Diplomatic sources: US not taking Syria to task for helping Hamas

WASHINGTON - Although the US is calling on Syria to stop all support to Hamas and to close the organization offices in Damascus, diplomatic sources say there is no sign of American pressure on Syria to act on this issue. The administration is not considering further sanctions on Syria and is focusing its pressure on other issues, including the Hariri assassination investigation and the Syrian role in assisting the insurgency in Iraq. State Department deputy spokesman Adam Ereli said Friday that the US was aware of the support Syria was giving Hamas and that this kind of support was "wrong and needs to end." At the State Department's daily press briefing, Ereli added that the US "told the Syrians that it's important that they shut down the offices of Hamas and they shut down the offices of those who support terror." The US has raised several times in the past the issue of hosting terror offices in Damascus with the Syrian regime, but US sources say they have never seen any movement on this issue. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell was promised by the Syrians three years ago that the offices will be closed, but the US did not see any change on the ground. Despite the clear public demand from Syria to close offices of Hamas and other terror groups operating from Damascus - a demand reiterated last week following the rise in tension between Israel and Hamas - the US has no plans of taking diplomatic actions against Syria. Diplomatic sources who have dealt with the issue said last week that the administration had no intention of initiating international sanctions against the regime of Bashar Assad and that it was unlikely that the president would use the "menu" of sanctions, offered to him by congress, in order to increase US sanctions against Syria. The prevailing notion in the administration is, according to the sources, that diplomatic action against Syria needs international support, which will be easier to obtain on the issue of the Hariri assassination rather on that of the Hamas offices. The Hariri murder investigation is still going on and it is not yet clear when the new investigator, Serge Brammertz, will submit his final report. Scott Lasensky, a senior research associate at the US Institute of Peace - a Washington-based think tank - said last week that the providing of assistance to Hamas by Syria was only one item on the American agenda concerning Bashar Assad's regime. "You can't accuse the US of being indifferent on the Hamas issue," said Lasensky, who recently returned from a fact-finding mission to Syria, "but there is a diverse agenda of issues and Hamas has to share some space with other concerns the US has." These concerns consist of the Syrian role in Lebanon, the refusal of the Syrian regime to stop the flow of insurgents through its borders into Iraq and its ties to Iran that might complicate international effort to pressure Teheran on the nuclear issue. Meanwhile, in reaction to sanctions already imposed by the US on Damascus, Syrian officials declared that their country would now "turn east" and work to deepen its economic, trade and diplomatic ties with east-Asian countries including China and Malaysia. At the same time, there is an effort to improve Syria's public image within the US. Syrian minister of expatriates Butheina Shaaban visited Washington last month and said she was negotiating with American think tanks to create programs that will reflect the views of Syria in the American arena.