Armitage in Syria to press US concerns
* Concedes Damascus has taken steps to meet US demands
* Stresses that leadership must do more
DAMASCUS: US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage held talks on Sunday with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as Washington sought to keep up the pressure on Damascus over Iraq, Lebanon and its support for Palestinian militants.
Armitage, who was accompanied by the State Department’s Middle East pointman, William Burns, was later due to hold separate talks with Foreign Minister Faruq al-Shara, a US diplomat said.
Washington imposed unilateral economic sanctions against Damascus last year over a raft of issues, ranging from its alleged failure to secure its border with Iraq or clamp down on the activities of fugitive supporters of Saddam Hussein, to its dominant role in neighbouring Lebanon.
“Obviously Syria is a big problem,” a senior State Department official told AFP in Washington ahead of Armitage’s departure. “We need to keep the heat on.”
Armitage himself was slightly more conciliatory in an interview with Arabic media a few days earlier. Asked if he expected relations with Damascus to remain frosty, he said: “I would hope for a much better day with Syria, but it’s all up to Assad and his colleagues.”
He conceded that Syria had taken some steps towards meeting US demands on Iraq by agreeing to undertake joint border patrols and act against insurgent funding, but added: “We trust that they’ll do a lot more.”
In particular, he said Washington wanted action against fugitive Iraqi officials, who allegedly remain at liberty in Syria and are suspected of financing attacks on US troops.
“There were several former Baathists who, apparently, are allowed to range fairly freely in Syria, and we believe are responsible for some of the funding . . . that funds insurgent activities in Iraq,” he said. “We have to be convinced — and I think more importantly that the government of Iraq . . . have to be convinced — that Syria is doing all she can to stop the activities which harm Iraq.”
Armitage said Syria also needed to heed the demands in UN Security Council Resolution 1559 passed in September for an end to all foreign interference in neighbouring Lebanon. “That’s not a collision course with the United States, it’s a collision course with the international community,” he said, according to a State Department transcript.
Asked whether Washington would raise Syrian non-compliance later this month when the UN Security Council discusses renewing the mandate of the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, he said: “We may very well.” Armitage arrived in Syria from an unannounced two-day visit to Iraq. He was due to travel on to Turkey. afp