By  on May 5, 2010

GENEVA — The World Trade Organization gave the green light Tuesday for Syria to begin entry talks after the U.S. and Israel lifted objections that had blocked the Arab nation’s request, diplomatic sources said.

The decision by the WTO’s ruling General Council paves the way for a committee to be set up to negotiate Syria’s entry terms.

Syria, one of the 23 founding members in 1947 of the WTO predecessor, the General Agreement on Tariffs & Trade, or GATT, did not join the new global trade body when it was established in 1995. The nation, which has a population of 22 million, exports a considerable amount of textiles and apparel, with shipments in the two categories in 2008 worth $1 billion and $962 million, respectively, according to WTO data.

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Trade Representative said the decision to allow Syria’s request to join the WTO to move forward “is part of the administration’s overall strategy of engagement through which we seek to identify areas of commonality while seeking to bridge our differences.”

“We believe this decision will empower Syrians who want to reform their economy,” she said.

Diplomatic sources said the softening of the U.S. position is aimed in part at distancing Syria from the sphere of influence of Iran and to create conditions conducive to broker a peace deal with Middle East foe Israel.

The nod in the WTO came just a day after President Obama renewed economic sanctions on Syria, in place since May 2004, for another year, for continuing “support for terrorist organizations and pursuit of weapons of mass destruction and missile programs.”

Obama did note the Syrian government “had made some progress in suppressing foreign fighter networks infiltrating suicide bombers into Iraq.”

Syria’s ambassador, Fayal Hamoui, told delegates that his government is convinced that when Syria joins the WTO, it “would contribute to improving market access, and strengthening the multilateral trading system and the welfare of the people of Syria.”

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