syria seeks to mend its image in us

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    Apr. 27, 2003
    Syria seeks to mend its image in US
    By JANINE ZACHARIA
    WASHINGTON


    Syria has launched a public relations offensive designed to repair its image in the US after severe criticism by top Bush administration officials.

    Damascus dispatched Boutheina Shaaban, director of media relations at the Syrian Foreign Ministry, to Washington and New York. On Thursday, Shaaban appeared before the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) in Washington to defend Syrian support for Hizbullah and its sheltering of Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Hamas in Damascus, and to insist that Syria had not provided shelter to Iraqi officials.

    An articulate English speaker who studied abroad, Shaaban is close to the Assad family. She served as translator and close adviser to late president Hafez Assad for many years and continues to advise President Bashar Assad.

    Shaaban said she had come to "confront some stereotypes rather than to confirm them." In addition to her appearance at CFR, Shaaban spoke to the Center for Strategic and International Studies and appeared on cable news programs.

    She arrived just as the bulk of criticism of Syria has begun to subside. US President George W. Bush told NBC's Tom Brokaw Thursday that the Syrians "appear to want to be helpful" when it comes to catching Iraqi leaders who fled across the border into Syria. In addition, Bush chastised "left-wing critics" who said his administration is "so militaristic they're getting ready to invade Syria." Secretary of State Colin Powell will head to Syria soon as part of a Middle East tour designed to promote the road map for Israeli-Palestinian peace.

    It was not clear who initiated the CFR panel. Syria does not employ a full-time lobbyist in Washington, and the quickly arranged event resembled ones that wealthy Persian Gulf governments put together with the help of local public relations firms when they have problems with Washington.

    There has been mounting concern in recent weeks among US companies with investments in Syria that new legislation moving through Congress could lead to fresh sanctions on Damascus and thwart business dealings there.

    Conoco, an oil company with the largest US investment in Syria, may, for example, have to cut its ties with Damascus if the Syria Accountability Act passes.

    Shaaban said Syria never had good relations with the Iraqi regime and insisted that Syria "has always worked for peace and for security and stability," citing its support for the Madrid peace conference over a decade ago. US-brokered Israeli-Syrian peace talks fizzled after a brief spurt in January 2000 in West Virginia.

    Sen. Bob Graham (D-Florida), who spoke with Shaaban on the CFR panel, praised Syria for "playing an important role in apprehending Iraqi officials who as fugitives fled into their country" and insisted that, compared to other countries, it is "at best a relatively minor producer and controller of weapons of mass destruction." But he challenged Syria to abandon its support for Hizbullah, which he said has terrorist sleeper cells in the US.

    Lebanese Ambassador to the US Farid Abboud said Hizbullah is not a terrorist organization by definition, because "since its inception there was no attack on civilian targets." Hizbullah is the primary suspect in the deadly attacks on a Jewish center and the Israeli Embassy in Argentina in 1994.

    Hizbullah, Shaaban insisted, "does not have anything against the United States." Its leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, however, spews some of the most anti-American rhetoric in the region.
    She defended Syria's refusal to shut offices of Islamic Jihad and Hamas in Damascus, saying they were simply "press offices" for the 500,000 Palestinians living in Syria. The US has repeatedly asked Syria to close them, saying they support and help orchestrate terrorist attacks by Palestinians in Israel.

    "Instead of condemning Hamas and [Islamic Jihad] and Hizbullah and suicidal bombs and all this, end occupation, end settlements," she said.
    Asked about Syria's ongoing occupation of Lebanon, Shaaban insisted Syria, which profits enormously from its presence there, does "not intend to stay in Lebanon except when it is needed."

    She said Hizbullah's strikes against targets in northern Israel are justified as long as Israel remains in control of Shaba Farms. The UN has certified Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon as complete but Shaaban insisted that Shaba Farms are part of Lebanon. (So, Kofi is silent as usual. Why? Because he and the U.N. are F.I.T.H..........Snooker)

    She failed to adequately answer why Syrian journalist Ibrahim Hamidi, a reporter for the London-based Al-Hayat newspaper, has been imprisoned for months without being charged. "He was jailed for reasons violating the Syrian law," she said.

    Colleagues of Hamidi say he was arrested because the Syrian regime did not approve of an article he wrote. (Ho hum, another "democratic" country, and my gosh, they're on the UN security council.....What a farce!.........Snooker)

 
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