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CAIRO, Nov 15 (Reuters) - Syria plans to strengthen economic ties with Asian and African countries to offset Western sanctions triggered by President Bashar al-Assad's crackdown on anti-government protesters, the country's economy and trade minister told an Egyptian newspaper.
Mohammad Nidal al-Shaar said the Syrian economy was bearing up well, with only European oil investments badly hit. But many analysts expect gross domestic product to decline this year, perhaps by several percent or more.
The eight-month crackdown has left more than 3,500 people dead, according to the United Nations. The United States and the European Union have imposed sanctions on Syria's oil industry and several state businesses in an effort to force Assad to halt the violence.
"Current investments in Syria have not been heavily affected by the events, except for European investments in oil," Shaar told Egyptian newspaper al-Alam al-Youm.
He said Syria was looking at boosting trade with countries that had not imposed sanctions.
"Syrian companies are already exporting to Asia," Shaar told the paper in an interview published on Tuesday.
"We have a lot of options ... including Mercosur (Latin American bloc) countries, Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Africa and some countries from southeast Asia."
Oil industry sources say oil majors Royal Dutch Shell and Total have slashed oil production in Syria because U.S. and EU sanctions have warded off normal buyers of Syrian crude, causing storage tanks to fill and forcing cuts in output.
The uprising against Assad, inspired by Arab revolts elsewhere, has also scared off tourists and investors in other industries. But Shaar said Syria was coping.
"Practically, U.S. sanctions have always been there and their effect will be limited," he said. "The Syrian economy has adapted to it."
The Arab League said on Saturday suspended Syria, which may pave the way for even tougher sanctions.
Shaar said Europe's non-oil sanctions only targeted the state-owned banking sector, and private-sector lenders and other industries were not affected.
"In light of the current crisis in Europe, such sanctions (on trade) will harm the European economy more than ours," he said.
However, figures published in Damascus this month showed Syria's main private banks saw customer withdrawals grow by hundreds of millions of dollars in the third quarter of the year. (Reporting By Tamim Elyan; Editing by Rosalind Russell)