WASHINGTON (Aug. 4)
Jewish leaders here reacted with skepticism and disappointment to Syrian Foreign Minister Farouk al-Sharaa’s comment this week that Syrian Jews are as free to travel as any other Syrian citizens.
Jewish groups and U.S. government officials have raised concerns that, despite a pledge last year from Syrian President Hafez Assad to allow free travel for Jews, very few of Syria’s 1,400 Jews have received travel visas in recent months.
Sharaa made his statement at a joint news conference Wednesday in Damascus with visiting U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher.
In response to a question, the Syrian foreign minister said that “free travel is allowed to all Syrian citizens, and certainly including the Syrian Jews. And (there is) no discrimination among the Syrian citizens, regardless of their religion.
“And if there is any bureaucratic difficulties, it applies to all,” he said. “I want to make clear: We can not give a privilege to a certain class of people in our country, and this is a commitment by the Syrian government, which we are not going to back away from.”
Rep. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), head of a congressional task force on Syrian Jewry, criticized Sharaa’s remarks in a statement Wednesday.
“This blatant lie is just one more attempt by Assad to deceive the world into thinking that Syria has changed its ways,” Schumer said.
And Alice Harary, president of the Council for the Rescue of Syrian Jews, said Sharaa’s statement was “not very encouraging.”
“The bureaucratic difficulties which were to have been lifted persist, with only three to five permissions being issued each week,” she said.
DENIES SUPPLYING HEZBOLLAH
The Clinton administration has raised the issue of Syrian Jews’ ability to travel with the Syrian government.
In a letter to 73 senators last month, President Clinton said his administration would not let the Syrian Jews’ plight “slip from our attention.”
Syria had originally announced a free-travel policy for Jews in April 1992, reversing its older practice of barring its Jewish population from leaving the country in family groups.
But between last October and January 1993, none of the 1,400 Jews still remaining in Syria were granted travel visas. And in recent months, only a few Jews per week have received visas.
On another topic, Sharaa denied Wednesday that Syria was serving as a transfer point for Iranian weapons bound for Lebanon.
Last week, Rep. Tom Lantos (D-Calif.) said he had information indicating that Syria was involved in shipping Iranian weapons to the Shi’ite fundamentalist Hezbollah movement in Lebanon, just prior to the recent upsurge in attacks on Israeli troops.
“The information that the congressman has got is absolutely false,” Sharaa said.
In Congress this week, a Senate subcommittee approved language restricting U.S. aid to Syria until the president determines it has met specific requirements, including ending support for terrorists and allowing free emigration.
The language, included in the subcommittee markup of the fiscal year 1994 foreign aid authorization bill, was also in last year’s legislation.