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US House Approves Bill on Sanctions for Syria - 2003-10-16

Legislation that would require President Bush to impose sanctions on the government of Syria has been overwhelmingly approved (398-5) Wednesday by the House of Representatives. The "Syria Accountability Act" will be debated later this month in the Senate where it also have strong bipartisan support.

After initially opposing the legislation, saying Syria was providing valuable help in the war on terror, the Bush administration dropped its opposition amid growing criticism of Syria on Capitol Hill.

House majority leader Republican Congressman Tom DeLay played a key role in bringing about that change in the administration's position. In this statement on the House floor, he reflected congressional frustration with Damascus. "We have tried everything. The president has tried everything. But despite every olive branch and carrot that we have offered, Syria has chosen to side with the terrorists," he says. "Therefore, we in the House have no choice but to begin identifying ways to change their leaders minds."

Under the legislation, which still must be approved by the Senate and signed by the President, Syria would face a range of possible sanctions. These include a prohibition on U.S. exports to and investment in Syria, freezing of Syrian government assets in the United States, and reducing diplomatic contacts with Damascus.

Syria could avoid these steps if it ends support for armed fighters in Iraq, withdraws troops from Lebanon, ends production or procurement of weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles, and shuts down offices of terrorist groups in Damascus.

Democrats and Republicans rose to say Syria has failed to recognize what they called a new reality in the Middle East. All mentioned Syrian support for Palestinian terrorist groups staging attacks in Israel.

Republican Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen said Syria had a "clear choice" in the war on terror, but decided to come down on the wrong side. "Syria continues to harbor Hezbollah, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, the PFLP-GC, and Hamas, including permitting the operation of offices and terrorist camps in Syrian territory and in Syrian-occupied Lebanon," she says.

When the bill was debated at committee level, some lawmakers argued that it would weaken U.S. leverage with Damascus. However, by the time it passed the House it had overwhelming support from Democrats and Republicans.

Mr. DeLay said that should send an unmistakable message to Syria. " We will send a very clear message to President Assad and his fellow travelers along the "axis of evil." The United States will not tolerate terrorism, its perpretrators or its sponsors," he says. "And our warnings are not to be ignored."

The White House has said it is waiting to see the final language of the Syria Accountability Act once it emerges from Congress. But the administration is clearly on board now in support of the legislation, a White House spokesman saying again just last week that Syria "remains on the wrong side of the war on terror."