Bush imposes export ban against Syria

The Associated Press

WASHINGTON -- President Bush banned all U.S. exports to Syria on Tuesday except for food and medicine, according to congressional offices briefed by the administration.

Bush signed an order imposing the sanctions, and an announcement was expected, the offices said.

The export ban and other measures against the Middle Eastern country follow long-standing complaints by the United States that Syria was supporting militant groups and failing to stop guerrillas from crossing the border into Iraq.

Trade between the United States and Syria totals about $300 million a year.

A State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said this week that exemptions would be made to allow sale of aircraft spare parts so that Syrian commercial planes are not endangered. Communications equipment also was to be exempted to help Syrians have access to outside information.

The White House briefed congressional offices on the measures, which also include a ban on flights to and from the United States; authorization to the Treasury Department to freeze assets of Syrian nationals and entities involved in terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, occupation of Lebanon and terror in Iraq; and restrictions on banking relations between U.S. banks and the Syrian national bank.

The sanctions go beyond minimum requirements of the Syria Accountability Act, which Bush signed into law in December. The law provides the basis for the steps Bush took Tuesday.

The president chose not to take other more drastic action under the Syria Accountability Act, such as economic sanctions that would have barred U.S. companies from doing business in the Middle Eastern country.

The act bars U.S. exports to Syria of dual-use items that could have military applications. It also required Bush to choose at least two of six possible economic or diplomatic sanctions. From the list, Bush chose the export ban and the prohibition on flights.

"President Bush did everything within his power to send a message through diplomatic channels that Syria should not support groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah, but it has continued to do so," said U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., chairwoman of the International Relations Middle East subcommittee.

The United States is sending "a loud and clear message to the leaders of Syria that we will no longer turn a blind eye to their transgressions," said Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y, who co-authored the legislation with Ros-Lehtinen. "The ball is now in Damascus' court."

Syria provided the United States with intelligence on al-Qaida after the Sept. 1, 2001, attacks. Though some U.S. officials have played down the importance of that, the cooperation probably discouraged the administration from imposing sanctions that would have reduced diplomatic contacts.

Despite its criticism of Syria, the Bush administration initially saw the legislation as a restraint on its diplomatic options. Even after a provision was included that enabled Bush to waive any penalties, the president demonstrated his lack of enthusiasm by signing the bill without any fanfare.