U.S. Rejects Syrian Overtures on Relations, Israel

Article excerpt

Byline: David R. Sands, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The Bush administration yesterday gave a cold shoulder to an unusual public appeal from Syrian President Bashar Assad for better bilateral relations and for U.S. support for new peace talks between Syria and Israel.

Officials at the National Security Council said yesterday President Bush is still committed to signing a bill - possibly within days - calling for new economic and diplomatic sanctions on Damascus for its support of terrorist groups. Congress overwhelmingly approved the punitive measure last month after the administration dropped its long-standing opposition to the bill.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the United States was prepared to support "all tracks of the Middle East peace process," but said Syria's continued backing of Palestinian militant groups remained a major obstacle.

"We find it hard to understand how Syria can talk peace at a time when Syria continues to support groups that are violently opposed to the peace process, that are violently opposed to the Palestinian government [and] to the building of a Palestinian state," Mr. Boucher said.

In a lengthy interview published yesterday in the New York Times, Mr. Assad argued that strong U.S. support for new talks between Syria and Israel over the disputed Golan Heights could help repair America's image in the Arab world after the war in Iraq, a campaign that Syria bitterly opposed.

He also defended Syria's cooperation in the U.S.-led war on terrorism and with the U.S.-led security force now in Iraq. He said Syria had provided sensitive intelligence information on operations by the al Qaeda terrorist network, foiling attacks on U.S. targets. Mr. Assad said Syria is cracking down on Islamic militants attempting to cross into Iraq, but conceded his country does not have the manpower to seal its 300-mile border with Iraq.

Mr. Assad, who succeeded his father Hafez Assad in 2000, contended that Damascus supported only the political and humanitarian wings of militant Palestinian groups such as Islamic Jihad and Hamas. …