council for the Rescue of Syrian Jews, said in a statement.

Jewish groups and others here have taken up the cause of Syria’s Jewish population, which has been virtually trapped.

Last month, nine U.S. Senators wrote to 36 members of the European Parliament, urging them to oppose aid to Syria because of the Assad government’s human rights violations.

Jewish officials said Wednesday that they had heard that the aid was conditioned on Syrian behavior.

For example, they had heard that the parliament would annually review Syria’s human rights conditions.

But it remained unclear exactly how the conditions would be enforced.

“Our only consolation is that there will be an annual review of this aid, and if Syria’s human rights record does not warrant the aid it will be stopped,” B’nai B’rith’s Schiner said.

Seymour Reich, chairman of the national task force on Syrian Jewry of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said Wednesday that he was pleased that the parliament “will closely monitor Assad’s promise to issue exit visas to Syrian Jews by the end of this month.”

“We intend to closely monitor the issuance of such visas, and if Assad breaks his promise, we will let our friends in the European Parliament know immediately,” Reich said.

The parliament granted Syria about $200 million in aid in 1992. It had blocked further aid on several previous occasions because of concerns about human rights in Syria, including the treatment of the Jews.

Yannis Paleokrassas, a member of the parliament, said Tuesday that Syria is a key element in the Middle East peace process and that it should not be isolated by blocking again a financial aid package.

“Dialogue with all Middle Eastern countries was essential to strengthen the community’s influence in the region and contribute to the peace process.

“Adopting this financial protocol will give us extra ammunition as regards exerting pressure on the government,” he said.

The parliament’s vote was seen as another triumph for Assad, who recently said his negotiators would return next month to the Washington-based peace talks.

While his country remains on the U.S. list of countries supporting terrorism, Assad recently gained the prize of a promised meeting with Clinton next month in Geneva.

Before Secretary of State Warren Christopher’s announcement of the meeting, Assad had agreed to give travel documents to Syria’s Jewish population.

Assad had promised last year to allow all Syria’s 1,350 Jews to travel freely, but in recent months very few Jews were allowed out.

(Contributing to this report was JTA correspondent Josef Kopel in Strasbourg.)

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