- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 17, 2004

The Bush administration is poised to impose a wave of new sanctions on Syria for its continued support of terrorism and its unconventional-weapons programs, but Syria’s new envoy to Washington warned that the measures will only end up hurting U.S. interests in the region.

A White House interagency group met Tuesday and yesterday to discuss what measures to take against Syria, in light of the overwhelming vote in Congress in November for a bill mandating new sanctions against Damascus if it did not change its behavior on a range of issues.

“We haven’t seen those actions” from Syria, State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said yesterday, “… so expect a decision soon.”

The sanctions would mark a further souring of relations with Syria that have been strained by Damascus’ past support of anti-Israeli terrorist groups and by the sharp opposition of the government of President Bashar Assad to the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

Imad Zuhair Mustafa, named last month as the new Syrian ambassador to Washington, said yesterday that the sanctions law was a triumph for hard-line American Jewish lobbying groups and that it would harm the U.S. role as an “honest broker” in the Middle East.

“This law is the embodiment of how a special interest group has succeeded in making U.S. foreign policy hostage to its own interests,” Mr. Mustafa told a forum at the National Press Club.

With only about $300 million in annual trade with the United States, the Syrian diplomat said, new economic sanctions would not hurt his country economically. But he said it would further damage Syria’s political standing here and make U.S. public diplomacy across the Arab world that much harder.

“It is certainly not useful for us in the United States to be portrayed as a pariah nation,” he said.

The Syrian Accountability Act requires Mr. Bush to ban trade in a wide range of “dual-use” items that could have military uses until he can assert that Syria has dropped its support for terrorist groups; withdrawn its forces stationed in neighboring Lebanon; ended its chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs; and cooperated with the U.S.-led force in Iraq on border issues.

The law also requires Mr. Bush to impose at least two new economic or diplomatic sanctions on Syria. Reuters news agency, citing congressional sources, reported yesterday that the administration is leaning toward a ban on future U.S. investments in Syria’s oil and energy sector, while allowing existing business contracts to move forward.

Other sanctions under consideration include limits on Syrian airline flights within the United States, reduced diplomatic contacts, and a freeze on Syrian assets in U.S. financial institutions.

Mr. Ereli also criticized Damascus for its handling of protests in recent days in Lebanon and among ethnic Kurds in Syria’s northern territories. Violent clashes between Syrian Kurds and Arabs backed by government security forces in recent days have resulted in nearly three dozen deaths, according to Kurdish and Syrian officials.

“We reiterate our call upon the government of Syria to stop suppressing nonviolent political expression in Syria and Lebanon,” Mr. Ereli said.

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