WASHINGTON — Signaling a tough new U.S. stance toward Syria, the House on Wednesday delivered a stern warning to Damascus: Stop harboring terrorists or face economic and diplomatic sanctions.
The measure, which gained momentum after the White House dropped its objections, would impose economic and diplomatic penalties -- ranging from prohibiting U.S. exports to Syria except for food and medicine to restricting Syrian diplomats' travel in the United States -- unless President Bashar Assad's government changes its "irresponsible behavior."
The proposed Syrian Accountability Act was approved 398-4, a sign of growing U.S. frustration and anger over Syria's continued support for extremist groups, including Hezbollah, Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) called the bill "just the beginning."
"Congress will be watching Syria's every move," he said. "The United States will not tolerate terrorism, its perpetrators or its sponsors. And our warnings are not to be ignored."
Under the measure, sanctions would be imposed until Syria ceases its support of terrorist groups, halts its pursuit of biological and chemical weapons and withdraws its troops from Lebanon, where they have been since 1976.
The measure would require President Bush to choose two or more sanctions from a list that includes prohibiting U.S. businesses from investing in Syria, freezing Syrian government assets in the United States and barring Syrian aircraft from entering U.S. airspace. Some sanctions could be waived for national security reasons.
A similar measure, co-sponsored by three-fourths of the Senate, is expected to pass that chamber by the end of the year.
The action comes as relations between the two countries have grown more tense, in part because of Washington's accusations that Damascus has allowed fighters to pass through its territory to stage attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq.
Relations were further strained this month when Bush supported Israel after the Jewish state attacked what it said was a terrorist training camp inside Syria. The airstrike was launched in retaliation for an Islamic Jihad suicide bombing that killed 20 people, including the bomber, in an Israeli restaurant.
"Everyone's patience has run out," said Rep. Tom Lantos of San Mateo, the top Democrat on the House International Relations Committee.
All members of the California delegation -- except Reps. Mary Bono (R-Palm Springs) and George P. Radanovich (R-Mariposa), who were absent -- voted in favor of the bill
A Syrian government spokesman said the legislation would further damage America's image in the Arab world and hurt prospects for Middle East peace.
"It will cause lots of harm to the U.S.-Syrian mutual interests at a time when we still have a constructive dialogue between our two countries," said Imad Moustapha, Syria's charge d'affaires in Washington.
The Arab American Institute, a Washington research organization, opposed the sanctions bill, contending that it would weaken moderate forces in Syria seeking change. The National Foreign Trade Council, a business group advocating international trade, also questioned whether unilateral sanctions would be effective. The United States exported about $275 million in goods to Syria last year.
Syria has been one of six nations on a U.S. list of states sponsoring terrorism since the list's inception in 1979 -- making it ineligible for U.S. economic aid and arms sales.
"For too many years, inexplicably, our government has treated Syria better than it does other state sponsors of terrorism," Lantos said. "We have been allowing more trade with Syria, and we have maintained normal diplomatic ties. It is time for the special treatment to end."