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One Lonely Man: Syrian Official Tries to Press Case in Washington

Beleaguered by its U.S.-led isolation, Syria wants its recent pullout from Lebanon to exempt it from responsibility for Hezbollah, the terrorist group that continues to attack Israel’s border. That’s not likely, say U.S. and Israeli officials, charging that the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad left behind in Lebanon an intelligence network propping up Hezbollah’s powerful militia, which has intensified its attacks on Israel in recent weeks.

“Syria used to have a military presence in Lebanon, I can’t deny this,” Imad Moustapha, Syria’s ambassador to Washington, told JTA in a late-July interview. “We used to have political leverage in Lebanon. We don’t have either anymore in Lebanon, so it’s absolutely unfair to come and talk today to Syria about what is happening today in Lebanon.”

U.S. and Israeli officials welcome Syria’s pullout from Lebanon but are profoundly skeptical of claims that it has entirely abandoned its influence there.

“The links continue; it’s quite open,” an Israeli official said. “Syria is playing roles behind the scenes through its proxies.”

While refusing to meet all of Washington’s conditions for removing sanctions imposed since last year, Syria is still trying to force its way out of the Bush administration’s doghouse. Moustapha said Syria is chafing under the sanctions and is concerned that they may even broaden at a time when Assad has launched a program to open his country’s economy, which Syrian officials say eventually will lead to the political reforms sought by the West.

“President Assad has repeatedly declared in the past two or three months publicly that his paramount concern is the amelioration of the living conditions of the Syrian people, so of course any sanctions will have a negative effect on us, particularly at this time when we are trying to open up as much as possible to the rest of the world,” Moustapha said.

Current U.S. law bans the trade of all but essentials with Syria, and the Bush administration recently froze the U.S. assets of top individuals in the Assad regime.

Additionally, members of Congress who enabled the sanctions through the 2003 passage of the Syria Accountability Act are considering broadening its provisions to target foreign companies that deal with Syria. That could have a much deeper impact, as the bulk of Syria’s trade is with companies in Europe that have strong trade ties with the United States.

Moustapha sounded a defiant note.

“It will not harm the Syrian government. It will only harm the Syrian people,” he said. “Just as the case was with Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi people suffered a lot; Saddam was living in his palaces. We will never be pressured to change our policies because of U.S. sanctions.”

But that defiance is belied by substantial, even dramatic, changes since the Bush administration intensified its isolation of Syria last year. Syria withdrew troops from Lebanon in April, ending an occupation of almost three decades, a step toward fulfilling one of the four conditions of the Syria Accountability Act.

The country has also beefed up its presence on the Iraqi border, clamping down on foreigners seeking to join the anti-American insurgency, a step toward fulfilling another condition.

Israeli and U.S. officials say there has been no apparent movement on the other two conditions: shutting down Palestinian terrorist offices and allowing inspectors to assess Syria’s weapons-of-mass-destruction capabilities.

Moustapha claims Syria is playing a positive role in the Palestinian-Israel conflict, brokering conciliation meetings recently between Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and terrorist groups based in Damascus.

“We used to have bad relations with Yasser Arafat,” the P.A. president who died in November, “but we wanted to start a new phase with Mahmoud Abbas,” Moustapha said.

The Bush administration agrees with Israel that it’s not possible to accommodate terrorist groups who deny Israel’s right to exist, arguing that they must be shut down instead.

“Syria needs to shut down terrorist organizations in its territory — terrorist organizations that are trying to derail efforts to move forward on peace in the Middle East, trying to derail efforts to move forward on the two-state vision of Israel and Palestine living side-by-side in peace and security,” the White House spokesman, Scott McClellan, said in late July.

U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), the chairwoman of the House of Representatives’ Middle East Subcommittee, said Wednesday that Syria continues to maintain a toxic presence in Lebanon, affecting the country’s parliamentary elections in May.

Ros-Lehtinen cited reports of Syrian intelligence forces “threatening voters and engaging in mass naturalizations of Syrian nationals as Lebanese citizens in order to tilt the outcome of the elections toward a scenario favorable to Syria and its terrorist ally, Iran.”

Hezbollah stepped up its attacks on Israeli border personnel in recent weeks — most recently on July 12 — when gunmen fired on an Israeli outpost. Israel ended its own occupation of a security zone in southern Lebanon in 2000, withdrawing to U.N.-certified lines.

Israeli officials believe that Hezbollah, which opposes Israel’s existence, wants to scuttle Israel’s withdrawal from the Gaza Strip next month and the chance of renewed talks with the Palestinians.

Hezbollah continues to attack Israel on the pretext that the Jewish State maintains a presence in the tiny Shebaa Farms area of the Golan Heights, which Hezbollah says is Lebanese territory. The United Nations has ruled that the area belongs to Syria and that Lebanon has no claim to the land.

State Department spokesman Adam Ereli scoffed at Syrian claims last week that disbanding Hezbollah — as the U.N. Security Council has demanded — would destabilize the region.

“I guess if anybody’s qualified to say what can harm the Lebanese, it’s the Syrians,” he said. Syria would do well to encourage Hezbollah to withdraw, Ereli said, “as opposed to standing in the way of that and continuing to act in ways that undermine Lebanese sovereignty as opposed to strengthening it.”

Moustapha said Assad still wants to talk peace with Israel on the basis of an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, the strategic plateau that Israel captured in the 1967 Six-Day War — but he noted Israel’s lack of interest. If they are going to return the Golan, some Israeli officials say, Syria must return land at the base of the Golan that it took by force after Israel’s 1948 War of Independence, a condition Syria has rejected.

Moustapha noted that, at Pope John Paul II’s funeral earlier this year, Assad sought out Israeli President Moshe Katsav and shook his hand “not once, but twice.”

An Israeli official said Israel wants to see how the new era in Lebanon plays out before reconsidering talks with Syria. With its withdrawal from Lebanon and free elections there in May, “developments are in the right direction,” the official noted.

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