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Syria Facing Possible US Sanctions Under New Legislation - 2003-10-08

Syria faces possible punitive sanctions under legislation approved overwhelmingly Wednesday by a key congressional committee. The "Syria Accountability Act", passed by the House of Representatives International Relations Committee, comes amid heightened criticism of Syria by U.S. lawmakers and the Bush administration.

Support has been building on Capitol Hill for a strong legislative step on Syria, especially since U.S. and coalition forces removed Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq.

The recent bomb attack in Israel by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad group, which has strong links to Syria, also contributed to lawmakers' impatience with what they call Syrian intransigence on the issue of terrorism.

Sponsors say the bill, if approved by Congress, will give the administration more leverage to pressure Damascus on its support for terrorist groups, weapons of mass destruction, and Syrian involvement in Lebanon.

Congressman Eliot Engel said "it has become plain to ordinary Americans, members of Congress across party lines, and officials in the administration, what has been plain to me for many years, that Syria is among the most dangerous, de-stabilizing countries in the Middle East."

In addition to terrorism, recent administration criticism has focused on what it says is Syria's failure to prevent pro-Saddam [Hussein] fighters from entering Iraq.

Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, spoke recently at a congressional hearing. "I cannot tell you that the government of Syria is aiding these people coming in (to Iraq). I can tell you that in our view they haven't done enough to stop them from coming in because that is the most porous border," he said.

The legislation demands Syria end support for terrorist groups, withdraw its troops from Lebanon, stop the flow of armed fighters into Iraq, and halt development and procurement of weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles.

Among the bill's possible sanctions: a ban on U.S. exports to and investments in Syria, downgrading of diplomatic contacts, and freezing of Syrian government assets in the United States.

The Syrian government has said the legislation would have a negative effect on relations.

However, Congressman Tom Lantos, who met with Syrian President Bashir Assad earlier this year, says Damascus has simply refused to heed warnings from Congress. "The door to good relations with the United States has been wide open to Syria, but the Syrian regime has contemptuously slammed it shut. Now, it must pay the consequences," he said.

At the White House, spokesman Scott Mclellan said the administration is not opposed to the bill, but is waiting to see final language. And he reiterated a statement made after the recent Israeli air strike on a suspected terrorist training camp in Syria. "We have repeatedly said that Syria is on the wrong side in the war on terrorism and that Syria needs to stop harboring terrorists and that message has been sent loud and clear to the Syrians as well," he said.

The legislation must be approved by the House and Senate before it could go to the president for signature, but it has strong bipartisan support in both chambers.

A proposed amendment from one Democrat on the Republican-controlled House committee to withold appointment of a new U.S. ambassador to Syria was voted down, with members saying such a downgrade in relations would remove an important diplomatic tool in dealing with Damascus.