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U.S. Policy-makers Visit Syria: Important, or Misguided Outreach?

January 23, 2002
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A steady stream of U.S. lawmakers and officials has visited Syria in recent weeks, signaling a new U.S. openness toward Israel’s northern neighbor.

While some see the new outreach as an important effort to connect with a potential ally in the U.S.-led war on terrorism, others see it as a misguided warming toward a country that harbors terrorists and refuses to compromise on peace with Israel.

“Syria has been a very small player in the last four months,” said Daniel Pipes, director of the Middle East Forum, a think tank, and author of “Syria Beyond the Peace Process.”

“Syria is a potentially larger factor of what comes next. Are they our ally against Iraq or a problem themselves?”

The outreach to Syria comes as President Bashar Assad has formed his new government, 18 months after inheriting the reins from his father, Hafez.

It also comes as Syria has taken on a new role in international politics as the newest member of the U.N. Security Council.

Syria appears to be using its new status both as a way to garner American support for its struggling economy — and as a way to speak out against Israel.

Syria’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations outraged Israeli, Jewish and American officials last week when he compared the sight of Palestinian homes destroyed by Israel in the Gaza Strip with the destruction of the World Trade Center bombing.

“We must note the scene of tens of Palestinian houses which were demolished by Israeli tanks in the Rafah camps a few days ago is not much different from the scene of the World Trade Center which was destroyed by the terrorists, whom we have all agreed here to combat and eliminate,”‘ Faisal Mekdad said last Friday.

Israel’s U.N. Ambassador Yehuda Lancry, in a speech to the council late Friday, said he regretted Syria’s “baseless allegations.”

He called Mekdad’s statement “a transparent attempt to divert attention from Syria’s own record as a country that supports, encourages, finances and harbors a vast gamut of terrorist organizations.”

Syria remains on the U.S. State Department’s list of states that sponsor terrorism, but some see Syria as having a common interest in going after international terrorism.

Indeed, many of the lawmakers who visited the region sit on committees related to international terrorism.

The Syrians “are very sensitive to the idea of religiously based terrorism,” said Richard Murphy, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria.

“They recognize an opportunity, which is rare, to have the same concerns as the United States,” said Murphy, a senior fellow for the Middle East at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Syria, which supports Hezbollah, sees a distinction between international terrorism and the “resistance movements,” he said.

The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, John Negroponte, was scheduled to hold talks with Assad this week.

These meetings show a new U.S. willingness to work with Assad while exploring Syria’s potential role as ally in the war against terrorism.

“U.S. relations with Syria have been anomalous for close to 20 years in the sense that it is viewed as a rogue state, but unlike other rogue states, it has always been seen as a redeemable one,” Pipes said.

Murphy said the country is still a mystery for many American officials.

“Among all the countries in the former peace process, Syria is the least known, but recognized as a potential player,” Murphy said.

He said it is important for lawmakers to get to know the country, especially if its leadership shows a willingness to aid the coalition against terrorism.

A State Department official said the Al Qaida network blamed for the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington is also a threat to Syria.

In addition to pledging its support for the war on terrorism, the Syrian government has been moderating the state- controlled press and restraining Hezbollah in its attacks against the Shabaa Farms region of the Lebanon-Israel border. The area was declared part of Israel in the wake of the withdrawal from Lebanon, though Arab states dispute that claim.

All of these actions are seen as attempts to improve Syria’s image in the U.S. mindset, so as to garner support for its struggling economy and to be removed from the State Department’s list, which brings with it economic sanctions.

State Department officials say the country has much to do to improve relations with the United States, but that Syria’s expression of support for the coalition against terrorism “plants a seed” to help move the process forward.

This sentiment troubles some U.S. Jewish officials, who fear the lawmakers are not taking the country to task for harboring terrorism and for using its United Nations seat to launch verbal attacks against Israel.

“Because Syria continues to sponsor terrorism and support and harbor terrorist groups, they have clearly decided what side of America’s war they’re on,” said an official with an American Jewish organization who asked not to be identified.

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said Syria is reaching out to American lawmakers to change its image from a terrorist state.

“They got the message that the president is serious, that he means what he says about terrorism, wherever it is, and Assad knows that he is a serious base for terrorist organizations with international reach,” Foxman said. “We are responding, which I think is fine, as long as we keep our eye on the ball.”

Foxman said Assad still needs to dismantle the terrorist groups that are headquartered in Damascus, as well as not allow his country to be a transfer point between Iran and Hezbollah for arms and equipment.

Also, he said Syria should pressure the Lebanese Army to fulfill its obligation to pull out from the Israel-Lebanon border, and for Syria to recognize and leave Lebanon.

But, Jewish supporters of such visits argue, visiting a country is not an inherent sign of support for the government or its policies.

M.J. Rosenberg, policy director of the Israel Policy Forum, said the congressional delegations could play positive roles in the Middle East.

“It’s not a question of whether you go to these countries, it’s a question of what you say to them,” Rosenberg said. “It’s helpful if they encourage peace and cooperation in the region.”

The big concern is whether the lawmakers will be taken in by the spin.

“The question is what lessons they take back from it,” said James Lindsay, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “It may be very different from what their hosts want them to take.”

There were concerns that one congressional contingent had expressed support for Syria’s work in combating regional terrorism, while not pressing for additional curtailing of activities.

But Durbin has denied quotes attributed to him saying the world could learn from Syria’s own dealings with domestic terrorism.

Speaking to reporters last week, Durbin called it “predictable” that Assad accused the Israelis of terrorism.

“He didn’t want to acknowledge his sponsorship of terrorism around the Middle East, and that came as no surprise,” Durban said.

Wayne Owens, a former Utah congressman who now serves as president of the Center for Middle East Peace and Economic Cooperation, organized Durbin’s trip.

He said despite the State Department’s designation of Syria as a terrorist state, he has been taking trips to the region for years.

“Visitors don’t constitute recognition,” Owens said.

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