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US Policy Makers Ponder Terrorist Status For Syria - 2002-07-29

The question of whether Syria should be labeled a terrorist state continues to perplex U.S. policy makers. The Arab country appears to cooperate fully in the pursuit of al-Qaida, but it also supports Hezbollah extremist forces.

Legislation is under consideration in the U.S. Congress to impose further economic and political sanctions on Syria for its support of terrorism.

There is no support, contends Murhaf Jouejati, a Syrian scholar in residence at the Middle East Institute in Washington. On the contrary, he says, Syria is pursuing terrorists as vigorously as the United States.

"Syria is trying very hard to impress upon Washington its distinction between national liberation movements and terrorist groups," he said. "In the eyes of Damascus, al-Qaida, for example, is pure and simple a terrorist group. Whereas Hezbollah and Palestinian organizations that are anti-Israeli are in the eyes of Damascus legitimate national liberation movements who are out to rid themselves of the illegal Israeli occupation."

Mr. Jouejati notes U.S. officials have credited Syria with preventing attacks on American forces in the Persian Gulf. Many al-Qaida and Taleban operatives have been arrested in Syria. He says it would be a mistake to impose sanctions on Syria since it would stop cooperating with the United States.

It is true Syria opposes some forms of terrorism, says Paul Bremer, former U.S. ambassador for counter-terrorism and now chairman of Marsh's Crisis Consulting Practice.

"I think the Syrians have been moderately helpful in the area where they have made the calculation their interest is similar to ours, which is obviously in preventing the establishment of extremist Muslim governments in the region, and that is what al-Qaida wants to do," he said.

But this is hardly sufficient, says Ambassador Bremer, who considers Hezbollah as terrorist as al-Qaida. He recalls Hezbollah is held responsible for the 1983 attack in Lebanon that killed 241 U.S. Marines.

"People seem to forget that until September 10 last year, Hezbollah had killed more Americans than all other terrorist groups combined," he said. "And Syria connives with Iran to keep Hezbollah afloat, both by allowing the free movement of guns and materials and people from Iran through the Damascus airport into the Hezbollah bases in Lebanon and by supporting Hezbollah itself directly."

Without Syria, says Mr. Bremer, Hezbollah could not continue to operate. In a perfect world, the United States could ignore Syria, says David Mack, former deputy assistant secretary of state for Near East affairs and now vice president of the Middle East Institute.

But the reality is imperfect allies are needed in the war on terrorism. Look at the transformation of Pakistan, he said, from a near pariah state to a close U.S. ally.

"It would be truly wonderful if the government of Denmark were sitting on a huge trove of important intelligence about Islamist terrorist organizations," he said. "But it is far more likely that we are going to find such information from countries like Sudan, Libya and Syria. And my understanding is that in all three cases, we have entered into at least the beginnings of productive intelligence exchanges."

Mr. Mack says in the war on terrorism, shared interests with other nations may sometimes be more important than shared values.