US Courting Syria to Accept Iraq Sanctions Policy
The US administration considers Syria a key part of any new coalition against Iraq, and therefore is trying to avoid ruffling feathers in Damascus as it embarks on a campaign to sell a narrower sanctions policy to skeptics in Washington, sources in Washington have been quoted as saying by The Jerusalem Post.
As part of that goal, last week US President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell both declined to meet with the Lebanese patriarch of the Maronite Church, Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir - an outspoken critic of Syria's occupation of Lebanon - despite prodding from Arab-American lobbyists and officials including Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham, himself of Lebanese origin.
The Lebanese president is always Maronite, making the minority sect - a splinter of the Roman Catholic Church - the most powerful ethnic group in Lebanon.
However, Sfeir met last week with a delegation of US House representatives headed by Eliot Angel, who is known for his interest in Lebanon and anti-Syrian positions.
The last time Sfeir was in the US, in 1988, he met with then-president Ronald Reagan, said the Post.
The paper added that State Department offered Sfeir a meeting with Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Edward Walker, but Sfeir refused, saying he only wanted to meet with top officials.
A State Department spokesman said the department believes "a meeting at the assistant-secretary level offers the patriarch an excellent opportunity for a substantive exchange on the issues he is most interested in.”
After Sfeir's refusal, Walker declined an invitation to dinner hosted by the Lebanese ambassador in Washington in Sfeir's honor last Thursday night, according to diplomatic sources. A State Department official acknowledged that Walker had received the invitation, but "had made his own decision for whatever reason not to attend." Powell declined an invitation to a luncheon for Sfeir held last Friday by the Vatican's embassy in Washington, saying that his schedule was already full.
"This administration is trying to court Syria. They don't want to take any steps that will be interpreted by the Syrian government as anti-Syrian, especially when Syria is a main player in rebuilding a coalition," a well-informed source in Washington familiar with Syrian-American relations told the Israeli daily.
During his testimony to the House International Relations Committee last Wednesday, Powell made it clear that imposing a new set of sanctions will require support from a number of states, including Syria and some other Arab governments, that are extremely suspicious of Iraqi opposition groups.
The US is eager to see Damascus put the flow of oil through an Iraqi-Syrian pipeline under UN control, and Powell said he received conditional assurances from Assad that he would do so if the US modified its sanctions policy.
To a question on whether the US believes Syria needs to pull its troops out of Lebanon, Powell echoed the traditional US view that it would be a positive move at some point but did not call on Damascus directly to do so, according to the Post.
"We believe that it would be for the benefit of all parties if eventually at some point - I'd like to see it tomorrow, but it isn't going to happen tomorrow - for the Syrian army to leave Lebanon," Powell said.
In a related development, the Israeli media on Sunday highlighted concerns over potential Syria’s membership at the UN Security Council. Reports have said that Israel is trying to convince the US against accepting the Arab country in the council, on grounds of its ”support of terrorism and occupation of Lebanon.”
Israeli observers believe that the Israeli efforts are in vain, within the context of US wooing of Damascus to back its new version of Iraqi sanctions.
For his part, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told Washington Post on Friday that Syria sympathizes with the Islamic groups Hizbollah, Jihad and Hamas.
“They are backed by Iran and have the sympathy of Syria. Hizbollah has never had better relations with Syria.
Asked by the US daily if that is because Syria's new president, Bashar Assad, is more sympathetic to [Hizbollah] than his father, Sharon replied that, “I think the father, being more experienced, understood better.”
He added that it's very hard for Israel to negotiate with Syria in parallel with talks with the Palestinians. “And besides, Syria at present is the main supporter of the Hizbollah. I think first we have to deal with the Palestinians.”
© 2001 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)