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US limits contact with Syrian leader

Frustration grows over border control

(Correction: Because of a graphic artist's error, a map of Syria that accompanied a story on yesterday's World page about the US limiting its contact with the Syrian government incorrectly compared the size of Massachusetts to Syria. Massachusetts was scaled too large and was out of proportion.)

WASHINGTON -- The United States has cut off nearly all contact with the Syrian government as the Bush administration steps up a campaign to weaken and isolate President Bashar al-Assad's regime, according to US and Syrian officials.

The United States has halted high-level diplomatic meetings, limited military coordination on Syria's border with Iraq, and ended dialogue with Syria's Finance Ministry on amending its banking laws to block terrorist financing. In recent months, as distrust between the two countries widened, the United States also declined a proposal from Syria to revive intelligence cooperation with Syria, according to Syria's ambassador to the United States, Imad Moustapha, and a US official.

The new era of hostility flows from American frustration at what it considers Syria's failure to effectively control its border with Iraq and continued support for radical Palestinian groups that threaten the chances of peace in Israel.

The US-Syrian confrontation has sharpened just as Syria is also facing pressure from many Arab and European governments -- as well as the United States -- over Syria's suspected role in the assassination of the former prime minister of Lebanon, Rafik Hariri.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Oct. 31 that ''the Syrian government needs to make a strategic decision to fundamentally change its behavior" or risk becoming an international pariah.

Some US officials say privately that there is now an active debate about whether regime change should be a US goal. Publicly, administration officials say that they want to see a change in behavior.

But Syrian officials say they have made progress on many US demands, including stepping up patrols along the Iraqi border, and that it is the United States that has broken promises to cooperate. Syrians say that powerful neoconservative policy makers in Washington have long hoped to topple their regime in a bid to transform the Middle East.

''What we see in general is an administration that is categorically refusing to engage with Syria on any level," Moustapha said. ''We see an administration that would really love to see another crisis in the Middle East, this time targeting Syria."

Despite their disputes, the two countries worked together on counterterrorism efforts following the Sept. 11 attacks.

The danger posed by Al Qaeda was one thing that both governments could agree on: Syria's secular leaders, who are from a minority Alawite sect, consider Al Qaeda and other Sunni fundamentalists dangerous political rivals for the Syrian populace, a majority of whom are Sunni.

Weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks, Syria turned over many of its files on Al Qaeda and allowed the CIA to collect intelligence inside the country, Flynt Leverett, who was a National Security Council official at the time, writes in his recent book ''Inheriting Syria: Bashar's Trial by Fire."

Cooperation was so close that, in 2002, the United States secretly flew a terrorism suspect with dual Canadian and Syrian citizenship to Damascus. He was allegedly tortured during interrogation.

Syria, also credited with foiling a terrorism plot in Bahrain, halted intelligence cooperation after the 2003 invasion of Iraq. But by the summer of 2004, State Department officials had revived dialogue, Moustapha said.

Powell's chief of staff, Lawrence Wilkerson, said that Powell was often frustrated by Syria's failure to keep promises to shut down Palestinian groups inside Syria and to arrest Iraqis hiding there.

But he said that Powell never gave up on diplomacy with Syria, which put him at odds with another camp of advisers in Washington who sought to bring a hard-line against the Syrian regime.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld advocated pressuring Syria as part of a larger plan to confront Iraq, Syria, and Iran, said Wilkerson, now retired and a critic of the Bush administration's Middle East policy. Rumsfeld advocated ''tightening the screw on them as much as possible, including precision strikes into Syria to take out 'known terrorist' sites," he added.

Other top Bush advisers have also taken a similar stance. In a 1996 policy paper, Douglas J. Feith, who later became Bush's undersecretary of defense for policy, Richard Perle, who became chairman of Rumsfeld's Defense Policy Board, and David Wurmser, now an aide to Vice President Dick Cheney, urged the Israeli government to strike Syria.

Despite these sentiments, direct contacts with the Syrian government were frequent just a year ago. Last September, a US Treasury Department team accepted Syria's invitation to travel to Damascus to study Syrian banks, which had been designated as key money-laundering concerns. Treasury officials say the dialogue produced some limited results -- counterterrorism-oriented changes to banking laws and the eventual return of $262 million in Iraqi funds to Baghdad -- but fell short of US demands.

The same month, Syria met with US-led coalition forces in Iraq and agreed to a joint plan for securing the border, Major General Amin Suleiman Charabeh, head of Syrian state security for the Iraq-Syria border.

Charabeh said that a British technical team promised night vision goggles and communications equipment to better police the border, but the equipment never came. The British also took the names of Syrian personnel who could receive training, but never followed up.

A British Embassy spokesman said that ''there were previous talks about a gift of night vision goggles," but said that Syria must do more to tackle ''support for the insurgency in areas other than the border" before Britian will consider sharing the equipment.

The last high-level meeting between US and Syrian officials happened in January 2005, when Powell's deputy, Richard Armitage, met with Assad. According to Moustapha, Armitage had a number of requests: work harder to seal the border, allow Iraqis inside Syria to vote in the upcoming election, and arrest a list of Iraqis in Syria, including including Saddam Hussein's half-brother, Sabawi Ibrahim al-Hassan al-Tikriti.

''Armitage said, 'Nothing today is as important to Bush as the upcoming election in Iraq, and if you support these elections, it will make such a difference in US-Syria relations,' " Moustapha said.

Armitage did not return phone calls seeking comment about the meeting.

Syria did allow Iraqis to vote, and arranged for Sabawi to return to Iraq, where he was arrested.

But better relations with the United States did not follow. In February, just after Powell and Armitage retired and Rice took over, President Bush singled out Syria for supporting terrorism in his State of the Union address, highlighting Syria before Iran.

Two weeks later, Hariri was assassinated in a plot in which top Syrian officials would be implicated. His slaying prompted the US ambassador to leave Damascus for what was billed as a temporary absence, but she never returned.

And in the last three months, the United States declined the intelligence overture.

Moustapha said that a US ally in Europe asked Syrian officials to resume cooperation on intelligence matters. Syria agreed, he said, but only if a third country could be present to witness that Syria was indeed cooperating.

''They came back to us and said," 'Sorry, forget it. The Americans refused,' " Moustapha said.

The US official said he had heard that the proposal was Syria's initiative, and that the Americans did not consider it sincere.

''When the time was best for [cooperation], they played games, and now it looks like they are trying to make up some ground," he said.

Other contacts with Syria have also faded away.

In September, the Defense Defense blocked Syria from attending a conference in Jordan designed for Iraqi border officials to meet their counterparts from neighboring countries, according to David Thomas, a spokesman for the National Defense University, whose affiliate school organized the conference.

''My understanding is that it is a standing policy that they are not invited [to such meetings]," he said.

James Denselow, a British researcher who spoke at the conference on Syria's behalf, said: ''There's no way the Syrians can control the border to the degree that the Americans want, without American engagement . . . but Rumsfeld's whole ideology does not allow engagement."

Syrians say the United States wants regime change in Syria, not cooperation.

But US officials say Syria must make a strategic decision to completely change its ways -- like Libya did -- or risk being cut off from the entire world.

''There have been repeated and numerous high-level attempts to engage the Syrian government," said State Department spokesman Sean McCormack. ''Yet they have failed to act."

Stockman reported from Washington; Cambanis from Damascus, Syria.

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