Senators join House in voting to tighten Syria sanctions

Wednesday, November 12, 2003

WASHINGTON -- The Senate voted for broad new economic and trade sanctions against Syria on Tuesday, citing a long history of sheltering terrorists and a recent failure to muzzle forces hostile to U.S. actions in Syria's neighbor, Iraq.

The Senate measure, passed 89-4, mirrors legislation the House passed last month by 398-4. The only difference was an amendment offered by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Dick Lugar, R-Ind., in conjunction with the Bush administration, that would give the president greater authority to waive sanctions for national security.

The White House, which generally opposes moves by Congress to restrict diplomatic options, has gone from opposing the Syria bill to accepting it as inevitable. The State Department already lists Syria among seven states accused of being sponsors of international terror, which imposes automatic sanctions.

Supporting terrorism

"We cannot have relationships with Syria and close our eyes to the truth, and the truth is that they are in fact supporting terrorism in ways that are very, very clear," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.

A group of U.S. lawmakers traveling in the Middle East met Tuesday with Syrian President Bashar Assad and told him the sanctions were to express U.S. frustration with countries that do not cooperate in the war on terrorism, said the delegation's leader, Rep. Jim Kolbe, R-Ariz.

Assad told the lawmakers that Syria is doing more to secure its border with Iraq and "does promise to continue to work with us on that," Kolbe said.

The United States has long complained that Syria gives sanctuary to leaders of Hamas and Islamic Jihad, two Palestinian groups designated as terrorist organizations by the State Department.

The bill states that Syria must end its support of terrorists, terminate its 27-year military presence in Lebanon, stop efforts to obtain or produce weapons of mass destruction and long-range ballistic missiles and interdict terrorists and weapons from entering Iraq.

If Syria should fail to meet those conditions, the president must ban sales of dual-use items, which are those that could have both civilian and military applications. He also must impose at least two out of a list of six possible sanctions: a ban on exports to Syria, prohibition of U.S. businesses' operating in Syria, restrictions on Syrian diplomats in the United States, limits on Syrian airline flights in the United States, reduction of diplomatic contacts or a freeze on Syrian assets.

The House-passed bill would give President Bush power to waive the two sanctions for national security reasons. The Senate bill would extend that waiver to include dual-use sales.

Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., a frequent visitor to Syria, said that while Syria has done too little in the war on terror, applying sanctions would be complicated because the Assad's government has provided information on al-Qaida and taken other actions to help the United States since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

"We ought to be mindful that there are opportunities to have frank discussions with Syrian officials, which have led to some beneficial results, and which ought to be pursued," he said.

Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., said he expected the House to approve the Senate bill and send it to the president for his signature. "I would urge the president to use these sanctions, and I would urge us to use all the means at our disposal to tighten the noose around the leadership, the dictatorship in Damascus," he said.

William Burns, assistant secretary of State for Near Eastern affairs, said at Senate hearings last month that, while "some quite significant problems" existed in U.S. relations with Syria, signs of progress have appeared.

He cited better efforts to secure the border with Iraq, better cooperation in searching for Iraqi frozen assets and Syrian support for the U.S.-sponsored U.N. Security Council resolution on Iraq.

Since the 1970s, the State Department has designated Syria as a state sponsor of terror, but it is the only nation on that list to have full diplomatic relations with the United States. New sanctions would have limited economic effect, since bilateral trade reaches only about $300 million a year.

The Syrian Embassy in Washington was closed Tuesday for Veterans Day, but at the time the House bill passed, Syrian diplomats warned the legislation would damage U.S. standing in the Middle East.

Voting against the bill were Sens. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I., Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., and James Jeffords, I-Vt.


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