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U.S. Engaging Syria - a Terror State - on Anti-terror Concerns

A US anti-terror official spoke this week to Syrian officials on "shared counterterrorism concerns" - although Syria remains a terror state itself.
By David Lev
First Publish: 2/19/2010, 2:32 PM / Last Update: 2/19/2010, 2:49 PM

Israel News Photo: Archive

Reversing yet another policy of former President George W. Bush, current U.S. President Barack Obama announced this week that he would nominate career diplomat Robert Ford to become Washington's first ambassador to Syria since 2005, when the former ambassador was removed in the wake of the assassination of Lebanese President Rafik Hariri. As the U.S. seeks to get closer to the Arab world, Washington seems ready to re-engage Damascus, sharing with it American concerns over problems in the region – chief among them, of course, the Iranian threat, and terrorism.

Analysts believe that the U.S. is hoping to co-opt Syria, veering it away from terrorism; according to U.S. officials, Damascus has been seeking an opportunity to prove itself, and has, the officials say, proclaimed its willingness to negotiate with Israel over the Golan Heights. However, Syria continues to insist on on supporting Hizbullah and Hamas terrorists, and remains on the U.S. list of states that support terrorism.

The inherent contradiction in the U.S. position – which seeks to engage a state that supports terror in fighting terror – was highlighted in a press conference held in Washington Thursday. In a regularly scheduled press conference held by Assistant U.S. Secretary of State Philip J. Crowley, a perceptive reporter pointed out that attempts to engage Syria in anti-terror dialog seemed out of place.

The nomination of a new ambassador is just one of a recent flurry of U.S. diplomatic activity, which saw US undersecretary of state for political affairs William Burns meet with Syrian President Bashir Assad this week. That meeting was followed by another one, in which Daniel Benjamin, the US State Department's coordinator for counterterrorism, met with Syrian officials, with whom he held "productive and detailed" talks, the US embassy in Damascus said.

An embassy statement said that the two sides discussed "shared counterterrorism concerns and threats," adding that "we believe Syria can play a constructive role in mitigating these and other threats in cooperation with regional states and the United States."

In a press conference Thursday, Crowley was questioned on the Benjamin meeting by reporters. When asked about the content of that meeting, Crowley said that Benjamin and the Syrian officials "shared counterterrorism concerns" and reviewed threats to the region." Crowley said that the U.S. wants "to be able to have the kind of discussion and dialogue with Syria that we need, to encourage them where we think they’re taking steps that are positive, and also to continue very direct dialogue to continue to express to Syria our concerns about its relationships with various elements in the region as well. Syria has, in the past, been interested in engagement with a variety of countries. We clearly want to see comprehensive peace and that would involve progress on the Syrian-Israeli track as well as the other tracks."

Questioning Crowley on the Benjamin meeting, one reporter said that while he understood why Washington sought to engage Damascus, he did not understand why Benjamin was discussing fighting terrorism with the Syrians. Asking whether the U.S. and Syria "have shared terrorism" information, the reporter was told by Crowley that "they do... we shared concerns about terrorism in the region, and we also have our concerns about Syria itself."

However, the reporter still sought clarification on the point. "I was about to get to the point of (Syria's) being on the terrorism list... Syria is what, now one of four countries (on the list of countries the U.S. says supports terrorism). It sort of sticks out when you do something like this."

Crowley eventually confirmed that there was a "disconnect" between Washington's expectations and the reality of Syria, "We do continue to have concerns about Syria, its ongoing support of terrorist elements in the region," Crowley said. "There are a variety of actors in Damascus that we think should not be there. And should Syria make progress in this area, then we will evaluate. But I’m not aware of any effort right now to consider removing Syria from the terrorism list," he concluded.