Bush imposes minimum sanctions on Syria

Wednesday, May 12, 2004

WASHINGTON President George Bush has imposed what has been termed symbolic sanctions on Syria.

Bush imposed the minimum amount of sanctions stipulated by the Syrian Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act. The president authorized the maintenance of the current level of diplomatic relations as well as energy, aircraft and telecommunications trade with Syria in a move that would not significantly harm business ties between Damascus and Washington.

"It was a long time coming," Rep. Eliot Engel, a New York Democrat who cosponsored the legislation, said. "But it is better late than never. To me, it's only the beginning."

Under the sanctions announced by Bush, the United States will not export any item on the U.S. Munitions List or on the Commerce Control List, Middle East Newsline reported. The Munitions List includes weapons, defensive systems and ammunition, while the Commerce Control List comprises such dual-use items as chemicals, nuclear technology, propulsion equipment and lasers.

Officials said the sanctions imposed by Bush do not restrict the movement of Syrian diplomats in the United States. Moreover, the measures do not reduce diplomatic contacts between Damascus and Washington or threaten U.S. energy projects in Syria.

Officials acknowledged that most if not all of this equipment has long been withheld from Syria under the provisions of being designated a terrorist sponsor by the State Department. They said that over the last three years the United States has opposed the export of military and dual-use equipment by NATO allies to Syria.

At the same time, Bush waived sanctions on other dual-use components as well as food and medicine, which provide the bulk of the $214 million in U.S. exports to Damascus. The waiver would allow the export of aircraft parts and components for flight safety as part of an effort to "promote the exchange of information," an apparent reference to the U.S.-Syrian dialogue on Al Qaida.

"It is important to U.S. national security interests that aviation-related sanctions take into account humanitarian and diplomatic concerns as well as the international obligations of the United States," Bush said.

The administration also waived sanctions on the export of telecommunications equipment and related products. Bush said this would include unspecified software and technology as well as "certain exports and reexports of a temporary nature."

The U.S. sanctions does not suspend U.S. energy projects in Syria.

Officials said Chevron, ConocoPhillips and other U.S. companies would be allowed to continue activities in Syria although they would require non-U.S. suppliers to service operations. Officials said the sanctions would not halt U.S. oil imports from Syria, reported at $259 million in 2003.

Bush also banned the landing of any air carrier owned or controlled by Syria, with the exception of those chartered for official business. Syria does not fly passenger jets to the United States.

"The president will consider additional sanctions against the government of Syria if it does not take serious and concrete steps to cease its support for terrorist groups, terminate its weapons of mass destruction programs, withdraw its troops from Lebanon, and cooperate fully with the international community in promoting the stabilization and reconstruction of Iraq," a White House statement said.

The sanctions also prohibited links with Syrians who help Syria's military or security presence in Lebanon, Syria's weapons of mass destruction and missile programs and Syria's efforts to undermine the U.S. military in Iraq. The measure also called for a freeze of the assets of Syrian nationals involved in these activities.

In a measure required by the Patriot Act, Bush also ordered U.S. financial institutions to restrict ties with the Commercial Bank of Syria. Officials said the Syrian bank was believed to have been laundering money for drug traffickers, Saddam loyalists as well as groups deemed as terrorists.

Under the sanctions legislation, signed into law by Bush in December 2003, the president was required to ban the export of items on the U.S. Munitions List and Commerce Control List. Another section of the law required Bush to choose at least two of six sanctions options.

Bush, who selected two sanctions, dismissed an option to limit the movement of Syrian diplomats to within a 25-mile radius of their posting in the United States. He also refused to reduce U.S. diplomatic contacts with Syria.

[In an unrelated development, Syrian President Bashar Assad has decided to retire Defense Minister Mustafa Tlas. Arab diplomatic sources said Tlas, the longest-serving defense minister in the Arab world, will be replaced by Turkish Chief of Staff Gen. Hassan Turkmani. Special Forces commander Gen. Ali Habib, Turkmani's deputy, was designated as the new chief of staff.]

The administration determined that the Syrian government has provided safe haven to Hizbullah and Palestinian groups deemed terrorists and continued to maintain a military presence in Lebanon. Syria was also deemed as having one of the most advanced chemical weapons capabilities in the Arab world and has developed an offensive biological weapons capability.

"In addition, Syria maintains an inventory of Scud and SS-21 short-range ballistic missiles, and is believed to have chemical warheads available for a portion of its Scud missile force," the White House statement said.

The statement said Syria has failed to cooperate with the United States regarding the war in Iraq. The White House said Syria sent military supplies to the Saddam Hussein regime on the eve of the U.S.-led war in Iraq in March 2003. In all, the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad earned about $3 billion in illicit trade with Iraq in violation of United Nations sanctions.

Syria has taken steps to close its border with Iraq, the statement said, but Syria remains a "preferred transit point for foreign fighters into Iraq." Damascus was also said to have refused to return about $200 million in frozen Iraqi assets to the new interim government in Baghdad.

Officials said the State Department lifted its objections to U.S. sanctions on Syria in late 2003 after nearly a year of efforts to change Syrian policy. They said Secretary of State Colin Powell concluded that Syria would not end its support for groups deemed as terrorists or cooperate with the United States on Iraq.

"We would still hope that Syria would look at the situation, look at the region around it, stop supporting terrorist groups and adapt its policies to be a stable and harmonious member of that region," Boucher said. "That is something we'll continue to pursue."

Copyright 2004 East West Services, Inc.

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