House committee approves Syrian sanctions bill

Thursday, October 9, 2003

The House of Representatives is preparing to approve legislation that would impose a virtual embargo on Syria in a plan endorsed by the Bush administration.

By a vote of 33 to 2, the House International Relations Committee approved the Syrian Accountability Act in what congressional sources said reflects growing U.S. frustration with Damascus for failing to revise its policies in wake of the destruction of its Iraqi ally in March. The vote on Wednesday was held after the Bush administration quietly relayed that it would endorse the legislation.

The administration warned the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad as early as May that Congress was planning to impose sanctions on Syria, Middle East Newsline reported. The bill calls for a virtual trade embargo on Syria unless it launches a series of measures. They include the cessation of Syria's weapons of mass destruction programs, the harboring of groups deemed as terrorists and the occupation of neighboring Lebanon.

The full House plans to pass the Syrian Accountability Act on Monday, congressional sources said. This will be followed by hearings at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee later in October.

"I think for the first time the Congress is saying 'enough is enough,'" Rep. Eliot Engel, a New York Democrat and a leading co-sponsor of the legislation, said. "We're fighting the war on terror, and here is a country in my opinion that has a worse record on terror than even Iraq."

Syria has been the only of seven countries on the State Department list of terrorist sponsors with which the United States maintains full diplomatic relations. Congressional sources said Damascus has also been the only terrorist sponsor that received an unspecified amount of U.S. military and security aid. They said the aid was limited to training.

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The House legislation would require the U.S. president to select two measures from a list of sanctions. They include barring all exports to and investment in Syria, except for food and medicine; freezing Syrian government assets in the United States; banning Syrian aircraft from U.S. air space; reducing diplomatic contacts with Damascus; and banning Syrian diplomats from traveling more than 25 miles [40 kilometers] outside of Washington or the United Nations headquarters in New York. The sanctions could be waived for reasons of national security.

The sources said Assad first relayed a pledge to close down Islamic insurgency groups in Damascus, but never fulfilled his commitment.

"We had told the Syrians that this type of move was likely, that we expected to see it," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said. "There's no particular reason or facts that one could go back to the Congress with and say, 'This is a bad idea.'"

Last week, the sources said, the White House informed House Majority Leader Rep. Tom DeLay that Bush would not oppose the bill. DeLay, who was briefed on Syria by Israeli government officials in August, had refused to move the legislation out of the House International Relations Committee until it received White House support.

"The current Syrian regime just isn't an ally in the war on terror," DeLay said. "It's time Congress started identifying the initial consequences for Syria's hostility."

The leading lobbyist against sanctions, the sources said, was the CIA.

CIA director George Tenet was said to have argued that Syria has been prepared to cooperate with the United States on information regarding Al Qaida plots and the whereabouts of insurgents.

"We have talked to some of those leaders who are working on this issue, and we have expressed that we are not opposed to this bill," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said. "But of course, we would like to see the final language before moving forward on that."

The legislation could end U.S. energy projects in Syria. Last month, House subcommittee chairman Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen asserted that American companies continue to sign what she termed were multibillion-dollar deals to invest in Syria's oil and gas sector.

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