- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 8, 2003

The United States took steps toward imposing sanctions on Syria yesterday, with the Bush administration dropping its opposition and a key House panel voting to penalize the Arab nation until it expels terrorists and limits its weapons programs.

The House International Relations Committee passed the bill on a 33-2 vote, and lawmakers said that with the White House no longer objecting to the bill, it has a strong chance of becoming law.

“I think for the first time the Congress is saying enough is enough,” said Rep. Eliot L. Engel, New York Democrat and one of the chief sponsors of the bill. “We’re fighting the war on terror, and here is a country in my opinion that has a worse record on terror than even Iraq.”

The measure prevents sales of “dual-use” technology to Syria. It also requires that the president impose two other sanctions of his choice from among a list that includes prohibiting trade other than food or medicine, restricting diplomatic contacts, preventing Syrian airlines from entering U.S. airspace and prohibiting U.S. firms from operating in Syria.

To lift the sanctions, the president must certify that Syria has expelled terrorists, withdrawn troops from Lebanon, ended its missile and chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs, and ceased supporting insurgents in Iraq.

Alternately, the president can waive the sanctions if he deems it in U.S. security interests, but he cannot waive the prohibition on selling dual-use items.

U.S. trade with Syria is relatively small. Syria imports about $275 million in goods from the United States, and exports about $150 million to America. But lawmakers said the goal is to show Syria that after so many years, actions have consequences.

“The current Syrian regime just isn’t an ally in the war on terror,” said House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Texas Republican, in a statement. “It’s time Congress started identifying the initial consequences for Syria’s hostility.”

The Bush administration, which had opposed the bill for fear it would limit the president’s foreign-policy options, yesterday announced at both the White House and the State Department that it has dropped its objection.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Secretary of State Colin L. Powell bluntly warned Syrian President Bashar Assad during a visit in May that there was growing sentiment in Congress for punitive action against Damascus over Syria’s continuing support of terrorist groups targeting Israel.

“We had told the Syrians that this type of move was likely, that we expected to see it,” Mr. Boucher said.

“And frankly, the Syrians have done so little with regard to terrorism that we don’t have a lot to work with,” he said. “There’s no particular reason or facts that one could go back to the Congress with and say, ‘This is a bad idea.’”

Mr. Boucher said the State Department will still have to review the final version of the bill if and when it is presented to the full House. But Rep. Tom Lantos, California Democrat and ranking member on the committee, said dropping its objection was an implicit endorsement from the administration.

One House source said the administration notified lawmakers Oct. 3 — before last weekend’s Palestinian suicide bombing that killed 19 Israelis and Israel’s retaliatory air strikes on a terrorist training camp in Syria — that it no longer opposed the bill.

U.S. intelligence officials have determined that the Syrian camp bombed by Israel over the weekend was recently in use.

The House source said the “final straw” for the administration seemed to be when Syria offered a resolution at the United Nations three weeks ago to demand Israel halt its attempts to expel Yasser Arafat. The United States exercised its veto to prevent the resolution from passing.

Congressional members predicted certain passage of the bill, pointing to the more than 280 sponsors of in the House and 75 sponsors in the Senate.

“The only thing preventing the bill from being passed in the Congress, in my estimation, was the administration’s opposition,” Mr. Engel said. “Once they withdrew that opposition we had such broad support … I knew the bill would sail.”

Sen. Richard G. Lugar, Indiana Republican and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has not taken a position on the bill. The committee will hold a hearing later this month on foreign policy toward Syria, and the bill will be part of that hearing, a spokesman said.

The Syrian Embassy did not return a call for comment, but Mr. Assad, in an interview with Al-Hayat newspaper published Tuesday, rejected U.S. demands.

“They are asking us to give up the [weapons of mass destruction]. But when we call for removing all the WMDs from the region, they refuse,” he said.

He also disagreed on the issue of expelling leaders of terrorist organizations.

“These people did not break Syrian laws, did not harm Syrian interests and are not terrorists in the first place,” he said.

The two committee members who voted against the bill yesterday were Republicans: Rep. Jeff Flake of Arizona and Rep. Ron Paul of Texas.

Mr. Paul said the bill seems to set the stage for another international entanglement and eventual nation-building exercise, much like Iraq and Afghanistan.

“It just looks like we’re looking for more trouble,” Mr. Paul said.

Mr. Flake said he doesn’t support Syria but thinks sanctions are ineffective.

“The history of unilateral economic sanctions is not encouraging. I’d rather increase, not diminish, the president’s flexibility to respond to Syria,” Mr. Flake said.

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