State Dept. reviews new law, weighs sanctions on Syria

Friday, February 13, 2004

WASHINGTON The State Department has pledged to review a new U.S. law to determine whether additional sanctions should be imposed on Syria.

The pledge came as members of the U.S. Congress are pressing the Bush administration to implement the Syria Accountability Act. The legislation, signed into law by President George Bush in December 2003, calls for a virtual trade embargo on Damascus.

"You have given us options within the act," Secretary of State Colin Powell said. "And we're in the process of examining those options now to see how to use the tools that you've given us."

Officials said the department's review would be submitted to the White House. The administration must decide by May whether the United States should impose new sanctions on Damascus under the Syrian Accountability Act.

In testimony to the House International Relations Committee on Wednesday, Powell was careful not to suggest that the administration would recommend additional sanctions. Under the law, the president has the authority to waiver sanctions on grounds of national security.

Powell said the department's review would be ready within the next few weeks. He did not elaborate.

Officials said the review includes the following questions: Do Islamic insurgency groups deemed as terrorists still operate in Damascus; are Syrian troops deployed in Lebanon; does Syria maintain support for Hizbullah; has Syria helped the United States in the war against Al Qaida and the war against Saddam Hussein, and has Syria reduced the scope of its weapons of mass destruction programs? At the same time, they said, Washington has pressed the European Union to deny Syria trade benefits until Damascus pledges to abandon WMD.

The Syria Accountability Act calls for additional sanctions on trade as well as restrictions on the movement of Syrian diplomats in the United States. The law said the new sanctions would be maintained until Syria ends its support for groups deemed by the State Department as terrorists, withdraws its troops from Lebanon and ends Syria's weapons of mass destruction programs.

Earlier, administration and congressional sources said the prospect of Bush approving significant sanctions on Syria appears low. They said the State Department has urged Washington to maintain current relations with Syria to ensure support for the U.S. effort to reconstruct Iraq, fight Al Qaida and maintain Middle East stability.

On Wednesday, several members of the House International Relations subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia proposed a resolution that expressed the "grave concern of Congress regarding the continuing gross violations of human rights and civil liberties of the Syrian people by the government of the Syrian Arab Republic." The resolution urges the Bush administration to support Syrian dissidents and human rights activists and press for the withdrawal of Syrian troops from Lebanon.

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