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Syria criticizes sanctions, seeks talks
Updated: 2004-05-13 11:36

Syria denounced U.S. economic sanctions on Wednesday and other Arab countries — including close U.S. allies — joined in the criticism. Europe ignored the penalties by dispatching a trade delegation to Damascus.

Some Arabs questioned the validity of the measures and the motives behind them, saying they serve Israeli — not American — interests and could further antagonize Arab feelings toward the United States, already soured by the war in Iraq, the prisoner-abuse scandal and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Neighboring Lebanon may prove to be a major loophole in the sanctions, which ban all U.S. exports to Syria except food and medicine and forbids flights between Syria and the United States. Goods have traditionally flowed across the border from Lebanon to Syria.

Trade between the United States and Syria amounts to only $300 million a year and there are currently no flights between Syrian and U.S. airports. But the political effect of the measures could surpass the economic impact.

Syrian Prime Minister Naji al-Otari said the sanctions were "unjust and unjustified," and played down their effects while expressing hope for continued dialogue with Washington.

Damascus Radio, which reflects government thinking, took a harder line, saying sanctions would complicate matters in a region where stability is needed.

"If Washington expects that the penalties will lead to Syria's isolation or marginalizing its role, this role is not a matter for compromise or blackmail," the radio said.

Even Syria's longest-held political prisoner, who spent a total of 19 years behind bars, said America had no right to impose unilateral sanctions.

"If you would like to stop the terrorism — not only the terrorism of (Osama) bin Laden — it has to be done through an international organization," Riad al-Turk said.

The United States imposed the embargo on Tuesday as a response to allegations that Syria was supporting terrorism and undermining U.S. efforts in neighboring Iraq.

The 22-member Arab League said Wednesday the embargo would harden Arab opinion against the United States. In a statement, the organization said the sanctions would "add to the sour feelings in the region and will raise more questions among Arab people" about U.S. plans for the region.

"The imposition of sanctions does not serve the interests of stability and peace, to which all Arab states aspire," the statement said.

The measures were criticized by Egypt and Kuwait, the closest Arab allies of the United States, and America's non-Arab NATO partner Turkey.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher said in Cairo that "sanctions and threats are not beneficial and they will not work."

"I don't think the U.S. decision is a useful decision," Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sheik Mohammed al-Sabah said.

President Emile Lahoud of Lebanon, where Syria dominates with thousands of troops, said the sanctions were "wrong in content and timing" and were influenced by Israel. His foreign minister, Jean Obeid, said the sanctions will harm America's image in the region and "will send very bad signals serving the extremist team in Israel and will not serve American or Arab interests."

The sanctions authorize the U.S. Treasury Department to freeze the assets of Syrian nationals and entities involved in terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, the occupation of Lebanon and terrorism in Iraq. They also restrict relations between U.S. banks and the Syrian national bank.

The United States has long complained Damascus is supporting militant groups such as the Palestinian Hamas and the Lebanese Hezbollah. It also accuses Syria of failing to stop guerrillas from crossing the border into Iraq. Syria has been on the State Department's list of terror-sponsoring countries.

Syria regards Hamas and Hezbollah as legitimate groups fighting the Israeli occupation of Arab lands. It maintains it is trying to stop fighters from crossing into Iraq but cannot completely control its long border with its southeastern neighbor.

Europeans took a different stand from Washington. Spain extended an invitation to President Bashar Assad to visit in early June, and a high-level EU trade delegation will travel to Syria this weekend in an attempt to improve cooperation on exporting oil and gas to Europe.

Britain, America's closest European ally which has good relations with Syria, said it shares America's concerns. But Prime Minister Tony Blair will continue a policy of "critical and constructive engagement" with Syria, his office said Wednesday. Blair and Assad have exchanged visits in the past.

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