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(photo credit: AP)
The Obama administration said Friday it is renewing economic and diplomatic sanctions on Syria, even as two US envoys are in the Syrian capital exploring prospects for improved relations.
In a letter to Congress, President Barack Obama said he was compelled to renew the penalties, which were first imposed by George W. Bush's four years ago as diplomatic contact dwindled. Washington has not had an ambassador in Damascus since Margaret Scobey was recalled in 2005.
"The actions of the government of Syria in supporting terrorism, pursuing weapons of mass destruction and missile programs, and undermining US and international efforts with respect to the stabilization and reconstruction of Iraq pose a continuing unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy and economy of the United States," Obama said in the letter dated Thursday.
State Department spokesman Robert Wood, asked about the decision, told reporters the president was required by law to review the sanctions every year and to renew them or allow them to lapse.
The decision coincided with renewed high-level diplomatic contacts with Damascus this week. The administration, in a departure from the Bush administration, is seeking a new diplomatic opening with the Syrians in hope that it could play a positive role not only in the Mideast peace process but also in neighboring Iraq.
An Israeli government official responded to Obama's decision by pointedly expressing skepticism over the possibility of modifying Syria's behavior, rather than satisfaction at the renewal of diplomatic and economic sanctions.
"We are skeptical about a possible change in Syrian behavior," the official said. "Ultimately the Syrians continue to be Iran's most loyal ally in the Arab world, and on a daily basis are transferring dangerous weapons both to Hamas and Hizbullah."
Bush first imposed the sanctions in May 2004, citing Syrian support for terrorism, its pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and other activities, including efforts to undermine US operations in Iraq.
One of Obama's first foreign policy moves was to reach out to Syria as part of a new approach to the Mideast. Two US envoys, including the State Department's top Middle East official, Jeffrey Feltman, have been in Damascus this week for meetings, including a session Thursday with Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem.
Feltman was expected to cite Obama's decision to renew the sanctions as an indication that the administration wants to see the Syrian government take more positive actions in the region.
Wood said the renewal of sanctions is not a contradiction in US policy toward Syria.
"We have very serious concerns about Syrian behavior," he said. "And those haven't gone away. But what we're saying is instead of isolating Syria, we're willing to engage them."
Wood spoke cautiously of the prospects for progress.
"The Syrians have said a lot of very positive things, but we need to see actions," Wood said. "And as far as I'm aware, they haven't taken any steps that - at this point - would lead us to change, to move in another direction right now."