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US Cuts Ties With Syria

Associated Press | November 8 2005

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

But Syrian officials say they have made progress on many U.S. 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. . . . Even before the Iraq war started, they had this grand vision for the Middle East.''

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