Published May 08, 2009
WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration is renewing economic and diplomatic sanctions on Syria, even as two U.S. envoys are in the Syrian capital exploring prospects for improved relations.
The State Department said Friday that President Obama felt compelled to renew the penalties, which were first imposed by George W. Bush's administration four years ago as diplomatic contact dwindled. Washington has not had an ambassador in Damascus since Margaret Scobey was recalled in 2005.
"The president felt it was necessary to take these measures," State Department spokesman Robert A. Wood said, noting that Obama is required by law to review the sanctions every year and report to Congress.
The decision coincided with renewed high-level diplomatic contacts with Damascus this week. The administration, in a departure from the Bush administration, is seeking a new diplomatic opening with the Syrians in hope that it could play a positive role not only in the Mideast peace process but also in neighboring Iraq.
Bush first imposed the sanctions in May 2004, citing Syrian support for terrorism, its pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and other activities including efforts to undermine U.S. operations in Iraq.
One of Obama's first foreign policy moves was to reach out to Syria as part of a new approach to the Mideast. Two U.S. envoys, including the State Department's top Middle East official, Jeffrey Feltman, have been in Damascus this week for meetings, including a session Thursday with Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem.
Wood said the renewal of sanctions is not a contradiction in U.S. policy toward Syria.
"We have very serious concerns about Syrian behavior," he said. "And those haven't gone away. But what we're saying is instead of isolating Syria, we're willing to engage them."
Wood spoke cautiously of the prospects for progress.
"The Syrians have said a lot of very positive things, but we need to see actions," Wood said. "And as far as I'm aware, they haven't taken any steps that -- at this point -- would lead us to change, to move in another direction right now."
Obama has held out hope of including Syria-Israel talks as part of a comprehensive Mideast peace process.
Syria held indirect talks with Israel last year mediated by Turkey. But the discussions were halted during the Israeli offensive on Gaza in December and January. Syria has since said it was ready to resume indirect talks with Israel's new hard-line government as long as they focus on a complete Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, a strategic plateau captured from Syria in the 1967 war.
Syria and its close ally Iran are strong supporters of militant Islamic groups in the region, including Hamas and Lebanon's Hezbollah. The United States regards those groups as terrorist organizations.
Washington also has been at odds with Syria since the start of the Iraq war over alleged Syrian harboring of insurgent leaders and facilitators; recently U.S. officials have said Syria has slowed the flow of foreign fighters across its border into Iraq.