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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Clinton Slates a Risky Stop in Syria

WASHINGTON -- President Bill Clinton faces a serious foreign policy risk in his decision to visit Syria, a country linked with some of the deadliest acts of terrorism ever undertaken against the United States.


Clinton announced the visit at a press conference Friday. The president plans to stop in the Syrian capital as part of a hectic three-day tour of the Middle East sparked by an invitation from the Israeli and Jordanian leaders to attend a ceremony at which their two countries will sign a peace treaty.


The White House has calculated that the visit to Syria will pay off in pushing forward the Middle East peace process by speeding the stalled Israeli-Syrian negotiations. Yet the regime of President Hafez Assad is unlikely to reciprocate with the kind of dramatic concession needed to prove the risk was worth the trip, senior U.S. officials acknowledge.


As a result, the Clinton administration may come away looking like it is endorsing one of the Middle East's most brutal regimes -- and regretting the precedent of visiting a country officially listed as a sponsor of terrorism.


The Damascus government has eased its stance on negotiating with Israel, which has broached the possibility of giving up the strategically valuable Golan Heights in return for peace with its longtime enemy.


But Syria remains a one-party state with a ruthless leader who slaughtered up to 25,000 of his own people during a 1982 uprising in Hama. Assad also allegedly supported the groups held responsible for the 1983-84 suicide bombings of two American embassies and the U.S. Marine headquarters in Lebanon. The blasts killed more than 300 Americans.


Policy analysts say Clinton's visit may therefore leave the wrong impression. "A visit to a home capital is quite a huge concession. Presidents don't go to other capitals to criticize. They go to endorse or show respect," said Robert Satloff, director of the Washington Institute on Near-East Policy. "But the merits of this trip need to be measured by the potential for gain as well as risk. And the gains could be considerable in achieving a clear change in Syrian behavior on issues such as terrorism or winning from Assad a clear statement of his vision of peace with Israel."


Clinton admitted Friday that the issue of Syria's relationship with terrorists had been the subject of much debate among advisers. Despite the risks, administration officials and foreign policy experts Saturday described the decision as sound.


The State Department's annual "Patterns of Global Terrorism" lists Syria as one of seven nations that sponsor terrorism, a distinction it has held since the list was first published in 1979. The others are Libya, Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Cuba and Sudan.


Although it says there is no evidence that Syrian officials have been directly involved in planning or executing terrorist attacks since 1986, the State Department report says several radical terrorists maintain training camps or other facilities in Syria or Syrian-controlled Lebanon.


Among these groups are the notorious Abu Nidal organization, Ahmed Jibril's Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command and the Palestinian group Islamic Jihad -- all of which are opposed to the Middle East peace process. Others include the Japanese Red Army and anti-Turkey Kurdish groups.


The report notes, however, that Syria has taken steps to restrain the international activities of some groups. In July 1993, Damacus helped cool escalating tensions between Lebanon and Israel by inducing Hezbollah militants to end rocket attacks on Israel's northern Galilee region.


Several Middle East specialists said Saturday that the best way to deal with Assad on terrorism issues is through direct engagement. "History suggests that we do better when we talk to Assad and work with him rather than when we try to ignore him or let him stew," said Richard Haass, a Bush administration Middle East strategist now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. The Bush administration invested considerable time in communicating and meeting with Assad, with two major payoffs, he said. Assad joined the U.S.-led Persian Gulf War coalition and he went to the 1991 conference in Madrid, Spain, that inaugurated the current peace effort.


Clinton's trip is the most extensive one to the Middle East by a U.S. President since Richard Nixon toured the region in 1974, less than a year after Israel's war with Egypt and Syria. Clinton and Assad met in Geneva last year.