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EU Lifts Ban On Arms to Syria, Irking Israel

Some say Assad's bargaining stance could harden; military balance not likely to shift

A EUROPEAN Union decision to lift its eight-year-old arms embargo on Syria has more to do with sending a positive political signal to Syrian President Hafez al-Assad than changing the balance of military power in the Middle East.

But there is growing concern in some diplomatic and political circles that the decision Monday by the EU to lift its arms embargo against Syria could send the wrong signal to the Syrian president, who appears to have dug in his heels against making further compromises in US-sponsored talks between Damascus and Tel Aviv aimed at a comprehensive Middle East peace.

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``This move could lead to a hardening of Syria's position,'' said Moshe Maoz, director of the Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

The EU decision was taken on the eve of a visit next week to Israel and Syria by United States Secretary of State Warren Christopher. In Washington, US officials responded cautiously to the EU move, which is in conflict with US policy.

``We maintain that our sanctions against Syria are justified, and we see no justification for lifting them,'' said one US official.

``We have made our view clear to the Europeans,'' the official said, declining to criticize the EU decision made at a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels Monday. But EU officials pointed out that member countries had agreed to exercise ``restraint'' in supplying arms to Syria.

The decision has angered Israel and left analysts divided over whether it will hinder - or speed up - negotiations for a peace accord between Syria and Israel.

``It is more symbolic than tangible,'' the US official said. ``But it is also a signal from the EU that it is also in the Middle East business. It could be designed to put pressure on both Israel and the United States,'' Mr. Maoz said, pointing out that the EU move could be seen as undermining US policy of keeping Syria on its list of countries that gives support to terrorists.

Syria's ever-expanding and highly sophisticated Army presents a potential threat to Israel if Israel's alleged nuclear capability is discounted. Syria's massive military might includes 4,500 tanks; 12 fully fledged armored, mechanized, and infantry divisions; 36 commando batallions; and an impressive ground-to-air defense system. It also has chemical warheads and an advanced air force.

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The Israel Defense Force, while still impressive, has shrunk steadily in recent years due to financial constraints. Israel is demanding a substantial reduction in the size of the Syrian Army - and the dismantling of its Scud-C ground-to-ground missiles - as part of the price for peace with Israel.

Israel has stopped short of offering a total withdrawal from the Golan Heights in Syria, but is involved in detailed exchanges with Syria over the nature of a phased withdrawal. Israel wants to stretch a withdrawal over three years, while Syria wants it to take place within a year.

Military analysts said that the lifting of the embargo would have little immediate effect. But Syria, formerly supplied with arms by the Soviet Union, is likely to want to match Israel's military might. Syria is demanding a complete withdrawal of Israeli troops from the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel after the 1967 Arab-Israeli conflict.

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin told a meeting of Jewish settlers from the Golan Heights here Monday that negotiations with Syria could stall indefinitely if progress was not achieved by the end of 1995.

The EU embargo on Syria was imposed at Britain's request in 1986 after suspected Syrian involvement in a bid to smuggle explosives aboard an Israeli El Al airliner in London. EU officials in Brussels said that the decision to lift the embargo, suggested by Britain earlier this year, was to reward and encourage President Assad for moving toward a peace treaty with Israel and to normalize trade opportunities.

Despite a visit to Damascus by President Clinton last month, the peace talks remain bogged down over the period of an Israeli withdrawal and the timing of establishing diplomatic relations between the two countries.

President Clinton told Mr. Rabin at the White House last week that he would ask the US Congress to approve a US component for an international peacekeeping force in the Golan Heights to underwrite an accord. It has been estimated that the force could cost the US taxpayer $5 billion.

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