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US House of Representatives Schedules Vote to Impose Sanctions Against Syria - 2003-10-14

Legislation that would require President Bush to impose sanctions on the government of Syria is expected to be approved easily later Wednesday by the House of Representatives. The "Syria Accountability Act" has strong support among Democrats and Republicans in both chambers of Congress.

When it was approved easily by the House International Relations committee last week, the bill already had the support of more than half of the 435 member House, and three quarters of the 100 member Senate.

By the time it reaches the full House Wednesday, support will likely have increased amid growing congressional displeasure with Syria on the issue of support for terrorism.

The legislation would require President Bush to choose at least two actions from a list that includes barring U.S. exports to and investment in Syria, freezing Syrian government assets in the United States, and reducing diplomatic contacts with Damascus.

It also aims to put pressure on the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to withdraw its troops from Lebanon and stop production or distribution of ballistic missiles.

Administration officials have testified in recent weeks that Syria has not done enough to prevent armed fighters from crossing its border into Iraq.

This, and what many say is continued Syrian support for Palestinian terrorists, has upset many lawmakers, such as Democratic Congressman Eliot Engel, one of the originators of the legislation. "The threat of collusion between terrorist groups and the government of Syria must be addressed forcefully, especially because of Syria's arsenal of weapons of mass destruction.

Undersecretary of State John Bolton testified last month before our Middle East subcommittee, and I quote him: since the 1970's Syria has pursued what is now one of the most advanced Arab state chemical weapons capabilities and is continuing to develop an offensive biological weapons capability," he said.

After opposing the legislation when it was first introduced by Congressman Engel and others, the White House has changed its position. Presidential spokesman Scott McClellan, speaking last week, said "we have talked to some of those [congressional] leaders who are working on this issue and we have expressed that we are not opposed to this bill, but of course we would like to see the final language before moving forward on that."

While increasing numbers of Republicans in the House and Senate have signed on to it, some think it's a bad idea.

Congressman Ron Paul, a Texas Republican, maintains that Syria has helped the United States in the war on terror: "You go too far if you don't even have a dialogue. I would say this is getting awfully close to closing the dialogue with Syria and these sanctions [are] just one more affront to our relationship with them," he said.

The legislation gives the president the power to waive sanctions for reasons of national security.

The Senate apparently intends to take more time with its version of the Syrian sanctions bill, with debate and a vote there not expected until later this month.