Fri, Oct 17, 2003 - Page 6 News List

US Congress gets tough with Syria, calls for sanctions


The House voted to impose sanctions on Syria, tightening the economic and diplomatic squeeze on a nation the US says is harboring terrorists and developing weapons of mass destruction.

"Diplomacy with the Syrian regime has failed miserably," said Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, chairwoman of the House International Relations Middle East subcommittee. "It is time to reinforce our words with concrete, tangible and punitive measures."

The House bill, passed 398-4 Wednesday, codifies some of the options the president already possesses to punish Syria, designated by the administration as a rogue state and a state sponsor of terrorism. It is also certain to further strain relations with Syria, which Washington says has done little to stop anti-American terrorists from entering Iraq and has aided terrorist groups carrying out violence against Israel.

The measure has strong support in the Senate. The White House, which in the past has regarded congressional action against Syria as unneeded and too confrontational, no longer opposes it.

Secretary of State Colin Powell said last week that he warned Syrian President Bashar Assad last May that Congress would step in if Syria didn't reverse its hostile policies.

"And we haven't seen the kind of action that we had hoped for, and we continue to see these horrible terrorist activities taking place," Powell said.

Washington has been unhappy with Syria's refusal to expel leaders of Islamic Jihad and Hamas, two Palestinian groups designated by the State Department as terrorist organizations. Bush defended the bombing earlier this month of a location near Damascus that Israel said was a training camp for Islamic Jihad.

"Syria is two-faced, throwing a few small bones of information to American sources while continuing to aid the most violent terrorist groups in the Middle East," said Representative Eliot Engel, the bill's chief sponsor.

The bill states that Syria must end its support for terrorism, remove its 20,000 troops in Lebanon, stop efforts to obtain weapons of mass destruction and long-range ballistic missiles and stop the illegal shipments of weapons to Iraq or oil from Iraq.

If it fails to do so, the president must impose two or more sanctions from a list of six, including an export ban, ban on US businesses operating in Syria, restrictions on Syrian diplomats in the US, exclusion of Syrian-owned aircraft from US airspace, a reduction of diplomatic contacts with Syria, or the freezing of Syrian assets in the US.

US-Syrian trade is minimal, about US$300 million a year, and the US already imposes sanctions in such areas as military sales because of Syria's status as a sponsor of terrorism. But the political repercussions from the bill would be considerable.

Imad Mustapha, charge d'affaires at the Syrian Embassy in Washington, said last week the legislation was a "blatant double standard" that would "damage US standing in the Middle East."

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