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United Nations

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) called attention on May 3, World Press Freedom Day, to the plight of imprisoned Syrian human rights activists by awarding Nizar Nayuf, who was serving a ten-year prison term despite poor health, the Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Award.

European Union

Once again, human rights were not a dominant concern in European relations with Syria. The European Union continued to hold talks with Damascus with the aim of concluding an Association Agreement by the year 2010, according to Marc Pierini, head of the European mission in Damascus. Prior to two days of talks in Damascus in November 1999, Pierini told Agence France-Presse that human rights would be "an important part of the agreement" and would be discussed in these meetings as well. But he seemed to mute the message with the following words: "The European Union, whose declared objectives are to strengthen Syria's stability and prosperity, must take into account the legitimate concern of the Syrian authorities not to bring social troubles in the wake of the reforms."

In a July 17 speech in London to the Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding, British foreign office minister Peter Hain noted the "very smooth" transition to power of Bashar al-Asad. He added: "I believe that, over the past year, Britain and Syria have laid the foundations for a new relationship between our countries. I welcome President [Bashar] Asad's commitment to social and economic reform, and to the strategic choice of peace. Britain will, as an old friend, seek to help Syria in both."

United States

U.S. relations with Syria remained lukewarm at best, although Clinton administration efforts to broker a peace deal with Israel continued, including a meeting in Geneva on March 26 between President Clinton and President Hafez al-Asad that was widely viewed as unsuccessful. Syria remained on the U.S. list of "terrorist" countries, although bilateral trade in 1999 totalled $172.67 in U.S. exports to Syria and $94.9 million in Syrian exports to the U.S., according to the Foreign Trade Division of the U.S. Census Bureau.

The U.S. State Department both criticized and praised Syria in its Patterns of Global Terrorism 1999 report, released in April 2000: "Syria continued to provide safehaven and support to several terrorist groups, some of which maintained training camps or other facilities on Syrian territory. Ahmad Jibril's Popular Front Liberation of Palestinian-General Command (PFLP-GC) and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), for example, were headquartered in Damascus. In addition, Syria granted a wide variety of terrorist groups-including HAMAS, the PFLP-GC,and the PIJ-basing privileges or refuge in areas of Lebanon's Bekaa Valley under Syrian control." The report also noted, however, that the Syrian government "continued to restrain their international activities, instructing leaders of terrorist organizations in Damascus in August to refrain from military activities and limit their actions solely to the political realm."

On December 8, 1999, President Clinton announced that Prime Minister Barak and President al-Asad had agreed to resume Israel-Syria negotiations from the point that they were suspended in January 1996. The talks commenced at a meeting on December 15, 1999, between President Clinton, Prime Minister Barak and Syrian Foreign Minister Farouq al-Shara', followed by talks in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, on January 3-11, 2000.

Secretary of State Madeleine Albright said on January 17: "At the end of the last round, it was agreed that the Israeli-Syrian talks would resume on January 19. Both sides have since been reviewing the status of the talks and the draft working document. Presently, their approaches to the next round differ, and as a result, there is going to be a delay. In the meantime, each side has agreed to send experts to Washington to meet us and provide their comments on the draft."

There were no breakthroughs at the March 26 meeting between Clinton and Asad in Geneva and it appeared that from the American side at least none were expected. En route to the meeting, U.S. National Security Advisor Samuel Berger said in a March 25 press briefing aboard Air Force One that the purpose of the meeting was "not to try to reach an agreement between Israel and Syria." He also noted that "if nothing else happens [in Geneva] other than that Asad and Barak and the President have a better sense that their interests are either reconcilable or irreconcilable, that will be, I think, useful; they'll each make decisions based on that." On the flight, an unnamed senior Clinton administration official provided additional background about the U.S. view: "I think it is important for the Syrian government to convey and demonstrate to the people of Israel that if, in fact, they give up some or all of the Golan Heights. . . .they will gain from that a qualitatively different relationship with Syria, which involves genuine dialogue exchange, at a people-to-people level as well a commercial level and otherwise." The White House released these remarks as part of the official transcript of the press briefing.

In a May 8 speech in Washington to the Anti-Defamation League, Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs Edward Walker made clear the U.S. and Israeli approach to the negotiation. He stated: "Despite difficulties, we have not given up on the Syrian track. But negotiating the future of the Golan Heights is risky business for Israel. We recognize that only an agreement that enhances Israel's security will be acceptable to Israelis and the United States. At the same time, a way must be found to meet the needs of the Syrian side as well. It would be a great mistake to assume that the Syrians do not, in their own way, face significant risks in approaching peace. Therefore, as long as both Israelis and Syrians are still interested in finding a way forward, and we believe that continues to be the case, the United States will persist in our efforts to help them."

There was evidence that Israel was preparing to lobby for U.S. aid to Syria if a peace treaty was concluded. The diplomatic correspondent for the respected Israeli daily Ha'aretz reported on March 26 from Geneva that the Israeli embassy in Washington was "exploring the possibility of U.S. aid to Syria following the signing of a peace agreement between Syria and the Jewish state." He said "diplomats assessed that the White House could convince Congress to grant Syria an aid package, but doubts exist about the possibility of American military aid for Syria." He wrote that it was expected "that if an agreement with Syria is signed, Israel will seek assistance from Jewish groups in the United States in pushing an aid package for Syria through Congress," and that "[s]ources involved in securing congressional aid said that a combined aid package for both Israel and Syria would be approved because it will be difficult for members of Congress to oppose such a package." The article noted that Israel had requested $17 billion in U.S. military assistance to finance its withdrawal from the Golan Heights.

Except for a reference in an October 14, 1999, speech by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to human rights defender Nizar Nayuf being "near death after years of solitary confinement, torture, and neglect," the Clinton administration did not raise Syria's human rights practices publicly and expressed satisfaction at the peaceful transition to power of Bashar al-Asad. Asked before she departed for Hafez al-Asad's funeral if she would raise human rights concerns, Albright suggested that such a message would be inappropriate. "I think that it's important for Dr. Bashar Asad to ... take on the mantle and for the transition process to be pursued," Albright said. "From what we've seen in the past twenty-four hours ... it looks like a peaceful transition. It is important that it be peaceful."

Albright did, however, comment about the continuing Syrian military presence in Lebanon in the wake of the Israeli withdrawal in May. For example, on June 7 in Cairo she noted the "bold move Prime Minister Barak took in withdrawing his forces from Lebanon and doing it according to [U.N. Security Council] Resolution 425," and said it was "very important for all parties involved in that to carry out their obligations vis-à-vis 425. I would hope very much that the Lebanese army would begin to move into Southern Lebanon and that the Lebanese would take control over their own territory and all foreign forces would depart." She added that Lebanon would be discussed in her meeting that day with Syrian Foreign Minister Farouq Shara':

"We're going to talk about Lebanon and I think about making sure that everybody fulfills their obligations according to 425. As I've said, the Syrians have been cooperative and I think it is very important that all parties do in fact follow through on their obligations-these are international obligations-the Israelis have lived up to them, I think it would be good if everybody else did also."

Human Rights Watch World Report 2000

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