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Syria to Remain on U.S. Drug List Despite Earlier Talk of Exemption

Syria will remain on a U.S. list of countries not cooperating in the fight against illicit drugs, despite indications last week to the contrary.

President Clinton decided last Friday to keep Syria on the list, accepting a recommendation by Secretary of State Warren Christopher.

But Christopher is said to have overruled lower-level officials in the State Department who sought to reward Syria for its cooperation in the Middle East peace process.

A source at the State Department would not comment on whether there was a difference of opinion within the department, but acknowledged that the matter had been discussed.

“We hope this year’s certification decisions send a clear message: This administration is serious about combatting international narcotics trafficking,” Robert Gelbard, assistant secretary of state for international narcotics matters, said at a briefing Monday.

By being placed on the list, Syria is deemed to have violated requirements that it cooperate with the United States or make efforts of its own to combat drug trafficking.

Countries on the list are penalized by having most of their U.S. foreign assistance withheld. Syria does not qualify for such aid in any case, since it is also on another U.S. penalty list: one including countries that support terrorism.

Clinton could have removed Syria from the drug trafficking list by citing U.S. national security concerns. But in what some called an effort to avoid a potential political gaffe, Christopher decided that Syria did not qualify under the national security exemption.

Congress, which received Clinton’s list Friday, has 45 days to object to the president’s recommendations.

At a State Department briefing Monday, Gelbard said Syria had made some progress in the fight against drug trafficking, but not enough.

“We remain very concerned about the problem of government officials, military and other, who continue to go unpunished for their protection of trafficking activities,” he said.

However, there have been strides made in the eradication of drug harvesting in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, which the United States holds Syria partially accountable for, Gelbard said.

Some pro-Israel forces on Capitol Hill were pleased with the administration’s decision.

“We’re relieved that the United States has decided to keep Syria on the list,” said Josh Isay, spokesman for Rep. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).

According to Isay, Schumer made clear following rumors that Syria might be removed from the list that he and other members of Congress would vigorously oppose any such action.

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