WASHINGTON // Barack Obama's decision to renew economic sanctions against Syria for an additional year have not changed the administration's goal of ultimately restoring diplomatic ties with Damascus, administration officials said yesterday. "The president is committed to principled and sustained engagement with Syria based on mutual interests," Mike Hammer, the spokesman for the White House's National Security Council, said in a statement to The National. "Communication with Syria enables us to clearly raise our concerns as we seek to advance US national security interests and find ways to make progress on a number of key issues where we differ."
His comments come a day after Mr Obama announced that the United States would continue to implement the wide-ranging US sanctions regime put in place by George W Bush in 2003. The sanctions ban US exports to Syria, except food and medicine for humanitarian purposes, and also bar transactions with Syria's commercial bank and commercial flights between the two countries, as well as restrict the movement of Syrian diplomats in the United States.
In a written message to Congress, Mr Obama pointed to the Syrian government's progress in suppressing the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq. But he cited continued concerns about Syria's missile programmes, its pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and the country's support of radical groups. The behaviour of the Syrian government, he said, poses "a continuing unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security, foreign policy, and economy of the United States".
"As we have communicated to the Syrian government directly, Syrian actions will determine whether this national emergency is renewed or terminated in the future," Mr Obama said. Analysts say it is difficult to measure the full economic impact of US sanctions on Syria. But Mona Yacoubian, an expert on Syria at the United States Institute of Peace, said sanctions have created an "air of uncertainty" about the Syrian economy that has spooked foreign investors.
"Sanctions certainly have a dampening impact at a time when the Syrians definitely need to grow their economy," she said, noting that certain economic sectors, such as the tourism and airline industries, have been disproportionately affected. The US restrictions, for example, ban Syria from importing spare parts to service its planes, which are made by the American company Boeing. Andrew Tabler, who specialises in US-Syrian relations at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, likewise said he believed the sanctions were having the desired effect.
"Why else would Damascus - touted as one of the world's hardest bargainers - now be asking Washington to lift them?" he said. "While they are unlikely on their own to bring the regime to its knees, sanctions, combined with a political track, can change the regime's calculations." In recent months, Syria has turned to other potential economic partners, including Saudi Arabia, a country with which it has had rocky relations. Such efforts could help it mitigate the impact of penalties imposed by the United States.
The Obama administration so far has taken a piecemeal approach to its engagement effort, and administration officials have stressed that there is no easy way to mend the fractured US-Syrian relationship. High-level US diplomats, including George Mitchell, the US special envoy to the Middle East, have taken part in at least nine meetings with their Syrian counterparts. In February, the White House named Robert Ford, a career diplomat, as its nominee to be its first US ambassador in Damascus since 2005, when suspected Syrian involvement in the assassination of Rafik Hariri, the Lebanese prime minister, disrupted relations.
Mr Ford's nomination, however, has run into stiff opposition on Capitol Hill, where legislators from both parties have worried that restoring an ambassador to Damascus will be perceived as a reward to Syria at a time when the country has done little change its policies. Opposition to US engagement intensified last month when Shimon Peres, the Israeli president, publicly accused Syria of supplying ballistic missiles to Hizbollah's military wing, a charge Syria denies. The acquisition of such weapons would enable Hizbollah to strike deep inside Israel.
Michele Dunne, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and editor of the Arab Reform Bulletin, a monthly online journal, said that given the mood in Congress Mr Obama's decision to renew the sanctions was not surprising. "I just don't think President Obama really had much of a choice to make here," she said. "There simply wasn't enough change in Syrian behaviour, particularly as regards terrorist organisations. There simply wasn't enough to merit lifting these sanctions."
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee last month approved the nomination of Mr Ford, a former ambassador to Algeria who has been serving as deputy chief of mission at the US Embassy in Baghdad. It remains unclear when - and if - the nomination will be taken up by the full Senate, which ultimately must confirm US ambassadors. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org