U.S. lawmakers say they will introduce legislation designed to deal with what they call Syria's continued sponsorship of terrorism. Members of Congress used a Capitol Hill news conference Thursday to explain their move and react to Secretary of State Colin Powell's recent trip to the Middle East:
Known as the Syria Accountability Act, the legislation calls for stiff penalties against the Syrian government, including possible trade sanctions and downgrading of diplomatic relations.
The bill is co-sponsored by Democratic Congressman Eliot Engel of New York, who said Syria should see it as a clear message that it must join the fight against terrorism. "This legislation holds Syria responsible for its de-stabilizing pattern of behavior. Until Syria ends its support for terrorism, withdraws from Lebanon, stops developing weapons of mass destruction and halts violations of the U.N. oil sanctions against Iraq, our legislation imposes a variety of penalties upon Damascus," he said.
Co-sponsor on the Republican side is House majority leader Congressman Dick Armey of Texas. "We vividly recall the terrorists who killed 241 U-S marines in Beirut in 1983. They were operating from areas under Syrian control," he said. "Today nearly 20 years later, the Syrians continue to support the same radical Islamic forces as they launch attacks along Israel's northern border. We also know that Syria is seeking biological and chemical weapons. And it continues to develop missiles to use against its neighbors or other nation's armed forces in the region."
Both lawmakers emphasize their bill is aimed at giving the Bush administration maximum flexibility in how to deal with Syria, that is, which sanctions to impose.
Secretary of State Powell recently held talks in Damascus, attempting to defuse the dangerous situation along Israel's northern border with Lebanon and Syria where Hezbollah guerrillas have been attacking Israeli positions.
Lawmakers have been generally cautious in assessing Secretary of State Colin Powell's Middle East peace mission, and Bush administration efforts overall. However, there was no such caution from Mr. Armey, who said the administration deserves full support: "He is trying to change a posture of international policy toward the Middle East from one of historic failed policy of appeasement, to one that says there are foundations and standards of conduct and accountability that all people must meet, and we expect all people to meet these standards, and only when these standards are met can we expect to have reasonable discussions," he said.
In other congressional reaction, House minority leader (Democratic) Congressman Dick Gephardt warned against "partisan bickering" over the Middle East.
Mr. Gephardt said Secretary Powell is expected to brief the congressional leadership next week.