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Syria Faces Hard Choices

Secretary of State Powell says the Mideast nation must reassess its policies or suffer new sanctions.

May 03, 2003|Robin Wright | Times Staff Writer

DAMASCUS, Syria — Secretary of State Colin L. Powell arrived in this capital Friday to confront President Bashar Assad with tough choices that will determine whether Washington imposes new economic or diplomatic penalties on Syria for its support of extremists, its alleged chemical weapons programs or other concerns.

With the ouster of Saddam Hussein in neighboring Iraq and the new "road map" to end the Arab-Israeli conflict, the time has come for Syria to respond to the "changed strategic dynamic" in the region, Powell told reporters en route to Damascus.

"I will encourage them to review these changes and take a look at some of their past policies and see whether those policies seem to be relevant in light of a new, changed situation," he said.

Powell said Syria is not the "next target" after Iraq, but he said that Washington feels "strongly" about its disputes with Damascus and that Syria "really needs to reassess" its policies.

"They know the things we disapprove of," Powell added of U.S. demands. "If they don't meet any of them, that will be taken into account as we decide on our future strategy."

Long-standing tensions between Washington and Damascus came to a head during the war in Iraq when fighters and equipment went into Iraq from Syria and Iraqi officials then escaped across the border into Syria. Although Damascus has begun to cooperate on these matters, including forcing some Iraqis to leave, Powell said there may be other former Iraqi officials still in Syria.

Washington also has concerns about whether some of Iraq's weaponry was hidden in Syria, either before or during the war -- concerns that have been conveyed to Assad, Powell told reporters.

Assad has recently sent messages to the Bush administration through the foreign ministers of Turkey and Spain as well as recent U.S. congressional delegations that he is prepared to change, U.S. officials say. But Powell said the United States will expect tangible action "in the days ahead" because of Syria's past failures to follow through on promises to Washington.

Powell was badly burned during his first visit to Damascus two years ago, when Assad promised to end illicit Iraqi oil shipments through Syria that provided Baghdad with as much as $1 billion a year in illegal revenue -- Hussein's largest source of funds outside U.N. control.

Instead, the shipments continued and even increased, until Syria was the largest and most lucrative smuggling route for Iraqi oil and other goods, including war materiel.

Powell said he would remind Syrian officials that he had been misled.

"I will always have that lying in my background software and on my hard drive," he told reporters.

For its part, Syria -- which is now the most active Arab supporter of extremist groups -- signaled Friday that it does not intend to be ordered around.

"Syria believes in dialogue, not in accepting demands from others," the state-owned newspaper Al Thawra said in an editorial referring to Powell's visit.

Yet Damascus badly needs to improve relations with Washington, U.S. officials say. During the Iraq war, American troops cut off oil shipments and trade by land, which accounted for roughly one-fifth of Syria's trade income -- deeply damaging an already troubled economy.

Long under partial sanctions, Syria faces the possibility of additional economic coercion from the U.S. under terms of the Patriot Act -- passed after the Sept. 11 attacks -- for aiding and backing the militant Islamic group Hezbollah, based in Lebanon, as well as several Palestinian radical and Islamic groups.

Congressional support is also building behind a proposed Syria Accountability Act, which would mandate that the White House select from a list of punitive actions against Damascus.

The administration held back that legislation last year, but State Department officials acknowledge that, in the postwar climate, Damascus will need to address U.S. concerns or face new sanctions. Syria is the only one of six nations on the U.S. list of state sponsors of international terrorism with which Washington has full diplomatic relations.

A new State Department report on global terrorism, released just hours before Powell left Washington on Wednesday, gives Syria mixed marks. Assad's regime permits Iran to supply Hezbollah through Syria and continues to provide political and "limited" material support to Palestinian extremists and radicals, the report says.

It adds, however, that Damascus has not been implicated directly in an act of terrorism since 1986 and has "cooperated significantly" with Washington against Al Qaeda, Afghanistan's Taliban and unspecified other organizations and individuals. Also, there haven't been any attacks on U.S. citizens or facilities in Syria in the last five years.

After weeks of tough warnings from White House and Pentagon officials, Powell plans to take a more conciliatory position, he said.

"Syria would be a lot better off if they would move away from some of these policies of the past and move in the direction that I will be suggesting to them. Why hang on to policies that no longer have the same relevance if you are denying yourself an opportunity for improvements in your economy and a better life for your people? That is the case I will be making," he said.

Powell also plans to tell Assad that the road map for a Palestinian-Israeli peace is intended to produce a comprehensive peace that would also include Syria and Lebanon.

Powell said Washington does not expect immediate action on every issue. The real test, he added, will come "in the days ahead, after they have had a chance to reflect and after we have had a chance to reflect."

After talks with Assad this morning, Powell will fly to Lebanon for talks there before heading home.

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