U.S. removes Syria from list of drug traffickers Is Clinton taking subtle diplomatic steps to appeas

WASHINGTON — President Clinton is quietly shifting U.S. policy toward Syria in a way that could signal a warming of relations between Washington and Damascus.

Only weeks after U.S. officials confirmed reports that the State Department had brokered Israeli-Syrian peace talks earlier this year, Clinton has removed a diplomatic thorn from Syria's side.

By taking Syria and Lebanon off the list of nations subject to sanctions because of illicit drug production and trafficking, Clinton this week delivered a long-sought-after prize to Syrian President Hafez Assad.

The change in policy will have no immediate impact on Syria because Syria remains on the U.S. list of nations that sponsor terrorism, which also mandates sanctions.

But the move delivers "a tremendous psychological boost for the Syrians," according to Hillary Mann, an associate fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

"Taking Syria off the list should not be viewed in a vacuum," Mann said. "This is part of something very important going on."

This week's decision came on the heels of Clinton's push to kill a Senate proposal that would impose economic sanctions on Syria because of its place on the U.S. list that penalizes sponsors of terrorism.

The United States is also "relatively silent" about Syria's accelerated development of weapons of mass destruction, Mann said.

Taken together, these developments suggest that the United States is actively trying to encourage participation in the Middle East peace process, analysts say.

For a decade, the United States has punished Lebanon and Syria for, among other drug-related offenses, opium production in the Lebanese Bekaa Valley, which is under Syrian control.

U.S. presidents usually exempted Lebanon from the sanctions by citing a national-interest waiver.

As recently as eight months ago, the State Department, in its annual International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, said an increase in drug seizures in 1996 "could imply that the total flow of drugs across Syria is growing."

The report also said, "Syria is a major transit country for hashish leaving Lebanon and for opium and morphine entering Lebanon."

But in a move that caught many members of Congress and pro-Israel activists off-guard, Clinton this week praised both countries for working to eradicate drug production and trade.

In a letter to members of Congress announcing his decision, Clinton wrote: "Lebanon and Syria jointly began a campaign to eradicate the more than 3,400 hectares of Bekaa Valley opium poppy cultivation."

Declaring that "this effort has been effective" and that there is "no evidence" that other drugs from those countries reach the United States in significant quantities — one of the reasons for the U.S. list — Clinton removed both countries from the list of illicit drug producers.

Israeli officials, who have expressed concern about drugs crossing the border from Lebanon to Israel, were stunned by the decision.

"Both Syria and Lebanon are still engaged heavily in the drug industry and in trafficking," one Israeli official said.

The move drew immediate protests from Capitol Hill, where members are considering legislation to overturn Clinton's decision.

Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), the chairman of the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control, said Clinton's move is "a misreading of the law" and is "irresponsible."

U.S. officials said the decision was a "technical" one and based on drug considerations, not political factors.

But many observers believe politics are involved.

Rep. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who also vowed to reverse Clinton's decision through legislation, accused the State Department of "putting their own foreign policy concerns ahead of our kids."

Daniel Pipes, editor of the Middle East Quarterly, said of Clinton's decision: "It's hard to see that it is a serious assessment of the Syrian role in drug trafficking."

Criticizing the move, Pipes suggested instead that it is intended to encourage "Syria to be forthcoming in the peace process."

Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, said the Syrians have not "earned this by the merits of their behavior."

In contrast, Tom Smerling, who last visited Syria in 1996 when he was director of the left-leaning Project Nishma, said, "This creates a critical opportunity for greater diplomatic influence with Syria."

"It will be viewed as a confidence-building gesture by the United States and it should create a favorable climate for American diplomatic initiatives," said Smerling, who now serves as the Washington director of the Israel Policy Forum, which has merged with Nishma.

Clinton's efforts to bring Syria into the Middle East peace process to achieve a comprehensive settlement included an unprecedented 1994 visit to Damascus.

For now, many are left guessing at his motives.

"It's hard to say if the administration is trying to purchase cooperation" in areas such as the peace process, Mann said. "But you really have to wonder."