WASHINGTON (Jul. 28)
In an unusual twist of congressional activity on the Middle East, three well-known pro-Israel members of Congress have sent letters to Syrian President Hafez Assad praising him for his efforts in combatting drug trafficking and for allowing Syrian Jews to emigrate.
U.S. Reps. Benjamin Gilman (R-N.Y.), Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) and Charles Rangel (D-N.Y), known as hawks when it comes to Syrian and narcotics issues, hoped that their letters would prompt the Syrians to reveal information on the whereabouts of Israeli soldiers missing in action and lead to movement on the Israel-Syria peace track, according to sources on Capitol Hill.
The letters were sent with a delegation that traveled to Damascus last week, according to the sources.
At these meetings, participants reportedly pressed Syrian officials on the whereabouts of Israeli MIAS, including Ron Arad, an Israeli air force pilot whose plane was shot down over Lebanon in 1986.
Much to the dismay of the congressmen, who had apparently been assured the letters would remain private, Syrian newspapers reported on the correspondence and Assad has been touting the letters in his continuing effort to get Syria off the State Department lists of drug traffickers and state-sponsors of terrorism.
Getting off the two lists has been a priority for Assad, whose country has been disqualified from certain economic benefits because of the listing.
In a brief letter to Assad dated July 22, Schumer wrote, “I would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge your leadership in providing freedom of travel to members of the Syrian Jewish community. Members of Congress recognize your efforts and positive consideration of this matter.”
In the letter, obtained by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Schumer wrote, “I am pleased that the vast majority of Jews that have requested permission to travel freely have been permitted to do so.”
‘A RECOGNITION OF WHAT HE HAS DONE’
In April 1992, Syria lifted travel restrictions on the estimated 4500 Jews. An estimated 4,000 have since left the country, emigrating mostly to the United States.
Schumer, one of Syria’s most outspoken critics on Capitol Hill, concluded his letter by saying, “I look forward to working with you in the future on issues of vital congressional concern.”
Explaining his unusual correspondence with the Syrian president, Schumer said through an aide, “When we asked Assad to do something, he did it, and this letter was simply a recognition of what he has done.”
Gilman, the ranking minority member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Rangel wrote to Assad regarding his improved record of combatting drug smuggling in the Middle East.
The letter complemented Assad for “progress in your government’s efforts to combat drugs, both with assistance in large-scale opium eradication in the Bekaa Valley and enactment of some tough anti-narcotics domestic measures.”
The Bekaa Valley, in eastern Lebanon, is one of the primary opium and cocaine centers in the region. The area remains under Syrian control.
Rangel and Gilman were founders and cochairmen of the now-defunct U.S. House of Representatives Select Committee on Narcotics.
Schumer’s office reacted with disgust when the letters were published this week in the government-sponsored Syrian Times, an English-language newspaper based in Damascus.
“Someone obviously violated our trust,” an aide to one of the congressman said.
The letters were sent “as a diplomatic thing for only Assad to see,” the aide said.
Asked for the reasoning behind Gilman’s letter, an aide said the letter was sent “to acknowledge that Syria has made some constructive progress combating narcotics and to encourage them to go further.”