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Monday, February 9, 2009

Obama preparing to lift sanctions against Syria

NICOSIA — President Barack Obama has decided on a new U.S. ambassador to Syria and is expected to lift sanctions against a nation charged with aiding Al Qaida in Iraq and secretly building a nuclear reactor with North Korean assistance.   

Diplomatic sources said Obama, in consultation with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, has asked Frederic Hof to become the first U.S. ambassador to Damascus since 2005. The sources said Hof, a member of the National Advisory Committee of the Middle East Policy Council, agreed to take the post, Middle East Newsline reported.

"There will be an announcement very soon," a diplomat said.

  • Report: Barack Obama's Al Qaida initiative began months before his election — Jan. 28
  • The sources said the Obama administration was expected to suspend U.S. sanctions on Syria's military and energy programs.

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    They said Hof would be authorized to facilitate an expansion of U.S. relations with Syria, which deteriorated under President George Bush.

    In 2005, the United States withdrew its ambassador to Damascus in wake of the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Syria was blamed for the car bombing in Beirut in which Hariri and many of his bodyguards were killed.

    The sources said Obama sent emissaries to Syria in September 2008 and pledged that if elected he would reconcile with the regime of President Bashar Assad. After his election victory, they said, Obama sent another message that promised to appoint an ambassador within the first weeks of his administration.

    Hof, an Arabic speaker and former U.S. Army officer, was said to be close to Obama's new Middle East envoy, George Mitchell. Hof worked with Mitchell when the latter headed a fact-finding commission on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in 2002.

    Obama's intention to reconcile with Iran and Syria has been supported by the Democratic majority in Congress. In February, congressional delegations were planning visits to Damascus, including one headed by House Foreign Relations Committee chairman Rep. Howard Berman. Another delegation was scheduled to include members of the Senate Foreign Relations.

    A delegation of the House Terrorism, Unconventional Threats and Capabilities Subcommittee, headed by Rep. Adam Smith, has already visited Damascus and met Syrian leaders. The sources said Smith focused his talks on Obama's plans to end sanctions, particularly the Syrian Accountability Act, on the Assad regime.

    "Congress wants some sort of commitment that Syria will end support to Hamas and Hizbullah, but this is not expected," a diplomatic source said.

    On Feb. 8, the Syrian regime reported a breakthrough in trade relations with the United States. The state-owned Al Baath daily said the United States has agreed to sell spare parts for the repair of two Boeing 747 passenger jets owned by the state-owned Syrian airline.

    Syrian Transport Minister Yaroub Bader said Damascus received U.S. approval on Feb. 6. Under U.S. sanctions, Damascus had been denied requests for weapons and aerospace components.


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