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Syrian Reaction to Powell Visit Mixed - 2003-05-04

There is a mixed response from Syrian media to Secretary of State Colin Powell's visit Saturday to Damascus. While some view the visit as beneficial, others say the United States needs to drop its demand that Syria close offices of Palestinian groups the United States views as terrorist organizations.

The moderate Syrian Christian newspaper Al-Anwar said Mr. Powell, through discussion, received a Syrian pledge to cooperate in a regional peace process.

But Syria's ruling Baath party newspaper An-Nahar said Mr. Powell's call for Syria to close the offices of radical groups, including Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, violated the Palestinians' right to plead their case to the international community. Both groups have boasted of carrying out suicide attacks in Israel.

In Beirut, Mr. Powell said Syrian authorities had told him there had been a number of closures involving the offices of groups that the State Department has listed as terrorist organizations.

Mohammed Aziz Shukri, former dean of the University of Damascus School of International Law, says Washington needs to understand that Syrians do not view these groups as terrorist organizations.

"We still believe, and we will always believe, that Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad, and Hamas are freedom fighters, and that the Israelis are actually occupying territories that do not belong to them. This is a fact that neither the United States or any other power in the world can change in the mind of the average Syrian, or the average Arab on the street. So, if the United States wants a good relation as much as we do, they will have to understand our position here. And, I think our position is not irrational. I think, when it comes to the question of terrorism, Syria has cooperated with the United States fully in fighting al-Qaida. But, when it comes to what we consider deeply and honestly as freedom fighters, we cannot cross this red line, even if it will be rather uncomfortable for the United States," he said.

While Mr. Shukri said he has doubts about whether U.S.-Syrian relations will begin to improve as a result of Secretary of State Powell's visit, Rateb Shallah, head of Syria's Union of Chamber of Commerce, thinks they will continue to improve.

Mr. Shallah said Mr. Powell's trip was successful because he did not repeat earlier allegations from Washington that Syria was harboring wanted Iraqis or is in possession of banned chemical and biological weapons.

"I think that, basically, there is quite an accord and understanding between the two parties. And, as such, I think the people sort of accepted that a lot of things that were not said, were very positive and very encouraging. Basically, there is every reason for us to cooperate. And, I think in economic terms, the Syrian-American relations have been improving steadily in the last few years, and I do not think there is any reason for thinking that the trend will be any different, or that it will change in the future," Mr. Shallah said.

A senior official with Hezbollah in Lebanon, Sheikh Hassan Izzedine, said he was confident Lebanon and Syria would not bow to U.S. demands, and vowed to continue an armed resistance to Israel. The group is on the U.S. list of terrorist organizations.

As part of a U.S. proposed regional peace plan, known as the roadmap, Palestinians must undertake visible measures to end violence and terrorism by these groups against Israel.