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House Panel OKs Sanctions Against Syria

Measure reflects the United States' growing displeasure with Assad's alleged failure to promote Mideast peace and restrain terrorists.

October 09, 2003|Richard Simon | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — In a sign of deteriorating relations between the United States and Syria, a key congressional panel on Wednesday approved a measure calling for tough diplomatic and economic sanctions against Damascus unless it ceases its support of terrorists.

The measure gained momentum after the Bush administration dropped its objections last week. The House International Relations Committee's approval underscores the growing frustration on Capitol Hill and in the White House with Syrian President Bashar Assad's alleged failure to promote regional peace efforts, crack down on extremists or block terrorists from traveling through his country to launch attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq.

"We have repeatedly said that Syria is on the wrong side in the war on terrorism and that Syria needs to stop harboring terrorists," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said Wednesday.

The measure would authorize a range of sanctions unless Syria stops harboring terrorists. Among them are prohibitions on U.S. exports to Syria except food and medicine and blocking Syrian flights from landing in the U.S. The measure would require Syria to close the offices of such militant groups as Hamas and Islamic Jihad, withdraw its troops from Lebanon and halt the development of weapons of mass destruction.

"The time has come to hold Syria accountable for its actions," said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), one of the bill's sponsors. "The current Syrian regime just isn't an ally in the war on terror," added House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas).

With more than half the House sponsoring it, the bill is expected to easily pass the full House as early as next week. The White House has said it wants to wait to see the final language before deciding whether to sign the measure into law. In the Senate, a similar bill is sponsored by more than three-quarters of the members.

The committee's action comes days after Bush asserted Israel's right to defend itself against the "needless murder of innocent civilians" after an Israeli airstrike inside Syria, launched in retaliation for an Islamic Jihad suicide bombing that killed 20 people, including the bomber, in an Israeli restaurant Saturday.

Syria's ambassador to Spain said Wednesday that the Damascus government could respond with force if Israel carried out more attacks.

Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz said Israel does not want to increase tension. Israel "continues to hold Syria responsible for acts of terrorism conducted or sponsored from its midst," but Israel "is not looking for an escalation" of tensions, Mofaz said in a statement issued by the Israeli Cabinet.

Rep. Tom Lantos of San Mateo, the top Democrat on the International Relations Committee, said that a Syrian official visited him last week. Lantos declined to say what was discussed but described the Syrian position as "pretty appalling."

Experts disagreed on the potential impact of the sanctions.

Matthew A. Levitt, a senior fellow in terrorism studies at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said the legislation tells Syria, "We're serious."

"We've said a lot of the right things in the war on terrorism," he said. "Our rhetoric has been on target. Our follow-through has been less so."

But Richard W. Murphy, a former U.S. ambassador to Syria and Saudi Arabia, questioned whether sanctions exert sufficient pressure. "Either they are circumvented through smuggling or the country under sanctions finds other sources for the products which it had sought to buy from the U.S.," he said.

The administration had previously opposed the sanctions bill, contending that it could harm diplomatic efforts to foster Syria's cooperation in the war on terrorism and efforts to promote a resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Administration officials have said that Syria has provided help in tracking down Al Qaeda operatives, but Levitt contended that the cooperation was "limited at the time and is nonexistent now."

After repeatedly pressing Syria to do more and sending Secretary of State Colin L. Powell to Damascus this year, the administration dropped its opposition to the legislation.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Powell had made it clear to Assad that sanctions were possible "without some significant steps by Syria against activities of terrorist groups."

Syria has been on a State Department list of nations that sponsor terrorism; those listed are ineligible for U.S. economic aid or arms sales.

Under the measure, the president would be authorized to prohibit U.S. businesses from investing or operating in Syria, prohibit Syrian diplomats from traveling more than 25 miles beyond Washington and the United Nations and reduce U.S. diplomatic contacts with Syria. The legislation also gives the president the power to waive any sanctions for national security reasons.

Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas), who voted against the sanctions measure, said it would unnecessarily deepen resentment toward the United States in the Arab world.

"It just looks like we're looking for more trouble," he said.

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