MAR 13 2006



The Syrian issue will resume top priority in coming weeks on the international and American agendas. In another few days, the special investigator appointed by the United Nations to find those responsible for the murder of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri is due to report his latest findings.


The investigator, Serge Brammertz, is expected to visit Damascus early this week, and then to travel to the United States to present all the evidence he has collected since visiting Damascus three weeks ago.

A senior U.S. official told Haaretz last week that "if the Syrians think they've managed to get off the hook because there are other things on the agenda, they are mistaken. The Syrians have not been punished yet for their actions and we are continuing to study their conduct. Their luck will run out eventually."

Another senior U.S. official said that Syria will "soon" receive extra attention when new measures against it are unveiled.


Several senior U.S. administration officials have stressed to Haaretz in recent days that "we have not forgotten about Syria." Several hinted in recent weeks in conversations with colleagues that further plans might soon be implemented with the aim of increasing pressure on Syria.

Sources at the U.S. Department of Defense and at intelligence agencies say that Syria is continuing to allow terrorists to use it as a conduit to Iraq and to support terrorist organizations that undermine American policy in the Middle East.

"They are aiding directly in the killing of American soldiers, and we have still not settled accounts with them on that score," a U.S. official told a colleague from a foreign country two weeks ago.

A diplomatic official explained this weekend that the Syrian issue is bound up with the Iranian situation, as Tehran's apparent objective is to destabilize the entire region. The fact that Syria has "a weak leadership," the source said, gives the Iranians an advantage they never had before. "[Former president] Hafez Assad always held the Iranians as a card in his pocket, but in the case of [current President] Bashar Assad, the Iranians are the ones holding him as a card in their pocket."

Last Thursday, the U.S. Treasury Department instructed American financial institutions to sever all links with the Commercial Bank of Syria and its subsidiary, the Syrian Lebanese Commercial Bank, which the administration says have been used to launder terror funds.


The treasury announcement also stated that the Syrian government itself made use of the bank to facilitate "international terrorist activity." The administration views cutting such ties - one of several options that were on the table - to be "an important step." As a diplomatic source put it: "This was the alternative we chose at this stage."

Last week's State Department report on human rights in various countries also underscored Syria's role in aiding terrorist activity throughout the Middle East.

Rice: U.S. hopes to boost aid to Palestinians
RIO DE JANEIRO - The United States is considering increasing humanitarian aid to the Palestinians, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said on Sunday, and she urged the militant group Hamas to choose a peaceful path in government.

Speaking to reporters en route to Indonesia, the world's most populous Muslim nation, Rice said Hamas must make its intentions clear.

"The road map is the way for a better life for the Palestinian people. Whatever government they form needs to make clear to the international community pretty soon that that will be the policy of the government," she said, referring to a U.S.-backed peace plan.

The State Department is reviewing all aid to the Palestinians to ensure no U.S. funds reach Hamas, following its landslide election victory in January. Hamas is listed by the United States as a terrorist group.

While prevented under U.S. law from giving aid directly to a Hamas-led government, Rice said she hoped the United States could provide more humanitarian aid to the Palestinians.

"We are looking at ways to even increase our humanitarian assistance to the Palestinian people during this period of time, but there are important choices that the Palestinian people face concerning the road map and the Quartet requirements," she said.

The Quartet of international powers trying to broker Middle Eastern peace - Russia, the United States, the European Union and the United Nations - wants Hamas to renounce violence, recognize Israel and acknowledge previous accords between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

The United States has made clear no humanitarian aid will be channeled to a Hamas-led government until these conditions are met, but it does not want to be seen as ignoring the plight of the Palestinian people by cutting all assistance.

Rice did not indicate whether she would ask Congress for more humanitarian aid. It is more likely that any new help will come from funds previously earmarked for the Palestinian Authority.

Earlier this month, on the request of Washington, the interim Palestinian Authority returned e30 million in U.S. aid and it has promised to refund a further $20 million before Hamas officially takes over, possibly by the end of March.

U.S. officials have said this e50 million could be redirected to provide humanitarian aid.

The United States has given more than $1.5 billion in the Palestinians over the past decade, mostly through nongovernmental organizations or UN agencies.

Rice said she would encourage Indonesian officials during her two-day visit to pressure Hamas to meet the Quartet's requirements.




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