Senate Tightens Sanctions On Syria

syria capitol
The Senate agreed to broad new economic and trade sanctions on Syria Tuesday, citing Syria's long history of sheltering terrorists and its more recent failure to muzzle forces hostile to U.S. actions in Iraq.

The Senate measure, passed 89-4, mirrors legislation the House of Representatives passed last month by 398-4. The only difference, an amendment offered by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Dick Lugar, with input from the Bush administration, gives the president greater authority to waive sanctions for national security reasons.

The White House, which in principle opposes moves by Congress to restrict diplomatic options in dealing with problematic relations, has gone from opposing the Syria bill to accepting it as inevitable.

"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.

A group of U.S. lawmakers traveling in the Middle East met Tuesday with Syrian President Bashar Assad and told him the sanctions were an expression of the frustration of Americans with countries that don't cooperate in the war on terrorism, said the delegation leader, Rep. Jim Kolbe.

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 for terrorism, terminate its 13-year military occupation of Lebanon, stop efforts to obtain or produce weapons of mass destruction and long-range ballistic missiles and stop terrorists and weapons from entering Iraq.

If it fails to meet those conditions, the president must ban sales of dual-use items -- items that could have military applications. He must also impose at least two out of a list of six possible sanctions: including an export ban, 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, a reduction of diplomatic contacts or a freeze on Syrian assets.

The House-passed bill gives the president the power to waive the two sanctions for national security reasons. The Senate bill extends that waiver to include dual-use sales.

Sen. Arlen Specter, a frequent visitor to Syria, said that while Syria hasn't done enough in the war on terrorism, applying sanctions was complicated because the Damascus government has provided information on al Qaeda and taken other actions to help the United States since the Sept. 11 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 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 there were "some quite significant problems" in U.S. relations with Syria, there were signs of progress.

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.

The State Department has since the 1970s designated Syria as a state sponsor of terrorism and 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 that the legislation would damage U.S. standing in the Middle East.

By Jim Abrams