The Obama administration has renewed economic sanctions against Syria despite its efforts at diplomatic outreach with the Damascus government.
Two senior U.S. envoys visited the Syrian capital this week. The State Department says the sanctions, first imposed by the Bush administration in 2004, are being extended for another year because of continuing U.S. concerns about Syrian behavior.
But officials here say the move does not mean the new administration is abandoning efforts at outreach in the hope of persuading the Damascus government to rein-in militant groups and be more supportive of regional peace efforts.
U.S. President Barack Obama signed an executive order extending the sanctions on Thursday, shortly after two administration envoys held talks in Damascus with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem.
Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Jeffrey Feltman and White House National Security Council Middle east Adviser Daniel Shapiro were paying their second visit to Syria in two months, as part of an administration overture that began in February when Syria's ambassador to Washington paid a visit to the State Department.
At a news briefing Friday, State Department Acting Spokesman Robert Wood stressed that in his executive order, the president had reaffirmed existing sanctions on Syria, but not imposed new ones.
He said while recent contacts with Damascus have been termed constructive, U.S. concerns about Syrian policies remain.
"I think this shows you we still have some very serious concerns about Syrian behavior and activity in the world," he said. "We've said to you before our concerns about what Syria is doing in Iraq, its support for terrorist groups. We've encouraged the Syrians to play a positive role in the Middle East. We're willing to engage them in a dialogue to try to address not only our concerns, but concerns that they may have."
Though the United States maintains diplomatic relations with Syria, that country has long been listed by the State Department as a state sponsor of terrorism - for, among other things, supporting Hezbollah militants in Lebanon and playing host to senior officials of the Palestinian group Hamas.
A 2003 act of Congress authorized the White House to impose a long list of possible sanctions against Syria, and former President George W. Bush enacted several of them including a broad ban on exports to Syria other than food and medicine, and barring Syrian airlines from operating in the United States.
Obama administration officials have said they hope Syria, which would benefit from improved economic links with the United States and Europe, can be persuaded to curb ties with Iran, and moderate its policies toward Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts.
However, at a Damascus meeting earlier this week, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad reaffirmed support for what they termed the "Palestinian resistance," and said their alliance is preventing big-power domination of the region.
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