U.S. tells Syria that sanctions wont end till terror aid stops

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WASHINGTON — If Syria's President Hafez Assad plans to make peace with the United States through his negotiations with Israel, he has a long way to go.

Members of Congress, in rare bipartisan unison, sent a clear message to Damascus last week: U.S. sanctions will continue until Syria ends its sponsorship of terrorist groups and ends its support for narcotics trafficking.

The United States "has tended to downplay" Syria's "dominance of Lebanon, its support for terrorist groups opposed to the peace process, the role of Syrian officers in drug trafficking through Lebanon and Syria's reported efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction," said Rep. Benjamin Gilman (R-N.Y.) at the opening of a House International Relations Committee hearing Thursday of last week.

The hearing, which was held despite the objections of the State Department, came less than three weeks after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called on the United States to step up its pressure on Syria.

The sparsely attended hearing marked an anti-climactic end to a four-year quest by opponents of U.S. policy toward Syria to get an airing on Capitol Hill.

Almost four years ago to the day, a Senate committee abruptly canceled hearings on Syrian sponsorship of terrorism. At the time, a clandestine mission was under way to bring Syrian Jews to Israel.

But because all the Syrian Jews who had wanted to leave now live safely in Israel or the United States, no objections were raised on their behalf to postpone the hearing. About 200 Jews remain in Syria.

The Clinton administration feared that the hearings would antagonize Assad as State Department officials are working feverishly to find a way to jump-start talks between Israel and Syria.

The House convened the session one day after the U.S. special Middle East coordinator, Dennis Ross, met with Assad.

The criticism of U.S. policy hinges on one central question: Has the United States been tough enough in its dealings with Assad?

Since 1979, the State Department has branded Syria a terrorist state.

But in recent years, the United States has drawn the distinction between direct Syrian involvement in terrorism and support for terrorist groups.

While Syria has not launched a terrorist attack since 1986, according to the State Department, Damascus continues to provide a safe haven for at least 10 Middle East terrorist groups including Hamas, Islamic Jihad and factions of the Palestine Liberation Organization opposed to the peace process.

As a nation on the U.S. lists of countries sponsoring terrorism and narcotics trafficking, Syria is banned from receiving U.S. economic aid, weapons systems and sensitive technology.

However, U.S. diplomats continue to engage the Syrian government in peace negotiations.

"The State Department should go back to the drawing board and come up with a different policy of dealing with" Assad, Rep. Dan Burton (R-Ind.) told the State Department coordinator for counterterrorism, Philip Wilcox.

Amid criticism by Republicans and Democrats, Wilcox defended the U.S. policy of diplomatic engagement with Syria, including Secretary of State Warren Christopher's 25 trips to Damascus over the last three years and President Clinton's two meetings with Assad.

"It is in the interest of the United States to do everything within our power to engage with Syria to persuade it to change its policies with respect to terrorism and to promote the expansion of the peace process," Wilcox said.

"Diplomacy is not always a pleasant business, and you do not always deal with people of perfect virtue. But the United States has interests and responsibilities in the world. And we are willing to engage with many different kinds of states to protect our own interests, and the interests of our friends."

In challenging Wilcox, members of Congress cited reports that at the height of the April conflict between Israel and Hezbollah, Syria allowed an Iranian military jet to unload weapons at Damascus International Airport.

Christopher's plane was at a different section of the airport while he met with Syrian officials. The missiles that are used to shell Israel's northern towns were carted on Syrian military trucks to Hezbollah gunmen in Lebanon.