State Dept. drops opposition to Syria sanctions

Friday, October 31, 2003

The State Department, in what has been called a change of policy, has decided to support the imposition of additional U.S. sanctions on Syria.

The State Department has relayed its approval for legislation by Congress that would impose a virtual trade embargo on Syria. The department's approval was expected to pave the way for quick passage of the Syria Accountability Act, passed by the House and now being considered by the Senate.

Syria has ignored numerous U.S. appeals for Iraqi cooperation as well as an end to support for groups deemed by the State Department as terrorists, Middle East Newsline reported.

"We face some real problems in Syrian behavior that we cannot afford to ignore," Assistant Secretary of State William Burns said. "Action on the Syria Accountability Act certainly makes clear the depth of congressional concern on these issues and the consequences of inaction by Syria."

On Thursday, Burns relayed the department's endorsement for Syrian sanctions in testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Burns said.

"We continue to hope for changes in Syrian behavior and we will continue to work hard to achieve them," Burns said. "But hope alone is not a reliable basis for policy, and the administration has recognized that the relevance of Syrian behavior right now will cause real problems for our interests as they have for years. And it was against that backdrop that the White House took the decision that we would not oppose passage of the Syria Accountability Act."

In July, the State Department expressed opposition to the Syria Accountability Act. At the time, officials maintained that fresh sanctions on the regime of President Bashar Assad would be counterproductive in such areas as Arab-Israeli peace efforts, Iraqi stabilization and the war against Al Qaida. Currently, the United States bans the sale of military equipment and most advanced dual-use technology to and military aid for Damascus.

In his testimony, Burns stressed that the United States hopes to reconcile with Syria. He said Damascus has cooperated in the U.S. search for former Iraqi regime assets in Syrian banks and the improvement of security along the Iraqi border. The assistant secretary also said Damascus has provided the United States with unspecified cooperation regarding Al Qadia.

"Syria has offered valuable cooperation against Al Qaida," Burns said.

"That is in both our interests, and we welcome it. That does not outweigh Syria's continued support for other terror groups. Groups such as Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad continue to operate out of Syria, directing and supporting attacks on innocent civilians in Israel and the occupied territories."

Despite support for the legislation, Burns did not guarantee that President George Bush would sign the Syria Accountability Act . The State Department official did not offer hope that U.S. sanctions would change Syrian policy and instead suggested that the Bush administration decided to support the legislation after the failure of more than two years of diplomatic efforts.

"I'm not sure there was an all-of-a-sudden decision [to support the Syria Accountability Act] as much as it is an accumulation of efforts on our part that didn't produce, haven't yet produced, all the results we want to see," Burns said.

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