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Washington Continues to Pressure Syria Despite Appeals for Talks

Relatives of Lebanese men believed to be held in Syrian prisons place candles to form symbols of Christianity and Islam, during a sit-in in front of UN headquarters in Beirut
Since Syria ended its 29-year military presence in Lebanon and withdrew its forces from there last month, Damascus has been hoping for better relations with the United States. But, the Bush administration is showing no signs of easing the pressure on Damascus to end what Washington sees as Syria's continued support for terrorist groups.

Just last week, a senior U.S. official said Syria is still not doing enough to cut funding to Iraqi insurgents and terrorists. Treasury Department Undersecretary Stuart Levey told members of Congress that, while Syria has made some adjustments in its banking system to make it more transparent, Washington remains unsatisfied - so much so that he canceled a visit to Damascus in February to underscore the point.

It is the kind of talk the Syrians have heard a lot lately - talk that has left them frustrated. Syrian Information Minister Mehdi Dahklallah told VOA Syria wants a dialogue, not confrontation with the United States.

He says there is no reason for the tension, and blames Israel and its supporters for causing problems between Washington and Damascus.

The list of U.S. complaints against Syria is long and varied. It includes allegations that Syria has allowed foreign fighters to cross its border into Iraq during the U.S.-led war, and that it continues to turn a blind eye to money flowing to Iraqi insurgents and terrorists. The Bush administration also charges that Damascus supports Palestinian terrorist organizations.

Syria remains on the State Department list of terrorist sponsor nations, and the United States has imposed sanctions on the Damascus government.

Late last year, the United States and France put forward a U.N. resolution demanding that Syria withdraw its troops from Lebanon.

Then came the assassination in Beirut of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and suspicions that the Syrians may have had a hand in it. Washington recalled its ambassador to Syria, and pressure mounted on Damascus to withdraw from Lebanon.

President Bush drove the point home again in April in an interview with Lebanese television.

"The United States can join with the rest of the world like we have done, and say to Syria, get out," he said. "I mean, not only get out with your military forces, but get out with your intelligence services, too. Get completely out of Lebanon, so Lebanon can be free and the people can be free."

Syria yielded to the pressure and, a week later, announced it had withdrawn all of its forces from Lebanon.

Syrian Information Minister Dahklallah insists Syria has complied with U.S. and international demands on Lebanon and other issues.

Mr. Dahklallah dismisses allegations that Syria has been helping Iraqi insurgents, and says Syria has recently stepped up security along its border with Iraq to prevent infiltrations.

He points out that Syria was one of the few Arab countries that had no diplomatic relations with the Saddam Hussein regime. He also points to Syria's participation in the U.S.-led international coalition that drove Saddam's troops out of Kuwait in 1991.

With regard to charges that his government supports Palestinian terrorists, the minister says Syria has closed down the offices of Palestinian militant groups in Damascus, even though it does not see them as terrorists. He says Syria will continue to provide political support to Palestinian groups in, what he describes as, their justified demands for an end to Israeli occupation.

Mr. Dahklallah says Syria has complied with U.N. demands, has cooperated in the war against terrorism, supports American peace efforts in the Middle East and has offered repeatedly to re-open talks with Israel. "What else do the Americans want?" he asks. He says, "next they will accuse us of having caused the tsunami in Asia."

It is not only the Syrian government that is chafing at what it sees as an uncompromising U.S. stance. Even critics of the Syrian government and pro-democracy activists resent what they see as high-handed American tactics in dealing with Syria.

Ayman Abdel Nour is a political analyst and staunch critic of the Syrian government. He describes pressure on Damascus as part of the broader U.S. strategy in the Middle East that has, as one of its goals, ending Syrian influence in the region.

"This is the problem we are facing now with the American administration, even though we helped them a lot, so much in their war against terrorism. But, in the end they did not give us any carrots for this," he said. "The United States always has the stick, and did not provide us with the carrots. Syria is not a charity. It has its own interests, and should be recognized by the U.S. administration."

Aymen Abdel Nour does not see relations between Syria and the United States improving in the near future, even if Damascus would like them to. And he says that is because the Americans do not need the Syrians.