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State Department Ratchets Up Pressure on Syria To Halt Support of Terror Groups

WASHINGTON — The State Department’s top Syria expert warned this week that Damascus will face a sharp escalation of American pressure if it fails to act quickly to halt its support of terrorist groups.

“Damascus finds itself at a crossroads,” said the official, Stephen Seche, director of the Syria, Lebanon and Jordan desk in the State Department’s Near Eastern affairs bureau. The Bush administration is “closely following” Syria’s behavior, he said, because of America’s “belief that the moment has come for Damascus to make a fundamental shift in the way it approaches regional affairs.”

Seche’s remarks were described by several former senior administration experts on the Middle East as the harshest ever directed publicly at Syria by a State Department official. He was addressing a symposium on American-Syrian relations sponsored by the Middle East Institute, a think tank widely seen as friendly toward the Arab world.

Speaking at the same symposium, a chief architect of Middle East policy in the Clinton administration, former assistant secretary of state Martin Indyk, said that previous administrations had erred in not acting long ago to demand that Syria shut down the terrorist offices operating in its capital.

Seche’s speech came roughly two weeks after Secretary of State Colin Powell visited Syria, where he called on President Bashar Assad to shut the offices of Palestinian terrorist groups headquartered in Damascus.

Several Palestinian groups announced afterward that they were closing or downgrading their offices in Damascus, in order to ease American pressure on Syria. Seche, however, said the results were “inconclusive.”

“I wish there was more I could say about clear evidence of resolve on the part of Damascus to change its behavior, to correct the course, to demonstrate to us that it has heard the message that the secretary has delivered and is prepared to become a full productive partner in the bilateral relationship,” Seche said. “At the moment I cannot stand here and say that, because the evidence is still unclear.”

Warning of harsh consequences if Syria does not act soon, Seche said: “The actions that Damascus does take will to a large extent determine the nature of our relationship with President Assad and his government and its ability to engage positively on all the issues of critical importance in the region. Conversely, inaction by Damascus, or even worse, a continued evidence of behavior which is negative and destabilizing, will result in a continuation of negative dialogue, dimensions of pressure that will continue to be applied on the government of Syria.”

Syria is the only nation defined as a state sponsor of terrorism with which Washington maintains diplomatic relations. The reason is that successive administrations have seen Syria as a critical player in the Israeli-Arab peace process.

Seche warned that continuing American frustration with Syrian policy could lead the administration to support the application of sanctions and other forms of pressure on Syria.

His remarks were described as unprecedented in their harshness by three former assistant secretaries of state for Near Eastern affairs, including Edward Walker and Richard Murphy, in addition to Indyk.

Indyk, who also served as American ambassador to Israel, told the Middle East Institute that Washington had been mistaken in not demanding earlier that Syria shut down the terrorist offices in Damascus.

Unlike the Bush administration, whose Middle East policy is driven by counter-terrorism and a drive to democratize the region, the Clinton administration saw the peace process as “an engine for change” in the region, Indyk said. And the key to advancing the peace process was Syria, Indyk said, acknowledging that he — and Clinton — had bought into the late prime minister Yitzhak Rabin’s “Syria first” approach.

Hoping for a breakthrough with Syria, the Clinton administration did not make the closing of the terrorist groups’ offices a condition for advancing the process, instead assuming that the closure would be a result of an Israeli-Syrian peace deal. The active presence of the Palestinian organizations’ headquarters in Damascus and the Syrian-sponsored anti-Israeli actions from southern Lebanon directly jeopardized the peace efforts and inspired the current intifada.

According to terrorism expert Matthew Levitt, a former FBI analyst now with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the most significant Palestinian terrorist groups enjoying the safe harbor and sponsorship of the Syrian government are Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command. These groups maintain offices both in Damascus and in the adjacent Yarmouk refugee camp, Levitt recently reported, including at least two Hamas offices, one Islamic Jihad office and five Popular Front-General Command offices.

Smaller Palestinian groups run at least 11 other offices in the Syrian capital, Levitt said. These organizations engage in inciting, recruiting, training, coordinating, funding and directing terrorists staging operations, he said, although the Syrian authorities describe them as “media offices.”

Seche said Powell had clearly demanded that Assad close down the offices of Palestinian “rejectionist groups” in Damascus. “I can’t confirm to you today that Syria has moved to close down these offices,” he said. “This activity has to stop, the relationship with these organizations has to be severed,” the diplomat quoted Powell as telling Assad.

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