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Are US sanctions against Syria working?

17 February 10 12:53 GMT

As the US names its first ambassador to Syria in five years, the BBC's Lina Sinjab, in Damascus, examines the effect of US sanctions against the country.

Syria's national air carrier, Syrianair, now has just three aircraft that are safe to fly.

It is banned under US sanctions from importing spare parts to service its planes, which are made by the American company Boeing.

Sixteen aircraft have been taken out of service since the 1990s.

And Syrianair cannot even buy new planes from Airbus - which, although a European company, uses American components and so, too, is barred from selling to Syria.

'Hit hard'

The sanctions also affect the hi-tech sector.

Abdul Ghani Attar imports IBM computers into Syria and says the sanctions have hit his business "very hard".

"The sanctions affect laptops, software - technically none of these are allowed to be directly imported... we have to get all these products through a third country," he says.

The banking sector has also been affected by restrictions on some bank transfers and a specific bar on transactions with the country's commercial bank.

No breakthrough

But Sami Mubayyed, editor-in-chief of Forward Magazine, a publication that tends to toe the government line, believes that the restrictions have succeeded only in damaging the image of the US in Syria.

"These sanctions have failed politically to change Syria's behaviour or alliances, but have succeeded in other ways. They are very damaging to perceptions of America here."

There is no real shortage of small consumer goods, which are easily bought in third countries and brought back to Syria, but not everyone can afford them.

Some models of mobile phone can cost more than three times the price they would in the US, for example.

They are brought in from - or made by - countries other than the US.

The Obama administration, which has made efforts to engage diplomatically with Syria in contrast to the isolationist stance of President Bush, says it is trying to be more flexible by waiving the rules on the purchase of certain goods.

However, the bulk of the sanctions are enshrined in US law.

The current Congress is unlikely to lift them unless there is a breakthrough in relations between the two countries on the biggest issues that divide them - and that seems as far away as ever.

'Building bridges'

The US wants Syria to shift its alliances, especially with Iran, and its support of the Islamic militant groups Hezbollah and Hamas, whose leader Khaled Meshaal lives freely in Syria.

The Syrian government sees Hamas and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah as legitimate resistance movements against Israel.

The US labels them terrorists.

A chasm still exists between the two countries, but bridges are slowly being built after the isolation of the Bush years.

On Wednesday, the US named diplomat Robert Ford its first ambassador to Syria for five years.

And President Obama's Middle East envoy George Mitchell has visited three times in the past year.

But Peter Harling, regional director for the International Crisis Group, believes change will be slow to come.

"What I think needs to happen is continual engagement until they have a strong enough relationship to be able to cope with the crises that inevitably happen in this region," he says.

There is a deeply felt bitterness here towards the US over its support for Israel, resulting in an unwillingness to shift alliances and drop support for militant groups without guarantees of real progress towards the creation of a Palestinian state in return.

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