DAMASCUS, SEPT. 6 -- In the first visit by a European Community official since the lifting of an EC travel ban to this country in July, Commissioner Claude Cheysson said today that relations between Syria and the EC are returning to normal and may soon include major new credit agreements.
In an interview, Cheysson also endorsed the return here last week of U.S. Ambassador William L. Eagleton and said that Britain's lack of relations with Syria was "certainly a handicap for British foreign policy."
The downgrading of relations with Syria in the past year by European countries and the United States -- including the ban on travel by high-level EC officials -- had resulted from evidence of Syrian links with international terrorism. The Cheysson visit represents a major step toward the normalization of relations between Syria and the West.
Cheysson arrived here Friday and met today with President Hafez Assad. In previous meetings with Foreign Minister Farouk Charaa as well as the ministers of economy and planning, he discussed the specifics of new credit agreements that would cover food self-sufficiency programs, irrigation, power supply and industrial rehabilitation.
Cheysson said the amount of the new financial agreements had not been determined, but sources in Damascus put the figure at about $450 million. The EC had interrupted the flow of its funds to Syria after Syria fell behind in payments owed Europe, but took up its previous agreements after Syria settled its arrears.
With Eagleton's return to Damascus -- a move U.S. officials say was prompted by the closing of offices of a terrorist group led by Abu Nidal -- the visit of the Greek foreign minister last week and Cheysson's three-day trip to Damascus, it appeared that Syria was emerging from its diplomatic and economic isolation.
Last month West Germany unblocked about $125 million in economic aid to Syria. Cheysson noted that a ban on arms sales by the 12 EC members to Syria was still in effect.
Britain severed diplomatic relations with Syria last October after testimony in the trial of Nizar Hindawi, convicted of the attempted bombing of an Israeli El Al airliner in April 1986, linked him to Syrian intelligence officials. Washington recalled its ambassador and imposed economic sanctions in solidarity with the British, while the West Germans delayed replacing their outgoing ambassador until June this year.
Well-informed European sources said that although the British have not objected to the resumption of high-level visits to Syria by EC members, they made it clear in the past that they do "not consider it appropriate to offer more aid."
Cheysson said he did not think Britain would block new financial agreements with Syria but western diplomats here predicted that Britain would not easily restore its own diplomatic relations with Syria. "Before coming back, the British need a more substantial kind of concession from the Syrians," one commented.