Why Is Obama 'Rewarding' Syria, Republican Asks

By Susan Jones | March 17, 2009 | 10:44 AM EDT

(CNSNews.com) – The ranking Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee is asking why the Obama administration is seeking a “thaw” in U.S.-Syrian relations – at a time when Syria continues to threaten U.S. security interests and to disregard human rights.
Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) pointed to the case of a 61-year-old Syrian dissident. On Sunday, a Syrian court sentenced Habib Saleh to three years in prison on charges of "weakening national feelings" – criticizing the Syrian government, in other words.
Amnesty International said it considers Saleh to be a “prisoner of conscience, detained solely for peacefully expressing his political views.”
"The Syrian regime is not only a threat to regional peace and stability and to U.S. national security interests, but is a threat to its own people. Why would the U.S. seek to reward such behavior?” Ros-Lehtinen asked on Monday.
"Jailing political dissidents is just the latest similarity between Syria and Iran,” Ros-Lehtinen added. “Syria also pursues illicit nuclear, chemical and biological weapons programs, supports violent Islamist groups, facilitates the entrance of militants into Iraq, and undermines the sovereignty of neighboring states.”
Syria is on the U.S. State Department’s list of terror-sponsoring nations because it hosts the terror groups Hamas and Hezbollah.
President George W. Bush pursued a policy of isolating Syria for its efforts to destabilize Lebanon and Iraq. The Obama administration, however, is reaching out to Syria, even sending a diplomat to Damascus earlier this month.
Jeffrey Feltman, the Acting Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs, told reporters on Mar. 7, 2009, that he was in Damascus to underscore President Obama’s desire to use diplomacy and “engagement” to address issues of mutual concern.
Feltman met with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Mu’allim, among other officials, and he described the three-and-a-half-hour discussion as “constructive.”
“We discussed a broad range of issues – regional issues, international issues, as well as bilateral issues – and how we could move forward in a variety of ways,” Feltman told reporters. “It’s our view that, you know, Syria can play an important, constructive role in the region.”
Feltman refused to go into details about what he discussed with the Syrians. “The foreign minister and I both agreed, that we want to try to see what we can achieve through private talks right now, and so I’m not going to get into a lot of detail.”
According to Feltman, the differences between the U.S. and Syria will require more than a few conversations to resolve. “We found a lot of common ground today,” he said. “We were able to talk about a lot of issues. We were able to – you know, there were no subjects that were taboo. We tabled a lot of various issues. But in terms of, do we expect this result or that result out of this particular meeting, I think that’s simply unrealistic at this point.”
Neither side set up “benchmarks,” Feltman added, and neither side presented the other with a list of expectations or conditions.
But Ros-Lehtinen said it’s a mistake for the U.S. to seek a unilateral thaw in relations with Syria “without first asking for specific pre-requisites to be met. To do so shows weakness on these issues and could have very serious consequences for the welfare of the Syrian people, our allies in the region, and our nation's interests."
Ros-Lehtinen is the author of the Syria Accountability and Liberation Act (H.R. 1206), which would strengthen sanctions against the Syrian government unless it eases its “threatening policies.” The bill also would establish a program to support a transition to a democratically elected government in Syria.