- The Washington Times - Monday, March 1, 2004

More than 2 months after President Bush signed a bill permitting sanctions against Syria for its support of terrorist groups, administration officials still are debating what penalties — if any — to apply to the Arab nation.

There is growing pressure from Congress for a tough stand from the administration, with Republicans and Democrats imploring Mr. Bush not to waive the sanctions. The Bush administration had insisted on having the option of a waiver as a condition for supporting the bill.

A waiver “would send the wrong signal” to Syrian President Bashar Assad and the “terrorists who find safe haven within Syria’s borders,” Sens. Rick Santorum, Pennsylvania Republican, and Barbara Boxer, California Democrat, said in a recent letter to Secretary of State Colin L. Powell.

But some U.S. officials have been concerned that sanctions could worsen ties with Syria, which has cooperated with the United States in the fight against Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda terrorist network.

“The administration doesn’t want to lose that link. It’s been very productive,” said Richard Murphy, a Middle East analyst with the Council on Foreign Relations who was ambassador to Syria in the 1970s.

A congressional aide who closely follows the issue said the administration has indicated that sanctions are not likely to be waived.

But differences remain within the administration about how to proceed, said the aide and a nongovernmental source who has had contact with the administration on the sanctions. Elliot Abrams, who leads the Near East desk at the White House’s National Security Council, favors tougher sanctions, and the State Department’s Near East bureau favors lower-level penalties, they said.

A State Department official said the differences are “not as vicious a tug of war as some would like to make it out,” but rather an exchange of viewpoints about the best options to present to Mr. Bush. The official denied that the United States is delaying a decision to gain leverage in efforts to get Syria to act against terrorist groups.

Syria is on the State Department’s list of terror-sponsoring nations for supporting Hamas and Hezbollah, groups responsible for attacks against Israel.

U.S. officials also have criticized Syria for not doing enough to secure its border with Iraq. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told reporters in Baghdad last week that Syria and Iran are allowing anti-U.S. fighters into Iraq.

“We are not getting good cooperation,” he said.

The bill, which Mr. Bush signed Dec. 12, would ban the exports of “dual-use” items that could have military applications and instructs the president to choose at least two of six possible sanctions. The options include banning overall exports to Syria, prohibiting U.S. business investment in the country and freezing Syrian assets.

At a Feb. 11 hearing of the House International Relations Committee, Mr. Powell said the administration was examining the options provided in the bill “to see how to use the lever.”

Asked by the bill’s author, Rep. Eliot L. Engel, New York Democrat, whether the act would be implemented within a couple of weeks, Mr. Powell said, “I don’t think it’s any longer than that. I don’t think I can be any more precise than that, but it’s in the near future.”

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