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US Lawmakers Impatient With Syria

U.S. lawmakers are expressing impatience their with Syria's continuing support for terrorist groups, as well as its close links with Iran. A hearing examined the effectiveness of unilateral U.S. sanctions imposed on the Syrian government two years ago and a recent crackdown on Syrian political activists.

Two years ago, Congress approved the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act, aimed at stepping up pressure on the Syrian government.

The law directed the Bush administration to impose economic sanctions and other punitive measures, and was designed to help force Syria to end its decades-long occupation of Lebanon.

Steps included prohibiting most U.S. exports to Syria, restricting diplomatic contacts and blocking Syrian aircraft from the United States. However, the administration held off on implementing more severe steps that would have affected existing U.S. oil investments, and Congress gave the president the power to waive [not enforce] parts of the law for national security reasons.

But although Syria withdrew its military from Lebanon amid international pressure, Syrian officials are suspected of having had a hand in the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, although Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has denied this.

As Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen sees it, the government in Damascus has done nothing to address principal complaints the regarding its support of terrorism and weapons programs.

"Syria harbors Islamist terrorists at home and sponsors them abroad," said Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. "Syria also continues to allow Iran to use Damascus as a trans-shipment point to re-supply Hezbollah in Lebanon. Regrettably the Syrian-Iran alliance extends into other problematic areas, such as proliferation."

Syrian authorities have recently cracked down on prominent writers, political opponents and human rights activists.

A Syrian Human Rights group reported Wednesday that a military court sentenced writer Mohammed Ghanem to one year in prison, reduced to six months, on charges including insulting Syrian president Bashar Assad, and inciting sectarian divisions.

Farid Ghadry, who heads the U.S.-based exile Reform Party of Syria, says internal opposition to President Assad remains stifled, exile opposition divided, and U.S. policies inconsistent.

In addition to gathering international support, he advocates a stronger and highly visible stance by the Bush administration and Congress supporting democratic changes in Syria.

"To actually call for democracy and freedom for the Syrian people, to actually call [for] rescinding some of the laws, to lifting the emergency laws in Syria," said Farid Ghadry. "Then you would bring the Syrian people to your side. Once you do that, the pressure will be tremendously immense on the system."

Theodore Kattouf was U.S. Ambassador to Syria from 2001 to 2003.

"Many if not most Syrians would welcome a much more open and democratic society, and a leadership that while nationalistic, was far less oppressive," said Theodore Kattouf. "But my strong sense is that they also want change to be brought about through their own efforts and managed in a way that prevents sectarian bloodletting and even civil war."

As for the effectiveness of the Syria Accountability Act, lawmakers are concerned that the Bush administration has not moved with sufficient speed to implement the most punitive measures.

Congressman Eliot Engel says Syria continues to defy on other conditions in the law, such as ending support for terrorism, and stopping militants from entering Iraq. He says the Bush administration, which said it was waiting to gather support from other nations before implementing stronger measures, must act now.

"The delay I believe is no longer acceptable," said Eliot Engel. "The time has come to impose the full range of penalties envisioned in the act. And if we don't do it in conjunction with other countries, we should absolutely do it alone, right now."

However, David Schenker, a former Defense Department adviser and now Senior Fellow in Arab Politics at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says efforts by Congress and the administration to turn up the heat [on Damascus] have been hampered by distractions, such as Iraq, and would confront well-known Syrian resistance to outside pressure.

""Even if the administration had implemented the entire menu of sanctions available under the Syrian Accountability Act, it would likely not be sufficient to pressure the Syrians to change some of their key problematic policies," said David Schenker. "Can we expect modifications at the margins? Possibly. Significant policy changes? Not likely."

Maurice Deeb, with the Johns Hopkins University School of Advance International Studies emphasizes the importance of working through the United Nations:

The U.N. is absolutely important, and of course the EU is part of it," said Maurice Deeb.

In one of the latest examples of the impact of the Syria Accountability Act, reports said the U.S. Marathon Oil Company will be selling off its existing oil and gas exploration investment in Syria because of fears the Bush administration will move to toughen sanctions under the legislation.

President Bush this week formally extended the export ban under the Syria Accountability Act, and continued a freeze on bank accounts of Syrians supporting terrorist organizations.