Syrian signals

December 04, 2003

SYRIAN PRESIDENT Bashar Assad's overture to resume peace talks with Israel shouldn't be summarily dismissed as a public relations ploy to delay U.S. sanctions against Damascus. It's rare that the young president sits down for a wide-ranging interview, as he did with The New York Times recently, and speaks in such conciliatory tones. In the past, Mr. Assad's rhetoric has been especially inflammatory. Not so now, and the Bush administration should acknowledge the president's effort to reach out to Washington.

In his conversation with the Times, Mr. Assad asked the United States to help restart negotiations with Israel for the return of the Golan Heights, Syrian land that Israel has occupied since the 1967 war. This is a critical issue for Damascus on par with a resolution of the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands. Despite Washington's charge that Syria hasn't done enough in the war on terrorism, Mr. Assad cited seven instances in which his country provided support to U.S. efforts.

He also indicated that America is not Syria's adversary.

If congressional passage of the Syrian Accountability Act, the sanctions bill, got Mr. Assad's attention, so be it. The measure, now awaiting President Bush's signature, calls on Syria to withdraw its troops from Lebanon, stop its support of international terrorist groups, shut down operations of Palestinian militants who attack Israel and several other actions or face sanctions. The administration has lost patience with Syria's reluctance - critics say refusal - to ease tensions in the region, whether on the border with Israel or Iraq.

We don't expect that Mr. Bush will bury the sanctions bill in his desk drawer, but neither Washington nor Damascus should squander a chance to bridge the diplomatic gulf between them.

Both have a common interest in thwarting the actions of Islamic militants in the region and resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Mr. Assad should reinforce border security to ensure that anti-American insurgents aren't entering Iraq easily. Syria also should move on divesting itself of Iraqi funds as stipulated in a United Nations resolution.

The Bush administration says Damascus knows what it needs to do to convince Washington that it is serious about improving relations with the United States. If that's true, then Mr. Bush should give Mr. Assad a chance to follow his words with deeds and weigh carefully any sanctions he imposes on Syria.

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