US renews sanctions on Damascus over support for militants

US President Barack Obama has renewed sanctions against Syria based on continuing concerns about the role Damascus plays in supporting regional militants. US officials say, however, that Washington remains open to dialogue.


AFP - US President Barack Obama has renewed sanctions on Syria amid continuing concerns about its role supporting militants in the region, State Department spokesman Robert Wood said Friday.

"The president felt it was necessary to take these measures. These are not new sanctions," Wood told reporters.

"I think this shows you that we still have some very serious concerns about Syrian behavior and activity in the world," he added.

"We've said to you before our concerns about what Syria is doing in Iraq, its support for terrorist groups. We've encouraged the Syrians to play a positive role in the Middle East," he said.

"We're willing to engage them in a dialogue to try to address not only our concerns but concerns that they may have.

"But there's ... no secret. We have some very serious problems with the government of Syria. And we hope to be able to try to work out those differences, but a lot of it is going to be up to Syria," he added.

The United States accuses Syria and its non-Arab ally Iran of giving material support to Hamas and Hezbollah in their conflicts with Israel.

It also charges that Syria has turned a blind eye to Islamist militants entering Iraq through its border, while also accusing Iran of actively supporting anti-US militants in Iraq.

The renewal of the sanctions comes as the United States is trying to engage diplomatically with Syria and a senior US official Jeffrey Feltman returned to the country this week as part of those efforts.

In Damascus, Feltman said he held "constructive" talks on Thursday with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem, on his second visit in two months to try to improve ties with Damascus.

"We noted in our discussions improvement in our ability to work bilaterally with the Syrians since our last visit here two months ago," said Feltman.

Feltman is on his second visit to Damascus since Obama took office in January pledging to engage with all Middle Eastern countries, including Washington's foes such as Syria and Iran.

"To be sure, Syria and United States share some mutual interests. Syria and United States also have some differences in our points of view on certain important issues," Feltman said.

"We came here today as part of President Obama commitment's to use diplomacy and to use dialogue in order to try to see where we can move forward, where our interests overlap, and to see where we can try and work together to bridge the differences that remain in some of our policies."

Washington first imposed economic sanctions on Syria in 2004 over charges that it was a state sponsor of terrorism. They were extended in 2006 and then tightened the following year.

Then former US president George W. Bush again renewed the sanctions for one year in May last year, banning exports of products other than food and medicine and freezing a raft of Syrian assets.

Ties between Washington and Damascus have been strained since the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the assassination of Lebanese leader Rafiq Hariri in 2005 which was blamed on Syria. Damascus denied any involvement.

Washington recalled its ambassador to Damascus in February 2005 following Hariri's murder and Feltman's visit in March was the first high-level US trip to Syria since then.

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning