Palestinian groups say closure of Damascus offices not to affect resistance
Secretary of State Colin Powell on Saturday outlined for Syria's president the policy changes the United States believes he must make to survive.
Powell and Bashar Assad met for three hours in Damascus, Syria's capital, and Powell left immediately for Beirut to try to sell Lebanon on the U.S.-sponsored "road map" for peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
Powell said the United States is not looking to pressure Syria with military action in the new post-Iraq war reality. "I am here to pursue diplomacy and mutual political efforts that both sides can be taking," he said. "So the issue of war hostilities is not on the table."
Assad "said he wishes to consider these points of view that I presented, and we will be following up in ... diplomatic channels," Powell said. He also said Syria indicated it had closed certain Palestinian offices in Damascus; Powell had been expected to bring up the offices kept in Syria by groups such as the Hamas and Islamic Jihad, which the Bush administration classifies as "terrorist organizations."
"They did closures. I expect them to do more, with respect to access and appearances of various officials in those organizations," Powell said. "We provided some other suggestions to the Syrians that they are going to take in advisement. I expect to hear back."
According to AP, a senior State Department official who attended the meeting said Powell explained to Assad that the United States could not understand why those groups, their leaders and their presence were seen "as of any benefit to Syria any longer" in the new strategic climate that followed Saddam's fall.
The official added Powell specifically mentioned three groups - Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, General Command - and quoted Powell as saying the United States will watch closely to determine whether the offices are indeed closed. The official said Powell added that the United States would take that as a sign of whether Syria really wants a new relationship with the United States "on a new foundation, not just some incrementalism from the past."
For their part, Palestinian groups said Powell's comments will not affect the resistance against Israel.
Mahmoud Zahar, a Hamas spokesman in the Gaza Strip, said, "This is not going to affect the Palestinian resistance. Hamas has a symbolic presence in Syria. The resistance is here inside the occupied land and it is going to continue."
The Islamic Jihad leader in Gaza, Dr. Mahammed Hindi, said: "This call from Mr. Powell is not new. The United States has called for this several times before. We don't have any offices in Damascus. Our movement is inside Palestine and we will continue our work from inside Palestine."
Ziad Naghalah, a member of Islamic Jihad's politbureau in Damascus, told The Associated Press by phone Saturday night, "We have not been notified about the closure of our offices. Our offices in Syria are information offices."
"There is nothing in Hizbullah's dictionary called 'withdrawal' because this will amount to the abolishment of presence and even the cancellation of Lebanon from the current political map," according to Hussein Khalil, a political assistant to Hizbullah leader Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah.
For his part, Powell said he made clear that the U.S. commitment to Middle East peace "would include Syria and Lebanon, and would include the Golan Heights."
In Beirut, Powell assured Prime Minister Rafik Hariri of U.S. support for "an independent and prosperous Lebanon free of all foreign forces." As he did with Syria, he emphasized the Israeli-Palestinian "road map" is envisioned as the path to a settlement that also includes the interests of Syria and Lebanon.
"We are interested in a comprehensive solution that will involve creation of a Palestinian state and settling the outstanding issues between Israel and Lebanon, and Israel and Syria," Powell said.
Lebanon's Foreign Minister Jean Obeid, at the news conference with Powell, said Syria and Lebanon suffered also from war and violence fomented by Saddam.
"We do not want the suffering to continue after his collapse as they were under his dictatorship," Obeid said. "We want to live together, Arabs, Israelis and Christians, Muslims, in peace, and not to die together in wars." (Albawaba.com)
© 2003 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)