Lawmakers fear Bush waiver will send wrong message to Syria

Monday, March 1, 2004

Members of the U.S. Congress have expressed concern that President George Bush will waive proposed sanctions against Syria.

House and Senate members have raised the prospect that the White House would either reduce mandated sanctions against Syria or waive them entirely in a review by the administration. Under the Syrian Accountability Act, Bush must report to Congress on whether Syria has violated the terms of the new law.

In February, two key Republican senators urged the administration not to waive sanctions under the law. In a Feb. 18 letter to Secretary of State Colin Powell, Senators Rick Santorum and Barbara Boxer said a waiver of the sanctions would send the wrong signal to Syrian President Bashar Assad and the "terrorists who find safe haven within Syria's borders."

"As you know, at the request of the administration, our bill was modified prior to passage in order to give the president maximum flexibility in waiving sanctions for reasons of U.S. national security," the letter said.

"While we supported this change, we hope the waiver authority is used judiciously and sparingly. Should the president use his authority to broadly waive the sanctions called for in the law, it would send the wrong signal to President Assad and the terrorists who find safe-haven within Syria's borders."

House members have also expressed concern that Powell would recommend that sanctions be waived. But House Republicans, however, said they could not envision that Bush would ignore the law at a time when leading members of his administration have failed to report any progress in U.S. relations with Syria.

"I am confident that President Bush will stand firm in his commitment to hold accountable anyone who houses a terrorist or encourages terrorism," Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, chairman of the House subcommittee on the Middle East and South Asia, said.

Some congressional members said the key issue is whether the White House will approve the harsh sanctions contained in the Syrian Accountability Act. They include a virtual U.S. trade embargo on Syria and the restriction of the movement of Syrian diplomats in the United States.

Elliot Abrams, director of the Near East desk of the National Security Council, was said to have argued for an array of tough sanctions against Syria. But the State Department has disagreed and wants lighter penalties.

"The State Department and Department of Defense are talking in different languages," former Defense Policy Board chairman Richard Perle, which advises the Pentagon, said. "For instance, while the Department of Defense is displaying a harsh reaction against Syria and Iran, the Secretary of State pays official visit to Syria. Now, it's time to reveal what in fact the foreign policy of the U.S. government is."

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