- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 24, 2002

To say that the White House could use a little help with its Middle East policy is surely not to divulge any state secrets. President Bush boldly called Secretary of State Colin Powell's trip to the Middle East a "success," but if we have more successes like that, we might as well lock the doors to the State Department and throw away the key.

Some members of Congress are now wondering whether a delegation of former U.S. presidents is not just the ticket. It is possible that Jimmy Carter, George Bush and Bill Clinton might do slightly better than the Three Stooges, though given that the Three Stooges are not actually available, we will never know that for a fact.

More substantial help is under way from members of Congress, however. Last Thursday, House Majority Leader Dick Armey and Rep. Eliot Engel introduced the Syria Accountability Act of 2002 (H.R. 4483). By calling for economic and diplomatic sanctions against Damascus, it gives the president a new weapon in his arsenal to pressure Syria to clean up its act.

The legislation, Mr. Armey said yesterday, "give the president the flexibility and the legislative instruments to use diplomatic encouragement for Syria. It conforms to the kinds of options available to the president with respect to other nations that he himself included in his definition of an 'evil axis.' Eliot and I felt very clearly that we were offering a bill that had congressional affirmation of the president's position."

There is no doubt that Syria could do much to ease the crisis between Israelis and Palestinians. Syrian President Bashar Assad demonstrated this last week, when he handed Mr. Powell the sole modest success of the secretary of state's entire Middle East trip by calling off Hezbollah guerrilla attacks in northern Israel from across the Lebanese border. Lebanon these days is a wholly owned subsidiary of Syria, which controls Hezbollah, and it also works closely with Iran on funding other terrorist groups, such as Hamas and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

"It has long irritated me that Syria has been a totally negative force, supporting terrorists, smuggling oil, occupying Lebanon, and yet when President Bush spoke of the 'axis of evil,' he failed to include Libya and Syria. I would have included both," says Mr. Engel.

There is much to commend in the bill, which is modeled on the Iran-Libya Sanctions Act (ILSA). It is, however, unlikely that the Syria bill will be as controversial as ILSA, which is despised by Europeans for seeking to interfere with their oil investments in Iran and Libya. After all, Syria is not a major oil producing country, just an oil smuggling one from Iraq. (In defiance of U.N. sanctions on Iraq, Syria receives an estimated 150,000-200,000 barrels of oil a year from Saddam Hussein.)

A companion bill (S. 2215) has been introduced in the Senate by Sens. Barbara Boxer and Rick Santorum. Despite the fact that the State Department's terrorism report describes Syria as a "safe haven and support to several terrorist groups," Syria has practically been given a pass as regards sanctions so far. That may be about to end.

The bill demands that Syria end its support for international terrorism, withdraw from Lebanon and restore its political independence, and stop acquiring weapons of mass destruction. Unless Syria complies, the bill mandates that the president apply at least two of the following sanctions: prohibit the export of U.S. goods except food to Syria; restrict the travels of Syrian diplomats in the United States; bar Syrian aircraft from landing in the United States; restrict diplomatic relations with Syria and/or block transactions involving Syrian property within the United States. This would be in addition to stopping unilateral and opposing multilateral assistance to Syria.

Even though the bill's authors worked closely with the Bush administration to accommodate their concerns, sources say they received phone calls from very high-level government officials hoping to kill the bill in the days before its introduction. There is clearly nervousness about the encroachment on executive branch foreign-policy prerogatives among the president's advisers, and also concerns about what it might do to the tenuous coalition against terrorism.

Furthermore, there is the fundamental question whether unilateral U.S. sanctions work at all. "You have to start somewhere," says Mr. Engel. "The European nations have not shown any backbone in dealing with terrorism, and I have no hope that they will. At least this will call attention to the issue."

Mr. Engel has a point here. With Syria's abysmal record as a sponsor of terrorist groups, the country is a coalition partner in name only. The "Syria Sanctions Act" may actually add some incentives for the Syrians to clean up their act and make clear whether they want to be "with us, not against us," as Mr. Bush likes to say.

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