Syrian blasts basis of US sanctions

Assad defends role of his nation in fighting terrorism

Lebanon and Syria 2004

By James Smith

June 10, 2009

DAMASCUS -- President Bashar Assad of Syria said yesterday that the United States has never provided any evidence to Syria to back its assertion that insurgents are crossing into Iraq from Syria, despite repeated requests to provide even ''one passport, one name."

Assad told visiting American editors that US sanctions imposed by President Bush on Syria on Tuesday -- based in part on the purported infiltration -- ignore the cooperation Syria has provided to the Bush administration to combat terrorism since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks.

He also scoffed at the other reasons Bush cited in imposing the sanctions, including charges that Syria supports Palestinian radical groups, is pursuing weapons of mass destruction, and maintains troops in neighboring Lebanon long after the civil war there ended. Assad criticized the Bush administration for making Iraq its priority rather than reviving the stalled Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

In a rare meeting with American journalists at his palace, Assad said Syria was still assessing the impact that the sanctions could have, but he downplayed their potential effect. The measures ban nonfood exports of US products, cut ties with Syria's central bank, and limit Syrian landing rights. But trade is already minimal, with 2002 US exports worth just $220 million, and Syria's state-run airline does not fly to the United States.

Still, the president suggested that even a symbolic US move against Syria could hinder his efforts to gradually implement internal reforms and ease Syria's longtime suppression of political opposition.

Assad found some unusual support for that view. Several of the most prominent dissidents in Syria said in separate meetings that the US sanctions would complicate their campaign for political rights by encouraging hard-liners within the regime.

The activists and Assad were also consistent in their critique of US policy on Iraq and the damage from the pictures of abuse of detainees by US guards at Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad. Assad said the photos further weaken American credibility in the region, and underscore the irony of the US argument that the invasion of Iraq was designed to bring democracy to the Mideast.

''Is this the democracy of the Abu Ghraib prison?" he asked.

The meeting offered a rare opportunity to hear the 38-year-old president express his views on Syria as well as conflicts on his nation's borders in Israel and Iraq. Assad, who trained as an ophthalmologist in Britain, became president four years ago upon the death of his father, Hafez Assad, who ruled Syria with often brutal force for 29 years.

The US editors, visiting Syria and Lebanon on a fact-finding trip organized by the Washington-based International Reporting Project, met Assad in the immense, marble-lined Al-Shaab Palace on a ridge overlooking Damascus.

US officials say Syria has done too little to stop fighters from crossing into Iraq since the American-led invasion last March.

Assad said the 400-mile border has always been difficult to police, and that the real problem is the current chaos in Iraq, which has fueled the smuggling of weapons from Iraq into Syria.

Assad bristled at the US criticism, declaring: ''They insist on accusing us of things that we do not do. . . They want us to have identical views on everything. That's impossible. They interfere in everything."

Syria is one of seven countries considered by the US government to sponsor terrorism. Yet Syria, a secular country, has crushed any sign of nascent fundamentalist movements and US officials acknowledge it has provided help in tracking those involved in the Sept. 11 attacks.

The sanctions also cite Syria's support for the Hezbollah and Hamas movements, which the State Department includes on its list of terrorist organizations, as well as Syria's continued military occupation of neighboring Lebanon. Syria still has 16,000 troops in Lebanon. Assad maintained that the troops are there as part of a stabilizing force that helped end the 15-year Lebanese civil war in 1990, and are gradually being withdrawn.

Assad said Syria provides no arms to Hezbollah, a radical Islamist group that gets most of its support from Iran and maintains a militia on Lebanon's southern border with Israel. And the president said Hamas has fewer than 10 officials in Syria, whom he said were expelled by Israel years ago and came uninvited. He described them as media spokesmen rather than leaders, and said they play no operational role in attacks in Israel. Hamas and Islamic Jihad have carried out numerous deadly suicide attacks against civilians in Israel in recent years.

Asked if he could do anything to help revive the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the Syrian leader said the real need is for the United States to set out a vision for a solution and then pursue it aggressively. Instead, he said, ''we see that the priority for the United States is the question of Iraq . . . So if the administration doesn't want to play a role, it's hard for us to say anything."

Political activists in Syria, many of whom had spent years in prison, were more vocal than Assad in criticizing the US war in Iraq and what they perceived as one-sided US policy supporting Israel at the expense of Palestinian rights. And they said the Abu Ghraib photos were a further blow to hopes for more freedom in Syria.

''What happened in Abu Ghraib will have negative effects on the human rights agenda. Our government will say, 'look what Americans are doing to our brothers in Iraq,' to minimize the pressure on them," said Yassin Hajj Saleh, who spent 16 years in [a Syrian] prison.

Filmmaker Omar Amiralay, whose works have been banned in Syria, said the combined effect of the US invasion in Iraq and its support for Israel will encourage the Syrian government to say, ''You see, now is not the moment to make democracy, and we must mobilize all the forces in the country to fight external dangers."

The dissidents acknowledged Assad had made some progress in allowing more space for them to oppose the authoritarian Ba'ath party regime.

Assad said he does not jail opponents for speaking out against him.

''They are on the street, attacking me every day," he said, adding that Syria was moving toward free elections, though he didn't say when, and he acknowledged that the state of emergency law ''has been used frequently, in the wrong ways."

Assad said the bombing two weeks ago of a vacant United Nations building in Damascus was carried out by four Syrians who he said were filled with anger and hatred over Iraq and other developments in the region. Two of the attackers were killed and two were captured in the ensuing shootout. He said the nation's longstanding state of emergency had kept Syria from becoming the target of more such attacks.

''The emergency law is not used to suppress freedoms, but to suppress terror, and there is a huge difference," he said. But ''a real hurdle for reform is the security situation in the region . . . Two years ago we were focusing on the economy. Now we are focusing on security."