The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Syria springs arms treaty trap on Israel

Sydney, April 16 (Reuters): Syrian foreign minister Farouq al-Shara has said his government is willing to sign a treaty making the entire West Asia free of weapons of mass destruction.

Syria also said it was willing to cooperate with the US in the interest of Iraqis but would not close the offices of militant Palestinian groups, one of Washington’s long-standing demands.

“Syria will always cooperate in things that serve the Iraqi people's interests,” foreign ministry spokesperson Buthaina Shaaban said.

In an interview with Australian SBS television broadcast today, Shara vigorously denied US allegations that Syria had chemical weapons or had allowed Iraq to hide banned weapons on its soil during the Iraq war.

“The Syrian government is ready to sign a treaty under UN supervision to make the whole West Asia a zone free from all mass destruction weapons, nuclear, chemical and biological,” he told SBS in Damascus.

Since the fall of the government of President Saddam Hussein after the US invasion of Iraq, Washington has begun to turn its rhetorical guns on Damascus, accusing Syria of harbouring Saddam’s allies and of developing chemical weapons.

Arab diplomats at the UN said US ally Israel was the only country in West Asia with weapons of mass destruction and added they would seek a UN Security Council resolution declaring the region free of such deadly arms. A foreign ministry spokesman in Damascus said Syria was ready to propose such a resolution.

Israel is believed to have around 200 nuclear warheads not subject to any international monitoring regime.

US secretary of state Colin Powell said yesterday the US favoured a West Asia free of weapons of mass destruction but linked any possible inspection of Israel’s arsenal to peace with Syria and Lebanon.

“It is better for the Americans, for the Israelis, for every citizen on earth, especially in West Asia, and it is good for the American forces in Iraq, to see that the whole West Asia is a zone free from all mass destruction weapons,” Shara said.

“Also it is very useful to see this taking place because in this case no terrorist, as the Americans say and some Europeans say, no terrorists can have these mass destruction weapons with them.”

Shara denied Syria, a staunch opponent of the US war on Iraq, had hidden any Iraqi weapons. “If Saddam Hussein had mass destruction weapons for so many years, as they say, he would keep them for the war,” he said.

“Why should they smuggle or send them outside the country during the war'”

Israel, taking advantage of the US pressure on its hostile neighbour, said this week it wanted Syria to stop the militant Palestinian groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad from using Damascus as their headquarters.

Spokesperson Shaaban said that Damascus saw these as press offices and disagreed with the “terror” group label given to them by the US and Israel. “They are media offices, they only have the freedom of expression, which I think is ensured in the United States as well,” she said.

Iran appeal

Iran’s President Mohammad Khatami called on the US today to stop threatening Syria but said a US military attack on Iraq’s western neighbour was unlikely.

“Our advice to the Americans is to abandon such threats,” Khatami said after a Cabinet meeting.

“We reject US threats and allegations about ourselves, and I think the same goes with Syria”.

Toning down Washington’s sharp rhetoric of late toward Syria, US secretary of state Colin Powell said yesterday there was “no war plan” to attack Syria or Iran.

Khatami argued that “Syria is different from Iraq.” “We’ve always had friendly ties with Syria and we hope to cooperate with Syria to establish peace ... in the region,” he added.

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