The Bush administration has renewed allegations Syria is still not cooperating fully with the war on terrorism. The statement by Undersecretary of State John Bolton came at a congressional hearing examining what many lawmakers believe is continuing Syrian support of Middle East-based terrorist groups and development of weapons of mass destruction.
Mr. Bolton says U.S. concern is based on the belief that Syria's government has continued efforts to develop chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons and on its links with terrorist groups.
"There is no graver threat to our country today than states that both sponsor terrorism and possess or aspire to possess weapons of mass destruction," he said. "Syria, which offers physical sanctuary and political protection to groups such as Hezbollah, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, and whose terrorist operations have killed hundred of innocent people, including Americans, falls into this category of states of potential dual threat."
After a high-profile visit to Damascus last May by Secretary of State Colin Powell, U.S. officials say Syria made some commitments to shut down Damascus offices of radical Palestinian organizations. But there has been increased skepticism about how far the Syrians went.
Congressional concern about Syrian links with terrorist groups conducting suicide bombings in Israel continued.
Mr. Bolton's comments followed a similar statement by Secretary Powell who said Syria faces possible economic and political sanctions under legislation pending in the House of Representatives.
The administration has not said it supports the legislation, but congressional sources say the White House has taken notice of growing support in the House and Senate for the Syria Accountability Act. The bill would impose a range of sanctions on Syria if it does not cease all support for terrorism and withdraw its forces from Lebanon.
"[Congress should] pass the Syria Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act, have the president sign it, and give the administration another tool that it can use to fight the war on terror, and give the administration a tool that it can use to tell Syria that their behavior is not acceptable, and President Bush did say you're either with us, or you're with the terrorists," said Congressman Eliot Engel, a Democrat and a key sponsor.
Mr. Engel says the bill has 262 Democratic and Republican supporters in the House, and 71 in the Senate.
Mr. Bolton was asked whether the cooperation Syria has provided in the war on terror is sufficient to avoid "punitive" action by the United States. He said Secretary Powell remains engaged in "delicate balancing" of a diplomatic and political factors with Damascus, and these should be given time to work.
However, he said Washington remains "anxious" because of continuing Syrian connections with terrorist organizations. "While there is currently no information indicating that the Syrian government has transferred WMD to terrorist organizations, or would permit such groups to acquire them, Syria's ties to numerous terrorist groups underlie the reasons for our continuing anxiety," he said.
Mr. Bolton says the United States, with supportive allies, remain determined to take what he called "new and active measures" to interdict material shipments to states aspiring to possess weapons of mass destruction.
Mr. Bolton was scheduled to testify several months ago, but the hearing was postponed while lawmakers and administration officials negotiated over what would be revealed about Syria in public session.
After Tuesday's public hearing, he provided more details on administration thinking in a classified briefing.
Syria's foreign minister Tuesday rejected the latest U.S. allegations that it is not cooperating, saying Damascus remains ready to meet what he called reasonable U.S. demands.